Social Enterprises and The Decentralizing Promise of Digital Infrastructures

In every sector, it seems digital technologies have and continue to rupture traditional business infrastructures, decentralizing them through modes of communication, production and trade. One great example is lifestyle brand Tengri, who utilizes Mongolian yak noble fibre to make lifestyle products such as clothing and beds.

The way Tengri runs its business is constantly evolving (prototype management) – and as the amount of available digital tools increases, each resulting infrastructure grows in complexity and nuance. Digital technology has been integrated into many aspects of everyday business management, allowing Tengri to manage relationships with their stakeholders at each phase of the production cycle, enabling peer-to-peer collaborative networks and breaks from “classical regulatory distinctions” (Jiminez, 2013:342).

Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 11.21.57 AM.pngIn just two years of being in business, they have managed to design and create a completely sustainable social enterprise “built on technological innovation, fair share business and a completely transparent supply chain” ( Now this may seem like typical marketing jargon, but if we look under the hood and explore the digital infrastructure that is aiding this enterprise in their operation, we will see “new designs, new techniques and new rules”(

Through the use of photography and symbols like the “thumbs up” on Facebook Messenger, herders can communicate via their mobile devices (which many if not all are using) to let Tengri know the exact status of the fibre combing and processing before the raw material is shipped to a mill in Yorkshire.  Google Translate is also a valuable tool for quick, in-the-moment translations when pictures can’t tell the story. Even email via the mobile phone has become a quick and efficient way to handle more official documents. In the past, herders had to drive to town, find someone who speaks English to translate, sign, scan and email. Now they can download the document from their phone and covert to PDFs.

These digital infrastructures enable them to trade global goods and keep transparent the supply chain, whose traceability has always historically been lost. Some critiques of development in nomadic communities would say the rupture is capitalism, but for communities like the nomadic herder families in Mongolia, the introduction of technology has been a game changer to democratizing the industry, creating opportunity and fostering intelligence. Tengri has “transformed the stakes in and models of” supply chain governance, and “decentralized the methods, protocols and standards” that are usually at play in the fashion industry (Jiminez 2013:343). Because of their international trading activity with these communities, the Mongolian government has granted new land and herding rights to herder families for the first time. Greater demand for fibres from Khangai yak, which are indigenous to the region, is helping to prevent land desertification because the local plant and animal species are regenerating and thriving, a possibility that is absent when cashmere goats graze because they eat the roots, yaks just eat the top of plants. So instead of harming the nomadic way of life, Tengri is helping to preserve it.

By giving the yak herder families a right to infrastructure (Jiminez 2013) and facilitating the circulation of people and animals who have typically had very limited means of “economic and cultural operation” (Simone 2004), Tengri has enabled the nomadic Mongolian yak herders to do the things they want to do; an approach Amartya Sen calls the capabilities approach (Sen 2001 in Ford & Graham 2016).


photo credit and business case study:

Ford, H., and Graham, M. 2016. “Provenance, Power, and Place: Linked Data and Opaque Digital Geographies” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 34(6), pp957-970.

Jiminez, A. 2013. “The right to infrastructure: a prototype for open source  urbanism” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Vol 32, pp342-362.

Simone, A. 2004 “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” Public Culture, Vol 16(3), pp.407-429.


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