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Engaging with the Social Economy in Aboriginal Australia: The Experience of Eastern Kuku Yalanji Social Entrepreneurs

18 Jun 2013

Engaging with the Social Economy in Aboriginal Australia: The Experience of Eastern Kuku Yalanji Social Entrepreneurs
This is part of a series of think pieces by scholars and practitioners working on a broad range of issues within the field of Social and Solidarity Economy. The series is being published in conjunction with the UNRISD conference “Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy”. The conference took place on 6-8 May 2013 in collaboration with the International Labour Organization and the UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service.

Examining alternative models for economic development is crucial for Australian Aboriginal communities seeking a diversity of development outcomes. The experience of Aboriginal social entrepreneurs in Cape York shows that there is a need for policy makers to better understand local conditions and economies, as well as the wider institutional framework to better enable Aboriginal social economy participation.

Helen Murphy is a PhD candidate at the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, researching how climate change information is gained and shared between Aboriginal people and the scientific community within a tourism context.

Marilyn Wallace is a native title holder of Nyungkal country and a fluent speaker of the critically endangered Kuku Nyungkal language. She is the manager of the Bana Yarralji Aboriginal Ranger service and CEO of Bana Yarralji Ltd, an Aboriginal sustainable social enterprise.


Despite Australia’s prosperity, Aboriginal Australians in remote communities continue to face broad-based economic and social disadvantage in housing, education, health, enterprise development and the labour market. Failure to close the gap between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians cannot be blamed on lack of well-funded policy initiatives, with $3.5 billion AUD (1USD = aprox. 1.05AUD) spent on Aboriginal-specific programs between 2009 and 2010 (Ross, Sarra et al. 2011). Rather, the failure of Aboriginal development initiatives can be in part attributed to policy based on top-down mainstreaming strategies. These strategies ignore and marginalize localized economic approaches borne out of the diverse circumstances, needs and aspirations of remote Aboriginal communities. Acknowledging this diversity, Aboriginal organizations have called for holistic strategies that integrate economic participation, social concerns, cultural priorities and governance systems. Moreover, approaches should reflect Aboriginal cultural and family obligations, as well as the importance of the interconnectedness of land and identity (NAILSMA 2012).

Social enterprise and entrepreneurship can be a good fit in the Australian Aboriginal context by incorporating multidimensional goals for economic, social and cultural development into business approaches. Many Aboriginal entrepreneurs are characterized by strong community ties and aspirations to achieve broad-based social change. Social enterprise provides such entrepreneurs with strategies to find market-based solutions to complex social problems. Social enterprise models can also be flexible enough to incorporate traditional governance systems and norms into business structures.

Peter Wallace, Bana Yarralji Ranger and business owner.
Photograph courtesy of Bana Yarralji.

Experience shows that enterprises based on tradition and heritage in Maori communities can form the path to innovation, enhancing social entrepreneurship. In this case, innovation occurs as a result of interaction between younger entrepreneurs who seek change and older members of the community who act as ‘heritage protectors’ and embody cultural continuity (Tapsell and Woods 2010). In Australia, there are a small but growing number of Aboriginal social enterprises. However, the need remains for a better understanding of local conditions and economies and how these aspects can integrate with wider institutional frameworks to better enable Aboriginal social economy participation.

The social economy on Eastern Kuku Yalanji lands

The granting of native title over Eastern Kuku Yalanji lands in southern Cape York Peninsula in 2007 has helped realize the aspirations of many Eastern Yalanji people to return to their lands. As well as maintaining and caring for cultural ties to their land, traditional owners also want to derive a sustainable living from it. As these lands are located in an international World Heritage area with one of Australia’s highest tourist visitation rates, it was originally anticipated that enterprise development levels would be high. However, while a couple of successful large-scale Aboriginal tourist developments dominate the southern, more accessible Eastern Yalanji lands, northern areas are typified by small-scale, seasonal tourist enterprises vulnerable to external impacts. The majority of these enterprises demonstrate various levels of engagement in the social economy, despite not formally identifying themselves as social enterprises.

This may have as much to do with the alignment of Indigenous goals and values with social enterprise (Giovannini 2012) as it does with the realities of life in a remote area with reduced access to services. These enterprises operate as informal versions of the social economy by meeting social needs as they arise on an ad-hoc basis. For example, Bana Yarralji, an enterprise that identifies itself as a social enterprise, would ultimately like to provide local Aboriginal-designed and operated healing and cultural services.

Aboriginal entrepreneurs have interpreted social enterprise models within their own specific contexts and conditions, however, they face common challenges. The need for Indigenous businesses to find ways to address tensions between family obligations and enterprise needs has been observed (Bennett and Gordon 2007). We argue that rather than divorcing Aboriginal entrepreneurs from family and cultural obligations, social enterprise can provide a way to align the two. For example, social enterprise can be used as a tool to redistribute resources to family and community members through social programs, thus satisfying cultural norms based on sharing and reciprocity. Moreover, if social enterprise is designed to accommodate Indigenous economies as well as mainstream economies, it may be more suited to remote communities.

Developing Aboriginal social enterprise

Hybrid economies combining customary strategies such as hunting, gathering and kin-based practices with market and state sectors have long been advocated in Australia (Altman 2001). In remote East Arnhem Land, the Gumartj Clan Enterprise supports traditional hunter gatherer behaviour through support for outstations, or small seasonally occupied communities on traditional lands. Bana Yarralji also incorporates local Aboriginal practices into their social enterprise, which derives income from cultural hosting, including cultural education, wellbeing and language camps. Local food-gathering practices such as fishing, diving and spearing fish in the rivers, and hunting animals, such as pigs, are an integral part of the enterprise, providing food for visitors as well as employees. Cultural benefits are also accrued by the immediate and extended family members involved in the enterprise, as they strengthen their own language, culture and lore through involvement in the camps. Greater recognition of such approaches may be beneficial in the development of social economies that reflect customary norms and also demonstrate triple-bottom line benefits.

Local historical circumstances can affect all kinds of enterprise development, including social enterprise. Where communities have been removed from their lands and families broken up due to past government policy, the effects are ongoing. These include the desire to return to traditional lands, social issues caused by family separation and cultural loss, as well as community tensions caused by different clan groups living in close proximity. These community tensions are often seen as a barrier to enterprise development, especially for social entrepreneurs who must have community support to carry out their goals. If these tensions are acknowledged and accounted for in enterprise design, rather than suppressed or ignored, the social enterprise model has the potential to provide community-driven solutions to complex social problems.

Marilyn and Kieran Wallace, Bana Yarralji Rangers.
Photograph courtesy of Bana Yarralji.

However, social enterprises can only deliver solutions to social problems if they are successful profit-making businesses. Eastern Yalanji business owners who are dependent on highly seasonal tourism enterprises operate on a small scale and are unable to provide employment for many people. Thus, it is difficult to fund the kinds of social programs that Aboriginal entrepreneurs aspire to provide. Solutions to such dilemmas may be found by providing greater space at both the local and policy level for collaborative and innovative approaches, drawing on the local knowledge and drive of these entrepreneurs.


It is necessary to go beyond narrow conceptualizations of Aboriginal economic participation and think more broadly about how Aboriginal Australians can create alternative economic models. Aboriginal social economies can contribute to Aboriginal development strategies, but we should be prepared to recognize the different ways in which they may operate. Recognition of Aboriginal cultural norms and economic practices within enterprises is an essential strategy for successful business creation. For example, social enterprise approaches based on the sharing of resources to solve social problems allow family and community obligations to be met. Social enterprise can also enable socioeconomic development for the local community and simultaneously maintain cultural heritage, particularly by encompassing hybrid economic practices found in remote communities and supporting connections to traditional lands. However, there must also be continued engagement with the more general problems that affect Aboriginal business development. This recognition should be reflected at the policy level through support for diverse Aboriginal aspirations for social and economic development, empowerment of local services and consideration of how policy can best support innovative Aboriginal approaches to social problems.


Altman, J. 2001. Sustainable development options on Aboriginal land: The hybrid economy in the twenty-first century. Discussion paper prepared for the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra.

Bennett, J., W. Gordon. 2007. 'Social Capital and the Indigenous tourism entrepreneur' in Striving for Sustainability: Case studies in Indigenous tourism. Southern Cross University Press, Lismore.

Giovannini, M. 2012. "Social enterprises for development as Buen Vivir." Journal of Enterprising Communities: People and Places in the Global Economy, Vol. 6, No. 3, pp. 284-299.

NAILSMA. 2012. Indigenous futures and sustainable development in northern Australia: Towards a framework for full Indigenous participation in northern economic development. Discussion paper prepared for the Northern Australia Indigenous Experts Forum, NAILSMA, Mary River, Australia 19-21 June.

Ross, R., C. Sarra, et al. 2011. "Putting dollars on disadvantage: Australia's Indigenous spending." The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/putting-dollars-on-disadvantage-australias-indigenous-spending-2731, accessed 18 June 2013.

Tapsell, P. and C. Woods. 2010. "Social entrepreneurship and innovation: Self-organization in an indigenous context." Entrepreneurship & Regional Development, Vol. 22, No. 6, pp.535-556.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.