Study visit in Sofia.

Last week, I represented Art Square Luxembourg ASBL on a study visit to Sofia, Bulgaria, where the Law and Internet Foundation gave me and representatives of three other organisations  a guided tour of the local social enterprise scene.

Art Square Lab, the Law and Internet Foundation, and those three other organisations are participants in an Erasmus+ programme on The Added Value of Social Entrepreneurship in Youth Work. The programme brings together organisations with diverse experiences in these fields from across Europe, for the purpose of sharing insights and ideas.

On this occasion, the focus was on the social enterprise element of the project, but youth work was rarely entirely out of the picture.

Take, for example, Blagichka – Zero Waste, the first of the six social enterprises we were introduced to. The most obvious headline about Blagichka is that it is the first zero-waste restaurant in Bulgaria, and its co-founder and CEO, Blazhka Dimitrova, has now given over 300 workshops on how to convert to zero-waste and published a book on the subject.

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But Blagichka – Zero Waste was originally Blagichka – Kitchen with a Cause. Dimitrova began professional life as an English and Entrepreneurship teacher at a secondary school in one of the roughest parts of Sofia. It was a struggle engaging her students, but she soon discovered she could connect with them through food. Snacks became a feature of her classes, and something she and her students bonded over and started to have broader, more personal discussions over.

Before long, she and some of those students had founded a small catering business together – a catering business committed to employing underprivileged young people. Some were disabled, some fresh out of prison, others fresh out of the foster care system; the sole non-negotiable condition of their employment was a passion for cooking – everything else could be learned, Dimitrova reasoned. Blagichka’s employees, most of them on one-year programmes, would receive additional lectures and mentoring to help prepare them for finding employment elsewhere afterwards. This kind of business was very unusual in Bulgaria at the time, so Blagichka was soon attracting a lot of public interest and some big-name customers, like Hewlett-Packard.

The switch to zero-waste gave Blagichka a further and perhaps more striking unique selling point, and the pandemic forced it to adapt in another, also healthy way – having far fewer large company events to provide catering for required it to start selling more to individuals, and that meant the emergence of a community centred on it. Blagichka in fact shares its composter with the neighbourhood its restaurant is located in. Well, its original restaurant – it opened a second, in the city centre, last year. Through all this though, the commitment to employing underprivileged young people has remained central to how Blagichka operates.

No less inspiring, but with less of an explicit focus on youth work, was the second social enterprise we were introduced to, Maria’s World Foundation, which was established by the family of a girl (named Maria) with intellectual disabilities, following their frustration trying to find opportunities for her to simply be socially involved. Today it functions as a centre of community life and education and support for 37 people, aged 18 and older, all with disabilities similar to those of Maria.

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Maria’s World is staffed by a team of ten, some of them therapists, some social workers. It provides a strict programme of activities to those attending it – to imitate and help prepare for working life. The activities are principally of a professional nature too, ranging from cooking and cleaning to making postcards and souvenirs for retail. Maria’s World also has its own cafe and catering business, through which its members gain professional experience of an even more demanding kind. Sometimes its members are commissioned to perform other very basic professional tasks too, like distribute fliers.

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If/when one of its members does find work elsewhere, Maria’s World remains available for support, helping mediate the relationship with the employer, manage expectations on both sides, etc. Meanwhile, outside of working hours, Maria’s World helps its members to pursue their own personal interests, and hosts for them themed discussions arranged around any concerns they have. Most of Maria’s World’s current members are between the ages of 30 and 40, but its services are available to them for life.

Next up was Synergia Foundation, which supports the local deaf community through employment opportunities, advocacy and purchasing and donating white canes. Synergia offers a massage service – all three masseurs are visually impaired – and organises tactile tours, participants in which are blindfolded and guided by Synergia employees. The latter are particularly popular with companies, who use them as team-building exercises, for cultivating trust and out-of-the-box thinking. Synergia also organise or co-organise ‘in the dark’ events, including at the first ‘restaurant in the dark’ in the Balkans, which they work closely with, regularly referring potential waiters.

One striking feature of Synergia’s story, and also of Blagichka’s, is how little support they’ve received from the Bulgarian state. Indeed, those we spoke to at Synergia said that what they dream of most is a government more serious and proactive in its care for the blind community in Bulgaria. While Synergia’s commercial activities of course generate income, it has relied extensively on crowdfunding too. Maria’s World has benefitted from significant financial support from local government, but Blagichka has basically had to be self-sufficient all along.

Our next stop helped further clarify what the state of play is for social enterprises in Bulgaria. The Bulgarian Center for Non-profit Law (BCNL) is a team of mostly lawyers who provide free legal advice to non-profit organisations in the country, host training events for them, and advocate for them politically. It is part of both the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law  (ICNL) and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL), and most of its funding comes from abroad. BCNL informed us that, while there is in Bulgaria a history going back more than a hundred years of social cooperatives providing employment to people with disabilities, and while over 1700 Bulgarian companies currently define themselves as ‘social enterprises’ in their reports to the National Statistics Office, the Bulgarian state first created a regulatory framework for social enterprises only in 2019, and the criteria it set out for being a social enterprise are so difficult to meet that, as of today, there are officially only 33 social enterprises in the country, and only three that qualify as A+ social enterprises and so are eligible for all of the benefits the 2019 legislation lays out. BCNL added that those benefits do not in any case form a particularly strong incentive for organisations to pursue social enterprise status. We’d heard at Blagichka that the main way they’d benefitted from being officially a social enterprise was simply by being able to say, in their marketing, that they are. BCNL regard this situation as a work in progress; they are trying to persuade lawmakers that the current legislation needs improving upon.

Social Travel, the second last of the organisations we became acquainted with, struck a pragmatic note. Social Travel provides specialised travel services and equipment to people with physical disabilities. It’s founder and CEO, Borislav Boychev, is a serial entrepreneur, with seven businesses and two non-profits to his name. Social Travel was initially a regular business, but he converted it into a social enterprise a few years back so he could compete for EU funds. It’s at the EU level that support is really available, Boychev told us. He won those EU funds, using a consultancy to help prepare the applications, and this enabled Social Travel to expand dramatically, from two to three employees to more than 20. Asked whether it could sometimes make simple business sense to operate as a social enterprise, he said the ideal seems to him to have a social enterprise and a for-profit business that work closely together, the one eligible for the EU grants and the other free of the limitations of social enterprises. His own companies often work together.

Our final stop was Taratanci, a company taking innovative approaches to teaching young people about traditional Bulgarian culture at a time when it’s seemingly being forgotten at an alarming rate. They started out by mapping the patterns of the circular folk dances originating from different parts of the country. The maps spawned a Twister-like game and a series of prints, which have appeared in exhibition spaces across Bulgaria, and also in Germany and Belgium. More recently, their work has concentrated more on folktales – they’ve led drama workshops in schools, adapting and discussing those folktales, showing their relevance today. This year they won a European Heritage Award. It is also only in the last year that Taratanci’s four employees have started being able to pay themselves wages – for around seven years, it was a passion project for the four of them.

If the limited support from the Bulgarian state was one striking feature of these stories, another was the clear importance of the work these organisations are doing, and yet another was the passionate commitment of the individuals involved. I also had persistently the sense both of a real social enterprise community – these organisations know each other, and often come into contact, particularly through BCNL initiatives – and of a public receptive to their causes. Blazhka Dimitrova, of Blagichka – Zero Waste, summarised one key element of her own philosophy as follows: ‘you need to involve people; I never do anything alone’. Even her book, she told us, was really a collaborative effort. Understood broadly, it seems a good basic principle of cause- rather than profit-motivated enterprise.

In the Frame ” The Added value of Social Entrepreneruship in Youth Work” project, co-finance by Erasmus Plus Programe.

Author: Benjamin George Coles

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