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Entrepreneurship the means to get good things done, says Ernesto Sirolli

Entrepreneurship the means to get good things done, says Ernesto Sirolli

I’M FILLED WITH INSPIRATION as I write these words after spending two hours with about 60 others at Town Hall House in the presence of Ernesto Sirolli.

I first encountered Ernesto in the ’90s through his book, Ripples in the Zambesi, which I think I bought from Permaculture International Journal when it was based next to the Lismore City Farm.

Aid can be anything but

The title of Ernosto’s book comes from his time working for an Italian NGO in Africa. Without consulting the local people who the NGO was supposedly helping, they planted a tomato crop on the banks of the Zambesi River. But one morning they woke to a surprise…  all of those tomatoes they had planted… they were gone… as if some animal… some tomatovore… had eaten sneaked up and eaten them in the night. But where were the clues as to the fate of the missing tomatoes? There was nothing… all there was were ripples out there in the river as if there was something just below the surface… but surely that had nothing to do with the disappeared tomatoes?  Though… just what was that out there? What it was, was a wallow of hippos, their big eyes just breaking the surface… hippos no longer hungry but replete after a good and rather unanticipated feed of freshly-planted tomatoes. The NGO workers had failed to do the obvious—ask the locals about local conditions, and whether there was anything out there on the plains or in the Zambezi that would look kindly on a feed of fresh vege fruit.

As Ernesto tells the story, their misadventure with the tomato crop was the start of his seeing the whole aid enterprise as a bit of a misadventure. Disillusion quickly followed , disillusion with foreigners telling locals what they needed, what was good for them, not even asking local people if they wanted to receive aid.

Ernesto is a passionate man and he tells the story with a great deal of emotion. Listening, you come to understand how his experience in the aid industry was formative of his later work. Aid in general, he said, has been a disaster.

You don’t show up with a briefcase full of solutions when you do not know the problems

Those ripples in the Zambesi was what Ernesto started his Sydney Town Hall House presentation with and he expanded on the aid theme by warning against turning up in some lesser developed country and assuming you have the knowledge, the right even, to start to tell locals what they should do for their own good. Who do you think you are to do this, he asked.

Two things have to happen before you engage in aid work, said Ernesto. First, you have to be invited into the community. Second, you have to listen to people. This means disregarding any belief you entertain that you have the answers when you barely understand the problem. When people ask for your help, then you ask them how you can help. “You don’t show up with a briefcase full of solutions when you do not know the problems”.

But how do you get invited into communities in other countries? “You do something fantastic in your own neighbourhood”, he said. “You do something here in Sydney that people in other cities will call you and ask how you did that… then they will say ‘Please come and teach us'”.

As I sat there listening to Ernesto, that message about starting aid work at home, where you live, resonated with me because I had heard it before. That would have been around the time I had the good fortune to encounter Ernesto’s book on the shelves there in the Lismore office of Permaculture International Journal.

The person I heard it from was Badri Dahal, at the time the manager of the indigenous NGO, Institute for Sustainable Agriculture Nepal (INSAN). INSAN is one of those largely forgotten permaculture projects, you don’t hear much of it now, but it was pioneering and it had an impact of those of us who had the fortunate chance to meet Badri. What Badri said was similar to what Ernesto told the audience that day—start by helping yourself, in your own country, before dashing off imagining you can help people in less developed countries. It was a warning against allowing a very limited amount of knowledge imparted by a permaculture design or other course, especially if there is little practical work to follow it up, leading to the belief that it would be sufficient to teach people how to grow food or to do something else with their lives. It’s like the cliche says—a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

As for dashing off to help people in lesser developed countries, Ernesto put it this way: “If people don’t want to be helped you leave them alone. This should be the first principle of aid”.

Working in Australia

Ernesto is a middle aged man with thick, wavy hair and a strong Italian accent despite his years in Australia and, currently, of living in the US. Dressed in his suit and tie, he looks like someone who has just left a business meeting.

That might not be an erroneous assumption, for his work with the Sirolli Institute is training people to set up businesses, whether for-profit social businesses or not-for-profit social enterprise, as a means of making things happen.

He tells the audience the story of his enterprise facilitation work in Esperance, where he facilitated the setting up of small businesses when the town was headed full speed along the economic downhill run following government limitations on the tuna fishery that put people out of work. It was a cascading disaster, as he tells it. Catch limitations meant fewer fish which affected the fish processing plant which led to redundencies which flowed through to the other businesses in town and suddenly once-employed people found themselves in poverty. They couldn’t sell up and move to Perth because their properties lost value as the town’s economic prospects nosedived.

Council staff and other social gatekeepers explained to him that people in Esperance didn’t want to help themselves and, anyway, ” …no one wanted to do anything. The government employment service said I would make a fool of myself… people in Esperance didn’t have any ideas of heir own”, explained Ernesto. In the end, it was these gatekeepers who proved devoid of ideas and imagination when Ernesto facilitated new, small businesses among people who had lost their livelihoods.


For Ernesto, it started in 1975 when he picked up a book by an English economist. This book, he explained, chaged his life… it changed how he saw the world and how he acted in it. By the time he reached the last page and closed the book, his life was set on a new course, a course that he is still following. What book was this that could change lives so easiy? None other than EF Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

If evidence that Schumacher’s messages are as relevant today as they were when he wrote the book in the late 1960s, there is none better than it having been in print for all of those years from first publication. It affected many of us and gave us a new framework through which to act in the world, and it led to these setting up of the Intermediate Technology Development Group in the UK.

Following his disillusion with the aid industry and long before he landed in Western Australia, Ernesto had gone to South Africa to study and here he came under the influence of thinkers like Maslow, Rogers, Fromm and others who influenced Humanistic Psychology. Coming to Australia, he was supervised in his PhD, itelf influenced by Schumacher’s ideas, by the now-noted urban planning educator and author, Peter Newman. Newman has written extensively on planning and sustainability, including his recent book, Resilient Cities. Ernesto’s studies led him to the belief that people have a wish to improve themselves in some way, to be a better person. This, Ernesto says, is not culture-specific but is universal and is to do with self-actualisation.

Changing the world one passion at a time’

It is not ideas that change the world, according to Ernesto. It is passion. And you find this even in ghettoes, he says, citing the Esperance example for his notion of ‘changing the world one passion at a time’.

Those working in the social sector know of the perils of reliance on grants to keep their projects going and some, such as social entrepreneur, Nic Frances (who described the evolution of his thinking and his work in his book, The End of Charity), realised that the small business model, whether that was a for-profit business with social goals, what is known as a ‘social business’, or a not-for-profit social enterprise, offered a solution to getting off the grant applciation writing cycle.

In urban development, he says, he would like to see ‘urban hubs’, centres for enterprise facilitation in new developments where we can help each other find what we need. This would be a convivial intervention in the urban environment “where people get to know each other”.

This is Ernesto’s realisation too, and in presenting his ideas to the audience he said there are three things necessary to setting up and running a business, whether for-profit or a social enterprise:

  • the product or service has to be ‘beautiful’
  • marketing and sales have to be ‘beautiful’
  • financial management has to be ‘beautiful’.

Business is team work

The challenge: an individual cannot do all of these things themselves. They might try, but unless their passion is in all of them, those lacking passion are likely to be only part-done. The implication of this is that small business is teamwork, it is a social activity. Look at the well known businesses that were garage start-ups and you find that two to four people were involved.

“Form the team”, Ernesto tells the audience. “Don’t force people to do what they dont like”. This suggests the wisdon of allowing specialisation. He suggests we can now find people with the needed skills online.

“Even the word ‘entrepreneur’ has been hijacked. It is not necessarily to do with business. What it really means is an entrepreneur is someone with initiative, someone who seeks opportunity”.

To help people make things happen and to fulfill his proposal that “the more of us that create the future the better we all are”, Ernesto offers the Enterprise Facilitation model of training. In urban development, he says, he would like to see ‘urban hubs’, centres for enterprise facilitation in new developments where we can help each other find what we need”. This would be a convivial intervention in the urban environment “where people get to know each other”.

Addressing the question about urban development of a council staffer in the audience, Ernesto said he ” …despairs of rules set up never to be changed… planners are the people who stop things happening… rules are made to be changed… we need to facilitate, not regulate… use your power in your work to do this”.

Reclaim the economy

The economy and the language of economics has been hijacked and we need to democratise these things. according to Ernesto.

“Even the word ‘entrepreneur’ has been hijacked. It is not necessarily to do with business. What it really means is an entrepreneur is someone with initiative, someone who seeks opportunity“. The word’s association with the excesses of the 1980s and the business eladers o that time has given it a negative meaning.

“Entrepreneurs are the pioneers, the explorers, the adventurers…

Ernesto says it is necessary to understand the difference between entrepreneurship and management because the two groups see the world differently and act differently in it.

“Entrepreneurs are the pioneers, the explorers, the adventurers. Managers are the settlers who come with their seeds and herds”.

In referring to the role of entrepreneurs, Ernesto’s  closing remarks were motivating: “Break the monopolies… find suport… and storm the citadel”.

From public servant to civic entrepreneur

I asked Ernesto a question during the time set aside for that after his talk. It was this: How can we working in local government adopt roles as ‘civic entrepreneurs‘, which is like a social entrepreneur role within councils?

What he said was that we can become facilitators of what communities need and in that way make things happen.

It reminded me of something I had thought about some time ago—the difference, on being asked whether some idea should go ahead, between asking ‘why?’ and asking ‘why not?’. One response seeks justification while the other seeks ways to make it real.

I thought Ernesto’s talk would be inspiring and that is exactly how it turned out. Now it’s for us to decide whether we’re social entrepreneurs or managers, for there’s a dire need for people who are good at either. Entrepreneurs and managers are a natural team and we need to realise which we are at so that all can work for the common good.

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