Asma Mansour

Ashoka Fellow
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Fellow since 2014
This description of Asma Mansour's work was prepared when Asma Mansour was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2014 .


In a situation where the prevailing attitudes of young people are to wait for family connections, charity or government actions and with no existing culture of entrepreneurship, Asma is introducing a cultural shift in which young people take solving social problems in their own hands. She is breeding a new field through creating an enabling environment supportive for social enterprises.

The New Idea

Asma is creating a new culture and approach for solving social problems in the Arab Maghreb sub-region (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, and Libya) by introducing to the community, the government and the private sector the concept of social enterprise. As an alternative to government dependency or immigration when facing social problems, Asma is offering communities a third option which empowers them to have an active, innovative role in changing their situations.
In a non-favorable environment for social innovations and with the absence of relevant legal frameworks, Asma has launched the first movement across the Arab Maghreb sub-region to create an enabling environment for social enterprises and develop its ecosystem in a uniquely holistic manner. Asma is doing so through promoting and spreading the concept of social enterprises and supporting a new cadre of social entrepreneurs. She is thereby sowing a culture of social enterprises within the community as well as mobilizing community members and youth to lead the change towards a socially entrepreneurial environment.
To promote social enterprises, Asma employs tactics of advocacy, awareness, education, and lobbying for a new legal framework directed to young people, government personnel, universities and the public. Additionally, for supporting a new generation of social entrepreneurs, Asma works with existing private and public incubators to provide technical assistance to social entrepreneurs, linking them to funding opportunities, as well as a market and commercialize their products and services.
Asma’s work has spread throughout Tunisia and has already been replicated in both Morocco and Algeria. As the architecture of an entirely new ecosystem, Asma is shifting perceptions, creating jobs, and increasing economic opportunities.

The Problem

The Tunisian and the Arab Maghreb sub-region have undergone much change and transformation, especially after the January 2011 revolution. The mass protests demanding freedom, dignity and employment that occurred during this time reflected the growing social problems in the region. Problems such as regional disparities, social and economic injustice among urban and rural areas, environmental degradation, inequality and unemployment were unveiled and became publicly discussed issues. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line in countries of the Arab Maghreb sub-region range from 9% in Morocco, 15.5% in Tunisia to 25% in Algeria. Unemployment rates soared to1million unemployed Tunisians by the end of 2011, reaching 20% of the population in big cities and up to 80% in rural areas. In Algeria, youth unemployment is 17%, while in Morocco 49% of young people face a high level of exclusion by being out of school and out of the workforce.
With the increasing social problems, blaming the state or expecting state-engineered solutions would clearly not meet the urgent demands for the creation of economic opportunities and solving social problems. The Arab Maghreb society was searching for alternatives that could lead to the resolution of economic and social problems. One such alternative is social entrepreneurship. Major systemic obstacles, however, stand in the way of social entrepreneurship taking root in the Maghreb sub–region.
The education system in the region fails to equip young graduating students with tools and skills necessary to embark on careers in social enterprises and innovation. Another obstacle is mentality developed during the long years of dictatorship, where citizens' minds have been locked and entrepreneurial opportunities were limited by high corruption rates, leading many young adults to develop a risk adverse attitude. Furthermore, the societal norm to solving social problems is through unsustainable charitable endeavors and is plagued by the belief that it is the role of the government to solve these problems, not the citizens. The existing legal frameworks in the Maghreb are not conducive to the development of social enterprises as the legal status of "social business" or “social enterprise” does not exist. The Tunisian legal framework for instance does not support the establishment of ventures which combine social impact and financial profits.
All actors working on creating an enabling environment for social enterprises in the Maghreb sub-region had been limited to the provision of incubation services. Incubation, however, is simply not sufficient to empower aspiring social entrepreneurs. Budding initiatives thus fade out due to the absence of a proper supporting ecosystem in place, such as legal frameworks, access to markets, financial capacities and tax incentives. As much as incubation and financial support is important, creating a future generation of potential social entrepreneurs is key to escalating the positive impact of social enterprises on the national economy.

The Strategy

Asma’s idea began to crystallize when she was leading a social business plan competition among university students. She was shocked to find that all participants only had ideas, and lacked the skills to write complete plans as well as the capacity to implement their ideas on the ground. This discovery was the first spark for Asma’s idea. Her thinking, however, was not limited to the emerging social entrepreneurs; she realized the clear need to think holistically about the surrounding enabling ecosystem.
For Asma, the social enterprise ecosystem, that empowers the social entrepreneur at different stages, is divided into three segments: the foundation, the start-up, and the expansion. Before becoming an entrepreneur, the person and the surrounding community need awareness and education. After deciding to go pursue a social enterprise, the person needs access to funds, capacity building, product commercialization, a supporting legal framework, and knowledge of best practices. Additionally, research for continuous development is an integral part of creating the social enterprises profession and taking it forward. The closely related aspects of the ecosystem prompted Asma to tackle all parts of the system in a holistic manner, with a two pronged approach. First, Asma creates a public opinion and an enabling environment that is aware and supportive of social enterprises through the spread and promotion of the concept. Second, Asma supports newly emerging social entrepreneurs.
Registered in 2012, the Tunisian Center for Social Entrepreneurship, is the platform for which Asma is enabling the field of social enterprise. Asma was initially concerned with wide-scale on-the-ground outreach to create awareness of social enterprises, as well as to assess the situation of people’s knowledge and identify local cases of social innovations. She started her work first by writing stories of successful social entrepreneurs and publishing these stories in English, French, and Arabic. She used these stories for online and offline media outreach as well as launching the “I am a Social Entrepreneur” campaign in university campuses. With the support of a volunteer team, Asma started a nationwide outreach campaign consisting of social entrepreneurship tours in 15 governorates of Tunisia directed at young adults and university undergraduates. The goal of the tour was to create awareness on surrounding social problems, encourage an end to government dependency and most importantly empower her audience to realize their potential and ability to create social change. During the tours, Asma showcased entrepreneurs’ success stories, organized debates on the ecosystem’s needs, and conducted “innovation labs” which are focus groups used to identify and analyze local social problems and brainstorm for solutions. Innovation labs gave Asma a deep insight on people’s mindsets, needs, and potential social innovations.
To sustain this wide-scale outreach and build on it, Asma launched the Social Champions program, whereby she selected active young people in their own communities, be it organizations, cities, universities, neighborhoods or schools. Asma’s Social Champions receive training as well as capacity building to act as ambassadors for the concept of social enterprises and leaders in the community hubs. They have three main mandates: identify potential emerging social needs, promote the concept of social enterprise, and mobilize the community to support emerging social entrepreneurs. Within the first year Asma recruited 35 Social Champions aged 19 to 35 years old, spread across Tunisia. Out of these 35 Social Champions, four were able to train 24 aspiring youth to become the next social champions, thereby expanding the network.
In her efforts to gather all the social enterprises stakeholders to co-create the needed ecosystem and advocate for the needed legal framework, Asma conducts roundtable discussions bringing together representatives of the government, financial institutions, public sector, NGOs, private sector, multi-lateral organizations, social entrepreneurs, legal representatives, students as well as social champions. As a result of these inclusive discussions, Asma and her team have been able to draft a law for regulating social enterprises, which is in the process of materializing. Additionally, Asma also created the social entrepreneurship circle which consists of prominent Tunisian figures and experts who continuously dedicate their time and efforts to supporting and guiding the emerging social entrepreneurs. The social entrepreneurship circles led Asma to sign an agreement with the Ministry of Employment to deliver capacity building trainings to 40 public sector employees from four governorates. These trainings aim to create awareness on entrepreneurship and to reach a common definition of social enterprises with the government, through which she can start advocating for laws to support entrepreneurs.
As a result of Asma’s work with the government was the establishment of a credit line by the Ministry of Employment targeting social entrepreneurs and consulting with the Tunisian Center of Social Entrepreneurship to identify the social entrepreneurs whom this support should be directed to.
In addition to awareness, promotion, media outreach, expert support and advocacy for the establishment of a legal framework, Asma has also been engaging educational establishments. In Asma’s vision, creating an enabling environment for social entrepreneurs cannot be completed without involving the education sector. She partnered with11universities across Tunisia to deliver social entrepreneurship modules for undergraduate and post-graduate students, teaching them business modeling, planning, as well as measuring social impact. The modules are developed in partnership with professors and include creative ways of learning like workshops of solving entrepreneurial challenges, case studies and field visits. One of these partner universities is applying Asma’s training into the curriculum during the entrepreneurial culture semester for business students.
Empowering a new generation of social entrepreneurs is Asma’s second approach to rooting a culture of social enterprises in the Maghreb region. Asma conducted three social business plan competitions for aspiring social entrepreneurs, where they were trained on business planning, pitching, project management and social business models. During these competitions, Asma was able to build the capacities of 15 young aspiring social entrepreneurs of which four went on to develop their own social enterprises. Asma’s support to the winners is tailored to their needs. For some winners, Asma was able to connect them with access to funding. Indeed, one such winner was supported with a corporate grant of 200,000 Euros. For others, Asma provides dedicated consultations or logistical support from the social entrepreneurship circle experts. In order to conduct the business plan competitions, Asma partnered and mobilized several actors, such as GIZ (a German Foundation).
In a little more than a year, Asma developed a network of aspiring social entrepreneurs across 15 out of 24 regions in Tunisia, while empowering them to start their own social enterprises. She has additionally mobilized several funding partners like Friedrich Naumann Foundation, the European Union and the British Council and relies on such support to sustain the Center. Asma plans to establish a crowd-funding site to support local social entrepreneurs and as a means to generate revenue for the center.
Asma has succeeded in positioning herself and her work as the social enterprises booster in the Arab Maghreb sub-region and helped support the launch of the Moroccan Center for Social Entrepreneurship. She is currently working with officials in Algeria to do the same.

The Person

Asma was born and raised in a traditional conservative Tunisian family: one in which a child has to obey rules and follow the pre-drawn path of life by parents. It is in this context that Asma studied accounting in the Institut Supérieur de Comptabilité et d’administration d’entreprises. However, this education did not prove fulfilling to Asma with any further insight in how to follow her passions and find a career she loved. At the age of 15, she began writing in Arabic about society, her perception of life, women in her family and how they are perceived by a patriarchal community. Asma’s writings reflected refusal to adapt to the social norms and gave her a reputation of being somewhat rebellious.
During her university years, Asma organized more than 50 large events, and was involved in multiple leadership positions in student organizations including Junior Chamber International (JCI) and AIESEC (a global youth network). In Asma’s freshman university year friend was diagnosed with cancer and needed a blood donation. Asma immediately organized a blood donation campaign, using a team of university members she had formed. The initiative attracted the attention of JCI, who asked Asma to join their organization.
Asma recognizes her time with JCI as an eye-opening experience, one which allowed her to get a wide exposure to several social issues such as environment, health care, education, human rights and social exclusion while implementing social projects and learning all aspects of managing a team, raising funds, coordinating media efforts and negotiating partnerships. Following her graduation from university, Asma was offered a scholarship by the US Embassy to pursue a mini-MBA in the Mediterranean School of Business, Tunisia’s most prestigious business school. After finishing her mini-MBA in 2010, she was offered another scholarship for a Master degree by the Ecole Supérieure de Commerce in Tunisia, the director of which had recognized Asma as one of the future impactful women in the Arab World.
Passionate about the belief that people must lead the change they desire, Asma co-founded a human rights organization, the People’s Movement for Human Rights Learning (PDHRE Tunisia) which aimed at integrating human rights into citizens’ daily lives. In light of the Tunisian Revolution, Asma played an active role in Tunisia’s quest for democracy. Being able to speak seven languages, she translated information for several foreign newspapers to help the global community get a clear picture of her country.
During Asma’s involvement in the citizen sector, she witnessed the great needs of the civil society. Like the inefficiency of some actors, the absence of an enabling environment, a fundamental lack of public awareness, as well as a culture of government dependency. This led her to start the center in 2011. With her passion for social causes and her heightened skills of leadership, networking, mobilization, problem solving and creativity, Asma is leading the way for a socially entrepreneurial Maghreb.