The Social Economy as a Pathway to Decolonization

On the Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, people are reclaiming ‘collective entrepreneurship’ to sustainably meet local needs while building social and economic resilience.

Post Growth Institute
Post Growth Perspectives


Social and Solidarity Economy entrepreneurs in Mayotte. Image courtesy CRESS Mayotte.

Post Growth Fellow, Djémilah Hassani, is an international strategy expert and Head of Regional Strategy at the Regional Chamber of Social and Solidarity Economy (CRESS) in Mayotte. Mayotte became a French department in 2011, following a referendum, and since 2014 has been an overseas region — meaning it’s a European island in the Indian Ocean. Djémilah believes that the Social Economy offers a path to decolonization, allowing the island to sustain the needs of the local population while building social and economic resilience.

We sat down with Djémilah to talk in detail about the potential of the Social Economy to redress global power imbalances at the local level, and how Mayotte’s example can provide inspiration to other countries in the shift to a more equitable socio-economic system.

Post Growth Institute: How do you define the ‘Social Economy’?

Djémilah Hassani: Mayotte has strong historical, cultural, and economic ties with the Indian Ocean region, where the Social Economy has always been part of the culture, with people taking part in what we call ‘collective entrepreneurship’. It’s about an economy that gives back to the community and prioritizes social and environmental protection or regeneration.

The French law on the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE), which was passed in 2014, provides us with a formal framework for Social Economy businesses. It stipulates that they must undertake three operational approaches: Democratic governance, which means that it doesn’t matter how many shares you hold, whether you’re the CEO or the cleaner, your voice is equal; responsible financial management, putting aside a certain amount of funds in case of crisis, ensuring that salaries can always be paid, and so on; and a social or environmental objective.

What does decolonization look like to you, in Mayotte?

I’m really talking about the economy. As an island, Mayotte is strongly dependent on imports from France. Also, a lot of training happens in mainland France — which is fine; I’m a product of that process, and it’s why I think the way I do — but I’d like to broaden perspectives and opportunities in a local context. Madagascar and Kenya are close by: I’d like to see economic partnerships developing in the region, including other places in the Indian Ocean, to reduce that strong dependency on countries that are very far away.

Indeed, France is almost 5,000 miles from Mayotte — and it’s not only the distance that seems far away, but also the realities. We need to shorten this distance by developing a local economy based on local employment, and specific value chains based on what is available. The approach must make sense on the island without shying away from that specificity. If we take the example of Mayotte, a fairly new overseas French department, it would be wise to accept reality and build from there.

The island of Mayotte. Image courtesy CRESS Mayotte.

How can the Social Economy push forward decolonization?

I think the Social Economy can help us become economically independent in a way that’s peaceful and opens opportunities for negotiation. Having the space for negotiation involves bringing power back into the local economy. Here in Mayotte, 77 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and we have an unemployment rate of 28 percent. I’m advocating for an economy that addresses these issues by benefiting local people — giving them jobs, training, and a sense of pride and purpose in their work.

The capitalist model is challenging, because it makes it difficult to sustain our resources. I strongly believe, and have seen from my own experience, that the Social Economy is a way to restore power to local economies and reconcile regions to bring about peaceful coexistence that involves a more equal and equitable exchange.

As Caroline Shenaz Hossein points out in her work, the Social and Solidarity Economy provides a way for racialized communities in Canada to build resilience, and the same is true in Mayotte — and elsewhere. There are local nuances, of course, but we need to reconnect to this knowledge that we all have, and transform it into economies.

Can you share some examples of Mayotte’s Social Economy in action?

There is an association called RTME, which produces local juices made from local fruits and vegetables. They are able to protect our biodiversity by serving food that’s locally sourced and produced, incorporating forgotten fruits and vegetables into the recipes, while providing jobs to local people. The juices we import are very high in sugar and have a reduced nutritional profile because they’ve traveled for months to get here, whereas the RTME ones are fresher, more natural, and healthier. I think it’s really innovative — and it’s one way, on a small scale, to gain back some power and create jobs for the community, whether it’s local farmers or the women involved in making the juices. At the same time, the women can use their knowledge, which gives them a sense of dignity in their work.

Another regional example, from Kenya, is making pavement from recycled plastic. I heard that people are even able to build houses with the material, which is exciting. Here in Mayotte we need to build around 30,000 homes — and this is a great solution at a regional level. We also know how to build with compressed mud bricks, and there are cooperatives working on building homes with those, too.

Lily Cantabile via Pixabay

How do you see Mayotte’s relationship with France during this process?

It’s all about collaboration — I’m certainly not talking about cutting ties and going it alone.

Becoming French highlighted some power imbalances between Mayotte and the mainland. As a French republic, all regions and territories are held to the same laws and standards, despite some, like us, who are in a unique and specific position. Mayotte is the youngest French department as well as Europe’s poorest region after Bulgaria. Our ‘republican’ ecosystem, as well as our social reality, is not at the same stage as other French departments on the mainland.

In mainland France, for example, people already have access to certain economic policies which are not yet, or only recently, applicable in Mayotte. An example: the economic strategy, approved by the Department of Mayotte (SRDEII) in 2019, contains a Social Economy strategy that offers an action plan for the economic development of the island. It is currently favorable to 14 percent of the island’s enterprises, which contribute to 16 percent of employment. It is a great success for the Social Economy, but there are other, similar examples that will take time: In Mayotte, we’ve only had 10 years to integrate these policies based on the French republican values.

That said, this situation brings huge opportunities to formalize and expand the Social Economy here in Mayotte, thanks to the Social and Solidarity Economy Law. As an example, 50 percent of Mayotte’s economy is driven by public orders, so it has been an amazing opportunity to train and employ socially responsible procurement workers, who are furthest away from the job market. This approach was recently recognized as a best practice in the European Commission’s Buying for Social Impact guide.

How are people learning to work within this new policy framework?

At CRESS, ​​we developed a Bachelor’s degree in Social Economy, which has just had its first cohort of 15 students (with a second cohort starting soon). They did internships in different social enterprises, and also went to a business school in France to take classes in Social Economy. And then they came back! We were so happy, because there’s always a risk that people leave the island and want to stay in Europe. I’ve never seen such motivated people: on their return, they had a purpose and were able to contribute to their territory through their jobs. We Mahorans love to work for our community — service is so important. I also believe that it’s a way for us to connect globally: we can be proud of our economy, which is deeply linked to who we are. It gives us an identity, and that’s very important as well.

Why is Mayotte so well placed to explore and experiment with the Social Economy?

Like other overseas regions, We have a lot of experience with the challenges that the whole world is now facing — for example, we are under heavy migration pressure and our biodiversity is threatened by climate change. We are developing politically and it’s interesting to see the ways people are involved in democracy and how they’re owning it. We need to find our own approaches, but can also provide inspiration for other, bigger countries.

At the same time, a lot of the principles and values of the Social Economy are already part of our DNA. We always share, for example, and are ready to pool our resources for the sake of better efficiency and deeper human connections. Here on the island, it’s normal that as a businessperson you give back to the community. So in building a Social Economy ecosystem in Mayotte we don’t have to start from scratch — it’s more about solidifying what already exists, making connections, and providing the tools to further existing initiatives.

I’ve also observed that women are crucial to the Social Economy in Mayotte. More than 50 percent of the people working in the Social Economy here are women, and I believe they’re the glue holding it all together. It’s important to make sure that these women are empowered and to create an ecosystem that is favorable to their development.

A Mahoran social economy anthem called ‘Niya Moja Udza Loulou’, which means ‘Strength in Numbers’.

How does a localized Social Economy interact with globalized capitalism?

Globalization has some positive sides — but it has created a situation where you have to fit in with the market, otherwise you lose out economically. This has led to identities being erased. I think we need to take into account specificities and local nuances without losing the connection to a global community. That’s a big challenge, because we’re not used to it. What would happen if English were suddenly no longer the universal business language, for example? How would we manage? I’ve already had a taste of such a situation in Kenya, where they use M-Pesa. People are paying with it everywhere, and if you have cash or credit card, you’re stuck. That’s another way to take back your power — being able to say to people: ‘You have to trade on our terms’. It doesn’t mean we can’t trade, only that it’s going to be different and you can’t impose on us anymore.

Currently, the global market dictates, for example, how much rural farmers get paid across the world. My vision is to shift that balance and gain back power by saying: “I am who I am, this is what I know how to do. This is my knowledge from my tradition, and I’m going to own it and free myself from this global market.” For example, we have the ylang-ylang flower here. We want to be able to say: “You can have it, but we would like to produce it in a responsible way, so we’re only going to provide you a certain amount per year — but our ylang-ylang is extremely high quality.” If more producer countries do the same, then I think it can change the power dynamic and the exchange will not be driven purely by capital. This also protects communities, restores cultural traditions, builds jobs locally, and reinforces that rebalancing of power.

Inspired to act? Here are some ideas for how you can make a difference:

  1. Find out more about Social Economy in Mayotte in this video.

2. Follow CRESS Mayotte on Facebook.

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Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).