To the Mountaintop

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The romance of mountain climbing has never held me in its thrall. ‘Because it’s there’ is a rationale that applies to chocolate and bacon, not to putting oneself deliberately in harm’s way. I am a rationalist to the bone — if I go up a mountain it’s in order to see what I cannot without enduring the ascent — I’m willing to pay to gain perspective.

But I didn’t hesitate for a moment when friends offered me a chance to hike up Blue Mountain Peak in the middle of the night on the off chance I might get to see the sun rise from the mountain top. In the higher elevations the Blue Mountains get over 200 inches of rain each year; in some places they get over 300 inches. Suffice it to say that the expectation of a dry, cloud free sunrise on Blue Mountain Peak is against the odds. A matter of hope… perhaps even faith.

I’ve been to the mountaintop. — Martin Luther King

Sometimes, however, it’s entirely rational to make decisions like this; one based, if not on faith, at least on hope. To miss this sort of opportunity is to turn away from risk in a way that drains the blood from life and renders it an anemic suburbia. It’s hope that drew me to Jamaica in the first place — hope that with social enterprise, the ingenuity of post-industrial entrepreneurship seasoned with ample portions of empathy, we can cook up something more nourishing than the neo-colonial gruel that’s fed to the underprivileged of the Global South.

So we set out on Saturday under threatening skies from our rendezvous point on the outskirts of Kingston, just ten minutes walk from the hustle of Papine market where the city had dissolved quite suddenly into a lush rural landscape of hills and trees. By the time we reached Mavis Bank, a village fifteen kilometers away, the rain poured with ominous persistence and water cascaded down the steep streets in rivulets that washed over our shoes.

The Blue and John Crow Mountain National Park was recognized in 2015 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for its outstanding natural and cultural heritage, and at 48,000 hectares they need to keep careful track of the tourists. After we registered with the Jamaica Constabulary in Mavis Bank we climbed through the clouds in four wheel drive minibuses over slick, muddy mountain roads.

This part of the journey was characteristic of much of life in Jamaica: hurtling up the slippery mountain to a determined reggae beat inches from the precipice, confronted at every moment by resolute survival and astonishing beauty.

The rain had stopped completely by the time we reached Jah B’s Guesthouse at Hagley Gap in mid afternoon. Jah B has probably not heard of the term social enterprise, but he is running one. He generates economic value not only from the guesthouse, but also from small scale farming of peppers, cabbage and coffee. He generates social value both with the employment he provides as well as his fierce stewardship of the natural environment around his place.

I can recommend his self branded single estate Blue Mountain Coffee without reservation.The soil is rich, the climate is moderate and humid and the drainage is good; this all makes for slow growing coffee plants that develop the rich flavor that characterizes the region, but the precipitous slopes make coffee farming very labor intensive and the occasional hurricanes make it a risky endeavor.

Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee is a globally protected certification mark for one of the most expensive and highly regarded coffees in the world. Only coffee certified by the Coffee Industry Board of Jamaica, grown in the Blue Mountains above 910 meters altitude, can bear this mark. The Board protects the brand by licensing, regulating and monitoring coffee growers, dealers and processors. They certify quality by taking custody of all green coffee for shipment, sample testing it, and handling all export documentation and preparation.

Most of the coffee is grown, however, by over seven thousand small farmers who have to sell their raw coffee cherries to large coffee processors at relatively low prices because there are only a handful of companies licensed by the Coffee Industry Board to process Blue Mountain Coffee and they are controlled either by foreign investors or rich local families. The processors sell it under their own brands and capture most of the value.

Last year Jah B was the first independent small farmer to acquire his own licence for growing, marketing and exporting Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee. While the Coffee Industry Board continues to protect the overall brand, Jah B is using the prime tool of post-industrial entrepreneurship — the internet — to claim a greater share of the value chain for local enterprise. He still has to send his beans to the processors for roasting, but he is able to export to Europe under his own brand.

Cappucino heaven

This is one view from the mountaintop: an object lesson in one of the paths Jamaican economic and social development can and should take.

We need to scale this initiative, not by trying to make Jah B into a large corporation, but by figuring out how to nurture thousands of small farmers like Jah B — some to build their own brands, others to collaborate with each other to build brands that are owned by their communities, some to invent business models that I haven’t been able to imagine yet, all of them to capture a greater fraction of the fruits of their labour.

We set out for the summit at 2:30 in the morning: a thirteen kilometer hike with a vertical ascent of over twelve hundred meters. I remembered the last time that I’d tried mountain hiking several years ago only to suffer crippling groin pain on much less arduous terrain; I’d traced that misadventure to overly tight undergarments (too much information… I know, sorry). This time I set off well equipped: warm and waterproof layers, a stomach full of Jah B’s Ital supper, a joyful heart from campfire conversations with delightful new friends and hardly any sleep.

Our two guides let us self select into slower and faster groups; they estimated that the faster ones would reach the summit in three hours, the slower ones in four. I lost track of time within the first few minutes trying to keep up with our guide, avoid the deeper muddy puddles and not stumble over rocks on the steep switchbacks. The air thinned out as we gained altitude, forcing me to be very conscious of my breathing. My heart rate stabilized at about 150 beats per minute and the muscles at the front of my thighs began a dull ache.

At the first rest stop I caught my breath, stretched and massaged my legs while we waited for the slower members of our group to catch up. I felt that we must be at least half way there but our guide said that having just climbed Jacob’s Ladder, we had covered only the first four kilometers; he reassured us that having made it this far he was confident we could all make it to the summit. All but two of our group made it to our rest stop before we set off again, trusting that the slower group behind us would pick up our stragglers. The next rest stop was at the Portland Gap ranger station three kilometers further; the trail had narrowed considerably and leveled out a bit but my heart, lungs and legs seemed to be coping. It was clear that it was going to take us longer than three hours because we’d been on the trail for over two and there were still nearly six kilometers ahead of us.

When we set off again our guide set a blistering pace and our group was soon spread mostly out of sight of each other as we each tried to find secure footfalls in our little pools of flashlight along the very steep, increasingly rocky trail. The moon was a very thin crescent so nothing was visible beyond arm’s length save the stars through narrow gaps in the leafy canopy. The only sounds were myself and the forest — the forest was quiet — when I stopped I could hear my heart thumping and my ragged breathing. My calf muscles started to cramp, forcing these stops with increasing frequency as the sky began to show the first blush of dawn. Uncertainty began to claw at my awareness; had I taken a wrong turn, what would happen if I sprained my ankle, was my pulse racing, was that feeling nausea, did I have enough water… I pressed on because, of course, there was nothing else I could do. After three hours and forty five minutes on the trail I emerged into the clearing at the summit in bright sunlight and bracing cold wind.

At the Mountaintop

It was too cloudy to have seen the actual sunrise, even if I had reached the mountaintop on time. We were lucky that it was not raining nor was the summit enveloped in dense cloud as it often is. I hung around for a few hours while others in our group dragged themselves into the clearing; I nursed my aching muscles and contemplated the descent with trepidation.

From Blue Mountain Peak you can see most of Jamaica, including the north and south coasts simultaneously. I am told that on a clear day you can see all the way to Cuba, but that would take my metaphor in a direction that I don’t wish to go. It is a good idea to develop these sorts of social enterprise community tourism alternatives to the mass market models of tourism that leave much of the profit lying offshore. There are a number of things that could be improved about the climb up to Blue Mountain Peak as a tourist experience, many in our group were very vocal about them, but as Courtney Martin has pointed out, attempts to solve problems for people, rather than with them, risks doing more harm than good. I was humbled by the mountain to be sure, but more so by the ingenuity of so many Jamaicans who are inventing their own future at breakneck pace.

Humility is often in short supply in the Social Enterprise movement… even dubbing it a “movement” is indicative of this. I understand that emergent fields are sometimes prone to being oversold, but the pretension that is perceptible in social enterprise crept in with well meaning attempts to define the field.

In their highly regarded book Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works, Martin and Osberg attempt a definition of social entrepreneurship and make critical distinctions between “three groups that have often been conflated: social service providers, social advocates, and social entrepreneurs.” They argue that social service providers, although they take direct action to improve people’s well being, they leave the existing systemic structure in place and so are not ultimately transformational. On the other hand Martin & Osberg laud social advocates for aiming at truly transformational social change, but the caveat is that this action is indirect through efforts to convince others to act.

By reserving the title of social entrepreneur for only those who pursue direct action toward transformational social change Martin & Osberg lay a conceptual foundation which contributes not only to inflated expectations for social enterprise, but in their focus on the person of the social entrepreneur they lay the cornerstone for the distortion of heropreneurship, which Daniela Papi-Thornton deflated so adroitly in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Excessive focus on the hero’s journey of iconic social entrepreneurs obscures the contribution that social enterprise can make, in collaboration with social service providers and social activists, toward social impact, which really is the point of it all. Transformational social change will more often be the product of deep, interlocking, complex networks produced by the efforts of a multitude of actors than it will be heralded by a white knight with a cool new app.

Jah B is no hero, but he is a social entrepreneur even though he does not meet the Martin & Osberg definition. He has been to the mountaintop. The perspective that this reveals is of social enterprise as an ecology that complements but does not replace development efforts powered by more traditional philanthropy or government services.

It is not enough to invest in social entrepreneurs, no matter how brilliant their idea or how talented their team. We need to build an entire social enterprise ecosystem, design more appropriate regulatory frameworks, invent ways to foment more fruitful collaboration among business, government and NGO actors, devise communication and culture building techniques that do much more than transfer technical skills, and create layered, diverse and trusting communities that understand how to work together for their mutual benefit.

In Jamaica we set out to make social enterprise a critical component of more rewarding social and economic development. The path is steep and rocky — for much of the way we are going to be in the dark — but there are trails to follow. We’re probably not as well prepared as we think we are — it’s probably going to hurt and sometimes the guide will be out of sight — but we are not alone on the mountain. We have hope… some of us have faith. We will get to the mountaintop.

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