The business of social change

3 min read

The Burj el-Barajneh refugee camp sprawls on the southern outskirts of Beirut. Crumbling brick buildings are piled haphazardly upon one another. The narrow alleys between are strewn with trash and strung with water conduits and electricity cables that provide only sporadic running water and power. Housing more than 30,000 inhabitants within one square kilometer, the camp is a place of continual struggle for Palestinian — and, increasingly, Syrian — refugees, who subsist on U.N. handouts and face severe restrictions on employment. It’s the last place you’d expect to find anything as au courant as a food truck. But in 2014, a group of women who were frustrated that many of the potential customers for their catering business lived outside the camp turned for help to Alfanar Lebanon, a “venture philanthropy” organization that helps social service organizations become more sustainable.

“We told them, ‘We have to double or triple your business ASAP,’” says Teresa Chahine, S.D. ’10, who launched Alfanar Lebanon in 2012. During a brainstorming session, someone floated the idea of food trucks — vehicles for indulgence that are ubiquitous in the West but only starting to crop up in Lebanon. A truck, the women realized, could boost the market for their deliriously tasty stuffed grape leaves and spicy pepper dip. “They’ll smell your amazing food and want to buy it,” the Alfanar team told them.

With Chahine’s help, the women undertook a Kickstarter campaign, looking to raise $47,000 to buy and outfit a truck. By the time the campaign ended in December 2015, 900 donors had contributed more than $60,000 and the business took off.

That is the kind of miracle that Chahine orchestrates daily as one of the leading lights of the growing field of social entrepreneurship, a hybrid of startup culture and charity work that applies business solutions to social problems. It’s an unusual path for a graduate of a school of public health, which traditionally teaches students how to influence health outcomes through government policy and nonprofit interventions, not business solutions.

But Chahine has pushed the bounds of the field, bringing her passion back to the Harvard Chan School with a course she’s taught since 2013 and a new book on the topic that is starting to change the way that public health is conceived. “She radiates confidence and empathy and concern,” says Myrna Atalla, executive director of Alfanar, the parent company of Alfanar Lebanon. “In a region that is awash with disaster and refugees and obstacles, that is not only refreshing to work with but also absolutely necessary.”