#02 Business
Helen Marquard

The SEED Initiative – a champion of social and environmental entrepreneurs in developing countries

The transition to a global Green Economy[1] is underway. The question now is whether it takes hold quickly enough to counter the worldwide negative trends in resource management and climate change, and at the same time alleviate poverty and unemployment - challenges of the Millennium Development Goals.

Here, social and environmental entrepreneurship has an important role to play. Although relatively few in number and generally still small scale, such enterprises can demonstrate both to large corporations and to small, micro- and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) - the engines of the global economy[2] - that it is possible, and motivating, to run a successful business with social and environmental benefits (the 'triple bottom line').

National governments, corporations and banks, and various regional and multilateral institutions are developing mechanisms to propel the Green Economy forward. These need also to target those businesses that are designed to provide social and environmental benefits as well as economic returns. But before policy makers can put in place appropriate incentives, financial assistance, technology, and capacity building, they require evidence about the barriers faced by social and environmental entrepreneurs.

What SEED does

It is exactly these issues that the SEED Initiative, founded by UNEP, UNDP and IUCN at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, is tackling. SEED provides support to start-up entrepreneurs who at the outset integrate social and environmental benefits into their business model. Then, by following their progress, it finds out what such enterprises need to flourish and what policy makers could do to help to realise the Green Economy.

Two men at a grainfield (Helen Marquard)

Working from the ground up

The annual SEED Awards identify the most promising start-up social and environmental entrepreneurs in developing countries The SEED winners:

  • take an integrated approach, for example empowering and training communities, delivering environmental benefits, creating job opportunities, and providing education and health services
  • intend to become financially sustainable, so moving beyond international aid and grants
  • intend to scale-up, and are likely to be replicated and to inspire other entrepreneurs to take a social and environmental approach
  • work in multistakeholder partnerships, helping to ensure sustainability
  • develop innovative approaches to local problems or new products for the national or international market
  • are fully grounded at the local level, and usually involve community-based organisations.

Rather than pure funding, the SEED prize consists of a package of tailored capacity building support; national, regional and international profiling; access to SEED's Partners, Supporters and Associates; and a financial contribution towards initiative's most urgent needs.

Between 2005 and 2009 SEED provided support to 35 winners. In 2010, SEED and UNEP's Green Economy Initiative, largely with the support of the European Union, embarked upon a pilot project in Africa. As a result, SEED is now providing support to a further 30 winners, most of whom are in Africa. The winning entrepreneurs are active across a range of sectors, including climate adaptation and mitigation, energy, biodiversity, waste management, and agriculture and rural development. Some examples are:

Start-up energy and adaptation ventures, which constitute about 40% of SEED's winners, include initiatives such as:

  • Microsow which through a network of franchisees provides access to mobile solar-powered charging stations in Burkina Faso where 98% of the population is excluded from the official power grid. The charging stations are themselves powered by solar photovoltaic modules and so can be used anywhere. Permanent jobs and income opportunities are created as franchisees do not need significant capital;
  • SolSource which harnesses the sun's energy to provide a portable heat source for cooking and electricity for low-income families at an affordable price. SolSource has been developed by an international social enterprise, research and government institutions and local organisations in remote rural areas of China;
  • Lighting up Hope and Communities, in which a women's association in northern Nicaragua is working with a technical university, an international NGO, and a local company to construct, install, and maintain functional solar units from reject and scrap PV panels. They sell solar cookers and solar-dried coffee and fruit, and are now developing a solar autoclave;
  • Pintadas Solar, a community-led approach to disseminate small-scale water-efficient crop irrigation and bio-fuel production technologies to small farmers in the semi-arid North-East of Brazil.

In the agricultural sector, Global Marketing Partnerships for the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is a method of cultivation which allows farmers at least to double their yields whilst saving water and avoiding chemical inputs. From its start in Cambodia, Madagascar and Sri Lanka, SRI has now spread across thirty-five countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Lotus Foods in California has launched a line of SRI-produced speciality rices and North American customers can now sample pink rice from Madagascar, jasmine rice from Cambodia and an Indonesian blend of West Java rices. The SRI initiative has particularly benefitted women who are the main growers of rice.

Blue Ventures created Madagascar's first community-run marine protected area. Through conservation of marine areas, Blue Ventures has been working closely with the villagers to improve their resilience and adaptability to climate change. Since then, Blue Ventures activities have extended to education and the provision of a local barefoot family planning clinic.

In 2009, SEED made its first award in the mining sector: Oro Verde is spearheading the reversal of environmental degradation caused by uncontrolled mining in the Chocó Bioregion in Colombia, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, by developing the certification of responsible mining practices. Gold and platinum are extracted under strict ecological standards by artisanal miners, thereby protecting the Chocó. Traditional panning techniques and a plant mixture are used to separate gold from alluvia. The metals are sold to ethical jewellers in green and fair-trade markets mainly in Europe and North America. Profits from the "green gold" are used to fund community development.

Oro Verde is propelling a worldwide fair-trade movement around responsible small-scale mining. Their "green gold" is expected soon to come with Fairtrade and Fairmined labels, and their aim is to capture 5% of the "fair gold" jewellery market over the next 15 years.

ALMODO, established in Niger and another 2009 winner, is a sustainable solid waste management system suitable for lower income urban areas, offering training and waste management services to municipalities and civil societies. ALMODO collects, centralises and ecologically recovers waste which is then transformed into products useful for the local community such as school slate, paving stones, bricks, toilets, organic fertilisers or combustibles.

Many of the SEED Awardees have found that the recognition and assistance they received from SEED proved critical for their establishment and scaling up. Their collective impact as they scale up will potentially reach millions of people in the developing world.

Policy impacts

SEED aims to introduce all initiatives to relevant government bodies, so helping to establish a conduit for on-the-ground experience to feed into policy processes. Already there are examples of SEED winners influencing national and local policy development and regulatory frameworks. At a higher level, SEED itself is bringing the insights from its research to governments and stakeholders through the SEED Partners in various policy arenas, such as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and the IUCN World Congress.

SEED recently embarked on an ambitious longitudinal study of small and micro social and environmental entrepreneurs to determine how they are contributing to the Green Economy and what the enabling factors and barriers are to their establishment and scale up. Implications for policy makers are already flowing from the baseline study, which is about to be published by SEED and UNEP. The evidence demonstrates the strong need of social and environmental entrepreneurs to acquire business and management skills, and to have assistance with monitoring all their impacts. Despite their stretched resources, most of the entrepreneurs in the study are making major efforts to train people at community level; much more could be done to support them in this task, facilitating also the access to technology at the local level.

The longitudinal study will examine annually the progress made and barriers encountered by the initiatives included so far, and will gather information from new entrepreneurs. In this way, the policy recommendations that SEED is able to make will be based on a growing body of evidence.

Assisting the wider community of entrepreneurs

SEED has developed a number of tools not only to help the SEED community but to advance the social and environmental SMME sector as a whole. SEED is now consolidating its suite of workshop activities and tools within the framework of its 8 Critical Success Factors into an online entrepreneurs' centre. This will include a learning programme for social and environmental entrepreneurs, and will link to the wiki for entrepreneurs developed by SEED, the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of North America (www.entrepreneurstoolkit.org).

SEED is also sharing its experience by offering capacity building services to other organisations.

The Green Economy and social entrepreneurship are increasingly capturing the attention of policy makers and investors. SEED has a special role to play in that its focus is on start-up enterprises that integrate social, environmental and economic benefits, and on gathering evidence about what determines the success – or failure - of social and environmental entrepreneurs. Its Partners, currently the European Union, the governments of Germany, India, the Netherlands, Spain, South Africa, the UK and the USA, and Conservation International, are well-placed to promote and to draw on its findings.

What is needed to respond to the critical trends is not just scale-up of individual social and environmental enterprises, but scale-up of social and environmental entrepreneurship itself. Commitment and action at all levels is called for, from many stakeholders, working together. For its part, SEED is looking to grow new partnerships so as to scale up and accelerate its contribution to the Green Economy.


[1] 'Green Economy' here means: 'an economy that delivers returns on natural, human and economic capital investments, while at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions, extracting and using less natural resources, creating less waste and reducing social disparities. It tackles a variety of challenges simultaneously while making every dollar, Yuan, Rupee or Euro work on multiple fronts': Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP (http://www.seedinit.org/en/news/item/9-interview-with-achim-steiner.html)

[2] SMEs account globally for up to 95 % of enterprises, about 50% GDP, and around 70% of employment. (SMEs, ISO 26000 and social responsibility, by Oshani Perera; ISO Management Systems, Sep-Oct 2009 (http://www.iisd.org/pdf/2009/smes_iso_26000.pdf))