On a busy, bustling, and colourful Road 9 in Maadi, Cairo, exists a small gelato shop. Amidst the restaurants, hookah, smoke, and profuse honking a gem of a business sits sheltered by a tree and decorated with expats and locals alike. While all of this is fairly common in Cairo, the Gelateria Sociale isn’t just selling delicious gelato but selling a product far more inspirational. This shop has taken social entrepreneurism to a whole new level with a unique business model that focuses on giving back to the community in the sweetest way possible. The shop emulates the Italian tradition of “sospeso” in which one person pays for two gelatos, only consuming one, therefore having the other paid gelato available for someone who cannot afford it. This shop opened its doors in 2015 and has taken on the mandate of promoting equity and solidarity between social groups. It is a simple but revolutionary concept in which everyone gets high quality gelato, those have more pay more and everyone leaves with a smile.

A Sweet “Sospeso”

What is the idea of “sospeso” and what does it have to do with gelato? Sospeso originated in Italy where a cup of coffee was paid in advance as an anonymous act of goodwill. The coffee is paid for by one person and consumed by another in the spirit of generosity and kindness in a form of “paying it forward”. The tradition began in Naples café’s where a patron would pay the price of two coffees and consume only one, leaving the other to be available to be served to someone else for free. Café’s in other countries have adopted this model as well to promote caring and generosity within their local communities. The idea is really quite a simple one. At Gelateria Sociale people are encouraged to pay what they can afford when stopping by for a rich and creamy cone of gelato. The price of a gelato range from 1 EGP to 14 EGP, the price reflecting the normal market factors like ingredients, rent, wages, etc. In the same way, people follow sospeso for coffee, here the people that can afford to pay more pay double for their cold treat. By paying 28 EGP for their gelato, people are in effect subsidizing the gelato of those that cannot afford to buy one themselves. This leaves those that can afford it to pay a higher price for their gelato but opens the door for someone who could not afford to pay more than a minimum.

Social Entrepreneurship

While we all know it is taboo to discuss religion, politics and money in polite company when living abroad, certain realities are brought to the forefront. The idea that someone would not be able to afford a gelato on a hot day is a reality, even in more prosperous area like Maadi. As expats it is hard sometimes to contemplate these dramatic social stratifications but the Gelateria Sociale’s model makes it easy to both confront this reality and also make an immediate impact. The idea of social entrepreneurism is not to create a business model whose goal is profits but create a positive “return to society” model. This model typically attempts to find real solutions to social, cultural, or environmental problems by staying within the parameters of the capitalist framework. Here we see a framework that allows people from all socio-economic backgrounds to enjoy a delicious gelato in the spirit of friendship and community. Gelateria Sociale has found a niche where the goal is to benefit society in a fun and delicious way with a direct emphasis on those who are marginalized. It is becoming more and more popular and necessary to be conscious of what and how we consume. In a world of hyper globalization, it is important for consumers to have a voice in what they purchase and have control over what they eat and wear. With the advancement of technology this has become far easier than it was just ten years ago. Consumers can find lists of stores that have a social entrepreneurship model and make wise choices about where and how they spend their hard earned money. When it comes to gelato in Maadi, the choice is easy. Buy two, eat one, and give one!

Will Gelato Save the World?

Gelateria Sociale is not a means to end all the social injustices in Cairo, nor does it immediately solve any huge problem facing humanity. Gelato is not going to solve world hunger or start the process of world peace. Nor is this model realistically going to be emulated in other markets. Imagine buying a home, car, health insurance, or groceries under the sospeso model. Social entrepreneurships are not going to cure all of these societal ills but at least they are offering an alternative narrative. Social stratification exists worldwide, from developed countries to developing countries and the divide between rich and poor is widening. The idea of conscious consumerism, social enterprises, grassroots organizations, and charities is to help soften this divide or at least to try to level the playing field. Companies like Tom Shoes and their one-for-one model are not going to ensure that every person in the world has shoes, but more people will have shoes if everyone purchased a pair of Tom. Fair Trade Egypt is not going to ensure that every person in Egypt is paid a fair wage for their craftsmanship, but more artisans will have the opportunity to shine if people believe that fair wages are important and support a system that guarantees it. It comes back to the idea that one person can make the difference, and if you can make the difference simply by eating some gelato well…that seems like a sweet deal indeed.

Amy Pugsley (a Canadian international development specialist and educator living in Cairo)

This article can be found in the June 2016 issue of OASIS, a monthly magazine published in Cairo by the Community Services Association (CSA).


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