Why do Barefoot Entrepreneurs Stay Poor?
Entrepreneurship has long been recognized as a route out of poverty and a means to challenge the status quo. However, within the global south, research has shown that barefoot entrepreneurs, who are marginalized and socially excluded, often remain impoverished despite their successful efforts to pursue entrepreneurial activities and change institutions. While prior studies have explored the creative approaches that such individuals adopt to overcome potential barriers, little is known about the forces and actors that work to prevent barefoot entrepreneurs from gaining meaningful power within an institutional context. Maria Granados, Ainurul Rosli, and Manto Gotsi address this research gap in their recent Journal of Business Venturing article, entitled “Staying poor: Unpacking the process of barefoot institutional entrepreneurship failure.”
As Granados describes, their study explores “the case of the waste pickers of Cali, Colombia, who fought for their right to be formal entrepreneurs in the waste market and won this recognition at the Colombian Constitutional Court in 2009 … However, 12 years after this victory, their quest for market inclusion is still not complete, and some are actually in a worse position than before.” Granados first became interested in this subject “in 2015 when I met Adriana [who] is the lawyer who took the case to the constitutional court, she told me the story of the waste pickers. Me being Colombian, I was familiar with the case, but I was very intrigued to understand why they were still struggling because I remember the case was very successful in 2009.” Consequently, Granados explains that “what we did in our paper was to explain why and how this happened so others could learn from it.”
Rosli emphasizes that the authors strove to conduct impactful research which deeply engaged with barefoot entrepreneurs and local stakeholders. However, as a result, the data collection ended up being their most significant challenge. As Granados recalls, “our ethical committee didn't allow me to go to the streets to interview the waste pickers, as Cali is considered a dangerous city, so I had to meet them [the waste pickers] in the lobby of a very posh hotel, and that was challenging … They came directly from the streets with their recycling items and needed to leave them outside … but at the end, they all came and talked to me without caring much about how people looked at them … They were proud to share their stories with me.” The experience taught the authors that it is only by presenting participants’ own voices that research can help unpick such deeply human problems and support participants out of poverty.
Their study unwraps stories that have never been told before, and Rosli notes that “it was challenging listening to these stories … They shared their struggles in life and, as a researcher, what can we do to help them?” Granados added that “each of them had a very difficult life, and when they tell you that they are still struggling … just to pay for the room at night … They've been threatened, they've been poisoned … and these are all the things that are happening throughout this process” of trying to gain market inclusion. In the face of these trials, the hope that shines through their narratives is all the more moving: “while they were telling you all their life stories that are so challenging, then they will tell you, ‘But this is our dream, and we know that we can change things … and we are all together in this and we are like the musketeers and then you [as researchers] get that motivation to pursue this study and tell the waste pickers’ stories” (Granados).
Importantly, though the paper is already published, the story is not over. As Granados explained, “I am part of a WhatsApp group with the waste pickers associations and Adriana, and they still send us pictures and share their issues, such as all the ones they had during the pandemic. Because of the failure with the [court] case, some of them decided to sue the government again to fight for their market inclusion.” As such, in an all too rare opportunity, the authors have been able to lend direct help to their participants: “by the time we were finishing the paper, they asked us to be technical witness in the court hearing, and we were able to use our paper and our findings to support the case and directly create meaningful impact.” It can only be hoped that the waste pickers will be successful in their endeavor to gain more power and recognition as formal entrepreneurs and that telling their story to the wider academic and policy communities can encourage effective systemic change for entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid.