Community-based business: creating sustainable projects for local well-being

*Photo: Nepal (Source)

— Livia KALOSSAKA, Anh NGUYEN

Livia has a Doctorate in 3-D printing and biomaterials from Imperial College London. She is passionate about communities, especially the power of individuals and citizens in creating and maintaining a sustainable, harmonic commune

Born and raised in a globalised world, Livia wonders if we could shift the focus to a decentralized supply chain, nurturing skills and local materials to create tailored-made solutions, ones that are specific to a given region…Her work in 3-D printed materials has certainly helped nurture this thought. After all, as for 3-D printing, anyone or any community can 3-D print anything (machinery pieces, daily objects etc.) on their own if they have the right machines and tools, without depending on a much larger national or global supply chain. 

To a larger extent, we ask ourselves: what if we rediscover and promote local practices and know-how to build impact businesses and sustainable communities in tune with the environment in which they live and operate

Startup culture VS Community-based solutions

It is not an easy task to go against the dominant culture of startups in our time. Anytime one has an idea, one immediately thinks of creating a startup and hence, of “scaling up”. The question of “how do we scale this up?” becomes so vital, that the startup-ers need to answer if they ever want to receive investments. A local vision (‘how do I sell this solution to my locality?’) is not desirable. Instead, they will have to “think big”: regional, continental (‘how do I sell this solution to the whole European market?’) and global vision (‘how do I sell this solution worldwide?’)

This wasn’t always the case. Only since the Mass production age after WW2, the public focus (and that of investors) has been shifted towards massively big corporations and multinationals. Meanwhile, smaller local businesses have always fulfilled local needs and prospered without creating mischief and miseries across the globe. 

A better question for startup-ers might be: “What if we don’t need to scale anything up?”. And, what if my solution only needs to work for some specific communities?

Criteria for impact community-based solutions

To us, there are 3 main criteria making up a sustainable, impact, community-based business: 

#1. Promote local ecosystem services and local craftmanship/know-how

#2. Shorten supply chains in terms of distance 

#3. Reskilling and bringing inclusivity to marginalised population

Here are some examples of projects that fulfilling these criteria:

  • Rehub, a startup in Murano, Venice, Italy: processing non-recyclable waste glass into new decorative products. 
  • Murfy, a company in France: reconditioning and repairing electrical appliances in your home
  • Danny’s Community Kitchen in Mussomeli, Sicily, Italy: preparing free or affordable meals for the community to regenerate abandoned village. This project was successfully crowd-funded.
  • The Fablabs network in more than 100 countries: sharing common tools, processes and resources for research and invention with a community of fabricators, artists, scientists, engineers, educators, students, amateurs and professionals. 
  • Rrreefs, a Swiss startup: 3-D printing a modular system of reef bricks to regenerate degraded coral reefs at a global scale, starting in the Maldives and San André Islands (Colombia).
  • The Tortellante project in Modena, Italy, created by Chef Massimo Bottura (whose restaurant Osteria Francescana was voted the best restaurant in the world in 2016 and 2018 by World’s Best Restaurants): teaching neuroatypical kids to practice teamwork while sustaining an ancient tradition of making Tortellini.
  • Mara phone, Rwandan smartphones manufactured entirely in Africa. The Android phone is considered to be high-quality and affordable.
  • Kenya Bricks, a Kenyan startup: recycling plastic waste to make bricks that are stronger than concrete
  • Coconut Briquettes, a startup from Sierra Leon: recycling coconut waste to create alternative charcoal for cooking, which helps prevent deforestation and deadly landslides. (80% of the country’s population uses charcoal and firewood for cooking)

How to encourage support for community-based solutions?

To support community-based solutions, we would need the onboarding of 3 main stakeholders: the investors, the local authorities and the people in the community itself.

As for local authorities and people in the community, the first argument is that community-based businesses put the “people factor” back into the equation. Instead of creating revenues for some faraway corporations that do not pay taxes, community-based businesses and projects directly benefit the community’s wealth and well-being. The second argument is about the solution itself: solutions coming from other parts of the world are not adaptable to my own locality. It is rather nonsensical to build buildings like those in London in the deserts of Dubai. Likewise, it is absurd to propose vegetarian, plant-based diets to people living in the Republic of Sakha where the temperature in winter is -55°C. 

As for investments, there exist different channels: 

  • Regarding family offices and trust funds, it can be beneficial to look for ones that are seeking customized, conviction-based investments.
  • Regarding crowd-funding and crowd-investment, individual investors can go to platforms such as LITA.co or October.eu and lend money by buying bonds of relatively small and local companies.
  • Micro-finance, micro-lending or micro-credits can also be interesting instruments for community-based businesses. 
  • State subsidies, especially with projects like Rrreefs or Mara Phone in which high communal or national stakes are involved

As for the authors of this article, we hope to continue our work with community-based solutions. Livia will continue her work with YES-Europe, a network of students and young professionals whose mission is to “catalyze the energy transition by creating an environment where youth are given a space to develop ideas, take on responsibility, build their local community and act for change.”. Meanwhile, Anh will continue to support community-based businesses via different investment platforms. We hope to develop this idea with more examples and success stories from this year onwards.

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