Business plan bears fruit for a London social enterprise

1 November 2011

The Natural Harvest Café, based in East Ham hospital, helps some of London’s most vulnerable people, through work and training opportunities for those with mental-health disorders.

Its umbrella organization, FirstFruit, turned to HELO for help in formalising its tentative arrangement with the NHS. A team of seven students, with diverse academic backgrounds and skills, put together a business plan that will enable FirstFruit not only to establish a more mutually beneficial relationship in its current premises, but also to set up similar ventures elsewhere in London, with a view to capitalising on the forthcoming Olympics.

FirstFruit

Across London, thousands of small, unsung voluntary-sector organisations are quietly working to improve the lives of the capital’s most vulnerable people. One is FirstFruit, which manages the Natural Harvest Café in East Ham hospital, Newham. The café provides work opportunities to people with mental health problems, and supports a local hostel for single immigrant mothers with the profits it generates.

But even beacons of hope need to be business-savvy to survive and expand. FirstFruit’s Ben Pollard says: “We approached HELO in July 2010 for advice on how to make our relationship with East London NHS Trust more mutually advantageous. For example, we were saving the Trust a lot of money in cutting down on the need for out-patient therapy, but we weren’t seeing any reciprocal benefits.”

“If we formalised our agreement with the NHS, perhaps with security of tenure at a peppercorn rent, we could start to look at replicating the success of the venture elsewhere in London.”

HELO put together a team of seven students, with backgrounds ranging from urban development and planning to neuroscience. The project concerned a social enterprise that is profit-driven, so there were both qualitative and quantitative elements to it. Team leader Paul Suazo, who has an MA in Linguistics and experience of the charity sector in the US, explains: “We talked to all stakeholders, from customers to employees to trustees; we also analysed Natural Harvest’s supply chain and evaluate its finances. The project demanded diverse skill sets rather than specific expertise in one area.”

The team’s recommendations included expanding FirstFruit’s product range, introducing better accounting systems and adopting a ‘place-and-train’ HR plan.

Ben Pollard says: “The UCL team provided a cutting-edge plan for further engagement with the NHS, pre-empting proposed legislation that will require the public sector to consider ‘social value’ when awarding contracts for goods and services. HELO is on the cusp of something new and exciting and we are thrilled to be a part of this.”

FirstFruit is planning to open another café near a tube station on a route to the 2012 Olympic Games, which means help for even more vulnerable Londoners.