Leader of Empower shows us what true social entrepreneurship is all about

- August 5, 2013 3 MIN READ

Shanil Samarakoon is the Executive Director of Empower and a true philanthropic character who talked about the nature and importance of social entrepreneurship. Read on to be inspired.

Many of us donate to charities confident within ourselves that we’ve helped a struggling community build up the life they had only previously dreamed of. But when communities are tragically affected by poverty, they need more than money. They need to be empowered.

Samarakoon’s values have always been geared towards community empowerment. He believes this requires “a movement away from charitable handouts and towards synergistic, mutually beneficial value exchanges.”


Empower does just that. The sustainable development organisation based in Sydney aims to enable community self-reliance in rural, disenfranchised communities in Malawi and Sri Lanka.

What’s unique about this organisation is that it is a hybrid between a non-for-profit and social business.

“We have a mix of activities that are income generating and those that are philanthropic (capacity building) but deliver high social value. Empower’s investments into community banking and technology are handled as interest-free loans to communities that are in return reinvested into similar projects for greater financial efficiency,” says Samarakoon.

“The capacity building aspect of our model remains strictly non-profit at present due to us not wanting to place an undue financial burden on community and create barriers to wide participation.”

Empower 2

Children working on their food garden in Malawi

The organisation is currently working with 39 communities across Malawi and Sri Lanka, impacting the lives of over 5,600 people.

Their mission is to provide access to affordable capital e.g. community banking; provide access to sustainable technologies e.g. renewable energy, water filtration, eco-sanitation; and build local capacity in leadership, entrepreneurship and permaculture.

As such, they ensure long-term self-reliance: “It is a lack of resources and opportunities that constrain these communities, not a lack of innate ability or motivation. We would like the communities we work with have the capacity to manage, action and review their own development journey beyond our involvement.”

“Development needs to come from community and be led by community for there to be ownership, dignity and longevity,” says Samarakoon.

Empower 1

A Malawian villager with the Solar Lantern he purchased through Empower

Since 2010, Empower has scaled up from one village in Malawi to the entire region of Kapita (38 villages) and is Samarakoon’s “proudest moment as leader of this organisation”.

“To us it is a testament to the attractiveness of a community-led initiative and marked a level of regional collaboration that never existed previously. Seeing 38 villages work together to overcome systemic poverty is incredibly moving and I am privileged to be a small part of that.”

So why is social entrepreneurship so important today?

Whether in our own backyards or in other nations, social entrepreneurship is what brings solutions to problems.

But as Samarakoon cogently points out, “[social entrepreneurship has] always been important…we’ve had social innovators and activists through the ages.”

“The term is what is new. I believe it is important today in light of the great challenges that humanity faces – global poverty and climate change being two of the most pressing.”

In the past decade, social entrepreneurship has become a popular topic of discussion, especially among young people.

“I find that there is a real hunger within Gen Y to live purposeful lives and utilise their skills and talents towards causes/missions that make a palpable positive impact. It is a generation gradually rebelling against the status quo,” says Samarakoon.

The fact that we are technologically connected in ways previously inconceivable has only driven this movement.

“It has never been easier to spark a movement or instigate positive action thanks to communication technology. How else could we effectively manage a project in rural Malawi and Sri Lanka, liaise with a web team in the UK and Brazil while being headquartered in Sydney!”

Are you an aspiring social entrepreneur? Do you want to do something spectacular in your life?

Shanil Samarakoon, Executive Director of Empower

Shanil Samarakoon, Executive Director of Empower

Shanil Samarakoon has three valuable tips:

1. Follow your passion.

We all have areas or aspects of life that resonate with us more than others. It’s crucial that your contribution is in an area that excites you personally! You need this passion to drive you through the long haul.

2. Engage in some level of introspection with regard to your intentions.

I feel it is critical to understand the drivers behind you wanting to contribute and who you want to serve. I’m a big believer in examining the “why” for it determines “who” you serve and “how”.

It is all too easy for contribution to become a tool of the ego. Keep in mind that contribution doesn’t have to be an organisation or a project – it can take various forms such as a role or a conscious lifestyle!

3. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

If you have an idea or a curiosity, don’t let it gather dust and cynicism in your head or a notebook. In this age of Google, social media, and smartphones – a conversation with a like-minded soul is just seconds away!

No idea grows in isolation and if you really want to make a contribution, you have to have a willingness to be vulnerable and share your ideas/intentions openly. This act in itself, in my experience can open up many possibilities, likely ones you never conceived of initially!

On his final note, Samarakoon stresses the importance of authenticity when being a leader.

“Being yourself and keeping true to your values gives others the permission to do the same.”