Decades of government-led initiatives have done little to close the gap between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Australians on a range of economic and social measures. Notably, the target to “halve the gap in employment” seems further away than ever, with Indigenous employment rates falling over the past decade to 46.6 percent,1 a long way from the 71.8 percent for non-Indigenous Australia.
Remote and rural communities also face higher rates of unemployment and are falling behind their city cousins in relation to health and social wellbeing outcomes. Frustrated by a lack of progress, many in these communities are looking for alternative ways to generate local solutions. In many cases, social enterprises have proven to be a successful model for producing innovative, community‑focused solutions.
Social enterprises are businesses that exist for a social purpose; hybrid organisations that use business models to tackle entrenched social issues, rather than being driven by the need to maximise profit.
Through the Remote and Rural Enterprise (RARE) program, students from the University of Sydney Business School have been working alongside social entrepreneurs in Indigenous and rural communities to create solutions in a range of environmental and cultural contexts. They have worked with RARE partners in communities across Australia, from Maningrida in the top end of the Northern Territory to Mogo on the south coast of New South Wales.
RARE was the vision of the late Dr Richard Seymour, a senior lecturer in entrepreneurship who believed that our students needed to be getting out of the classroom and learning by doing, while at the same time having a social impact.
Together the student groups and the social enterprise partners have sought out innovative ways to leverage local resources to create viable businesses. Cultural elements play a central role in the success of efforts to positively impact a community. A real sense of ownership at a community level is of paramount importance and successful initiatives will be driven by the community.
One of the stand-out initiatives in recent years has been the Indigenous ranger programs, whereby local Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are employed to carry out a range of traditional activities that maintain their land and sea according to their priorities, often incorporating land and sea management accredited training.
First funded in 2007, these programs have created more than 2500 jobs for Australia’s First Peoples, and seen the Government commit $550 million over a seven‑year period to 2020 in support of their continuation.
As of January 2018, 66 organisations were accessing these funds to support 118 ranger groups nationwide as it becomes clear that creating jobs on‑ country is key to local buy‑in. Some of these organisations are now looking at ways of extending these programs to create more work on‑country: more opportunities for meaningful employment that maintains a connection to land and language.
‘Ecotourism’ has emerged as one possible means of doing this, whereby Indigenous rangers can extend their skill set to being tour guides on‑country and can tell their stories and share their culture with an outside audience. Developing social enterprise ecotourism businesses has been a focus of the RARE program in 2018. RARE ecotourism project work has been embedded into the social entrepreneurship units of study at the Business School, where students create a strategic business plan to scale the enterprise over a three to five‑year period.
In Semester 1 of 2018, our students, working in collaboration with the Mogo Local Aboriginal Land Council, developed business plans for an ecotourism venture, each with different marketing angles, designed to create employment on‑country, allow for an exchange of culture and showcase the rich environmental and cultural heritage of Australia’s First Peoples in Yuin country.
In Semester 2, another ecotourism venture will work on Ji‑Bena homelands, near Maningrida, West Arnhem Land. Our students will assess the physical, environmental, cultural and human resources to put together an academically rigorous business plan; one that is very practical and down to earth, with concrete action steps to develop an enterprise in its early stages.
This provides a blueprint for our Indigenous entrepreneurs; a tangible takeaway that can be used to get over a funding hurdle, attract investment and bring the community on‑board with their plans to create change for those who have not received their fair share of Australia’s economic prosperity. Social entrepreneurship can help to break cycles of inequality and disadvantage that have been entrenched in remote Indigenous communities for decades.
This is where the value of our RARE program lies. RARE is experiential learning, but goes far beyond simply learning through observation – it is hands‑on. Students, led by academics, engage with the local community, assess the problems, create the solutions and ensure the recommendations incorporated into their business plan are an appropriate cultural fit. Our students form lasting relationships and are exposed to a broader range of the contexts in which business can exist and be useful in solving critical issues that contribute to the inequality between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Australia.
If you are interested in finding out more, our website has information about projects currently on offer and pathways into the program. It also showcases our previous work over the eight years RARE has been in operation at the Business School.
We encourage students and prospective partners to contact us for further information on the work we do and ways you can engage with us.
Written by Jared Harrison (MCom '15), Entrepreneurship Programs Manager, The University of Sydney Business School
1Albeit with figures masked by changes in remote employment programs. If this effect is removed, we see an improvement of 4.2% over the 10-year period 2008–2018.