Simon Doble On Three Key Things You Need To Build Sustainable Enterprises That Create Positive Change
Simon Doble is an inventor and social impact entrepreneur who specialises in creating innovative solar energy solutions for the humanitarian, off-grid, sport and recreation sectors.
He founded The Doble Group in 2012, with a vision to develop innovatively designed and superior performing solar lighting solutions for the millions of refugees living in energy poverty.
Simon was a founding member of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA); and was an early member of Lighting Africa. He was a founding member of the Moving Energy Initiative of Chatham House, London, UK an initiative funded by DFID to develop an understanding of the solar needs of refugees across the world. Simon was also a member of the UNHCR committee to include solar products as core relief items for all refugees and internally displaced people around the world.
Simon is the CEO of SolarBuddy.org, which was created as a way to educate and empower the next generation of Australians towards a more sustainable future and make a positive impact on the lives of children living in energy poverty via its innovative solar light school program.
Simon is also the Founder of Boo Boo Bikes, a range of natural bamboo bikes handmade in Ghana, West Africa and assembled in Australia.
A humanitarian at heart, Simon is determined to create socially aware businesses and projects.
Simon shares his insights into how to create meaningful social impact, providing valuable learnings from his own journey and experiences across the social enterprise and charity sectors. Simon also gives his thoughts on government policy and the future of impact driven initiatives.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Rachel Stevens] - To start things off, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the path of social entrepreneurship? [2:42]
[Simon Doble] - Yeah, sure. I grew up in the UK but left the UK many years ago now and travelled the world on my way to Australia. That gave me a lot of insight into people around the world who live differently and the disparity of wealth. So that gave me a footing, but I think I've always had a strong social compass, to be honest with you. My parents instilled that in me from a very young age, looking at the world in a fair light, and in a sort of 'level the playing field' aspect. I'm very proud of that and very proud of my parents for instilling that in me. As I've looked back for this purpose, for this interview, I think I've sort of had a more of an inclusive rather than exclusive philosophy for business and I think I've brought that to almost everything I've done in my career. I guess over the last 10 years, it's just naturally developed to what we have now, which is a suite of social enterprises that I'm very proud of. I really do think it all started from my parents though. They just instilled in me to the right and wrong way of going around whatever you do and it's just stemmed from that.
It sounds like it's been a part of you from a young age then.
Yeah. There's been some ups and downs, like there is in everybody's life and they form your personality, your beliefs and your philosophies I think.
I've always tried to have that ability to be positive in everything we do and that's the backbone of a social enterprise I feel.
So you founded the Doble Group back in 2012; can you tell us a bit more about what you do there and why you started it? [4:20]
Sure. So the Doble Group essentially started from one simple idea, one simple innovation based around structural lighting. This is answering a need for safer and better lighting within refugee and natural disaster situations, but also for more convenient lighting within recreational circumstances. I took the philosophy that people who are unfortunate to be in situations in refugee camps and displaced by natural disasters, are in many ways in the same boat as people that go camping, but it's forced upon them. I read an article about the energy poverty situation in refugee camps in different places around the world and sat down and basically invented and designed a new solution. This incorporated the lighting and batteries inside the hollow tent poles of those tents hence creating structural lighting. It's the same philosophy as us walking into our own homes at night and turning on the light switch by the door. We know where the light switch is, we know the lights are in the ceiling and that's part of the building. I took that philosophy and implemented that into a refugee tent so now people can walk into a tent and they know where the lights are, they know where the light switch is. So, I took that to the headquarters of UNHCR in Geneva in 2011. We managed to get an audience there and it was very well received and the birth of the Doble Group stems from that ultimately.
It sounds like a really inspiring innovation.
At its core, the idea was trying to create a better standard of living for people in a very, very, very difficult situation, by creating light and a safer environment for women and children to live in. It was a huge thing for me at that particular time in my life. I was going through a messy divorce and it was a good thing to be a part of.
So just over two years ago now, you became the CEO Solar Buddy, which is another really interesting organisation bringing about some massive social change. Can you please tell us more about Solar Buddy and the impact that it's creating? [6:14]
I'd love to. With the Doble Group and the innovations there, we've worked with UNHCR and a lot of UN organisations, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and such. That took me on a path of learning about energy poverty and the implications of energy poverty. How it affects millions and millions, billions of people around the world. That knowledge that I gained was really impactful on me. Some stats around energy poverty: 4.3 million people die every year from energy poverty. Economically, people that have no electricity spend between 25 and 40 percent of their income on energy i.e. firewood or kerosene. It's a chronic, terrible problem. This learning and developing solutions for people that live in these situations resulted in my team and I sitting down one day and decided we needed to do something more about the awareness side of this issue. We can develop solutions for it all day long as far as products but we wanted to do something bigger and better. So, Solar Buddy was born out of that frustration and lack of awareness. Basically we developed an education program. We go into schools now and we talk about energy poverty and renewable energy and how to be a good global citizen. The children learn about children just like them elsewhere in the world that when the sun sets they have no light so they can't read and they can't do their homework. As part of the courses, they ended up making their own little solar lights in their classrooms and they write little letters to their Solar Buddies and we distributed those lights for children all over the world. Very innovative, first time it's ever been done. We started 18 months ago and in our first 18 months of operation we've worked in over 360 schools all around Australia. We've spoken and dealt with over 100,000 students. We launched a workplace giving and corporate social responsibility program that is being rolled out into 49 different corporations in 15 countries, discussing our program with over 4,300 employees. So you know, these are huge numbers; we've distributed over 36 thousand solar lights to children all over the world in 19 different countries. And that's all in 18 months from a very, very small startup budget. So it's something we're very, very proud of.
The scale of impact you guys have been able to create in that space of time is just incredible. [8:43]
Yeah. I'll talk a little bit later about people setting off on their social innovation or social enterprise path, but ultimately it comes down to passion and conviction. That we believe that what we're doing is right.
When you have that passion about it, people can't say no and the outcomes are so positive.
Children are learning here, they're becoming more globally aware, they're being part of a solution. We fit into the curriculum, so what they're learning has real life, tangible benefits and then obviously the children on the other end are having a life life-changing gift from another child. That gift keeps them safe and healthy and it gives them an environment where they can read books. There is something very marvellous about the whole thing.
It's really great the way it can connect so many different elements there.
That's right. We've got a big future ahead of us. We're working very closely with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, focusing on number 7 and 17 and we're really proud to promote our program to as many people as possible.
So, 2015 must've been a busy year for you. Not long after becoming CEO at Solar Buddy, you also founded Boo Boo Bikes, which is another inspiring social enterprise which focuses on social and sustainable impact. Could you tell our listeners a little more about what your team are working on there? [9:51]
Sure! So Boo Boo Bikes is a beautiful model as well. I met an amazing lady, Bernice Dapaah, in Brussels a few years ago. Bernice runs an organisation called Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative. She's a true African social entrepreneur and has done amazing work all on her own in central Ghana. She developed Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiatives as a vehicle to help her local female community by getting skills to create income. Basically they cut down bamboo, for every plant they cut down they plant another 5 so it's very sustainable in that sense, and they make hand-built, very beautiful bamboo push bike frames. They're stunning and the first time I ever met Bernice, she was at a conference. It was a humanitarian aid organisation conference and she stood there with this most beautiful bamboo bike and I was just mesmerised by it. I said to her then, 'I don't know how we're going to work together, but we're going to work together.' A few years later now we're just getting Boo Boo Bikes into the conversation in Australia. So the idea is, we bring the frames over from Ghana. We're going to build what I call Boo Boo Hubs in each capital city in Australia, which are a focal point for the product. They also have sustainable and ethical coffee shops and different environments going on in these hubs. The idea of the hubs are we use wasteland within the urban area of each city and that they are fully self-sustainable, so they have their own power source, they have their own water source. There's no footings, so they're going to be built out of shipping containers with the idea to really highlight how urban dwellings can become fully self-sustainable, using our own power and water whilst we're promoting and developing a bamboo bike brand. The people that we hope to employ in these hubs are going to be disenfranchised and we're going to bring them in and give them skills. So again, we've got this sort of bookend goodness of what's going on and Ghana and what's being replicated within Australia and it's all wrapped around a beautiful, very cool, very good-looking pushbike that's very innovative and very sustainable. Then we develop a clever brand off the back of that about how to raise awareness about what can be developed and what can be produced in a far away land that people don't really know too much about. It's something that's actually cool, it's actually something people want to own and that's very special as well, so I'm proud to be a part of that.
Simon, how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform over the last five years and where do you see it heading into the future? [12:45]
That's a great question. I've been around this space a long time now. The big thing for me is the question marks in people's minds when you talk about what you do, aren't so prevalent.
In the not too distant past, people would say, 'oh, what do you do?' You'd describe your business and they couldn't differentiate where you fit in the economic scale; you're either business or charity. Now there's very much a distinct awareness of what social enterprise is; the power of social enterprise and how it can impact change, is a lot more obvious and people know more about it.
That's probably the biggest thing for me. I don't have to answer quite so many questions about the purpose of what we do anymore, which is really nice.
Simon, how have you seen the social enterprise sector transform over the last five years and where do you see it heading into the future? [12:45 continued]
There's a greater opportunity for funding into the sector now. Investors, VCs, those sorts of guys are aware of the power of the social enterprise and its ability to be run and operated by experienced business people that just want to do the right thing.
And that keeps shareholders happy as well, so that's a good thing. It's changed massively in the last five years.
So with your experience in mind, what advice would you give to a budding social entrepreneur who has begun to work, grow and scale their own enterprise? [14:05]
It's a cliche, but I'm always going to come back to the same three points.
For me it's persistence, it's conviction and it's passion. If you have those three things, hopefully in spades, then you'll get through it. It's the same in anything, whether it's social enterprise, enterprise or anything you're doing, persistence is the key.
It's those days that you get tested and when you think you're nearly there, that you're only just getting started.
That's a huge lesson to learn. Conviction. If you carry a lot of conviction into everything you do as well as passion, the likelihood of success is that much higher. Certainly in a social enterprise arena, passion and conviction are massively important.
If you're breaking the mould on how people look at a business or how you look at what you're trying to do, then you have to have the conviction that you know what you're doing. You have to know how you're going to do it is the right way and then people will jump on board. You need people to believe in you.
So looking at social enterprise from a policy perspective now, what do you believe needs to be done by government to help foster and support an innovative social enterprise sector? [15:14]
I can be a little bit contentious on this to be honest with you. I feel strongly about social enterprise and I feel strongly about the people that are driving this sector forward. I feel they should be given more reins, more opinions and be allowed to speak their minds a little bit more to drive it.
I think government is becoming more and more irrelevant in the space. They tried to become relevant, tried to offer support to innovative things and different agendas, but ultimately I've felt frustrated with government policy.
I've been the recipient of supporting grants but then you have to deal with the change of government and then change of policy, then you're back to square one, which I find very frustrating.
They really need to start having more proactive partnerships if they are going to grow their opinion in this space. These partnerships have to continue regardless of what party's in power.
You can't build a long-term partnership with the government if you feel in six months time when there's a policy change or a party change that everything is going to go to waste anyway. So I feel it's up to us just to power on, get on with it, look after ourselves and lead the charge. That's what we're doing anyway, so just keep doing it.
What other inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across recently which are creating some interesting positive social change? [16:45]
There's a couple! Actually there's a lot I could go on and on and on about and I'm lucky have a lot to put under my table, work that I'm really impressed to see. A couple do spring to mind. There's an organisation coming out of Substation 33 in Logan. It's a startup called PowerWells which is an innovative product turning electronic waste or what's known as e-waste, like old laptops, batteries, old solar panels or TV's, into a self contained energy supply system, which is really quite cool. They've taken what we regard as waste and turned it into something very useful for people that don't have any such luxuries. It's obviously in my space, it's what I'm interested in. I know the guys and they're really passionate and really determined and they will be a success. They're off to a Indonesia shortly to test their first 100 Power Wells in remote communities. I wish them all the best and hopefully they get a little bit of a shout out from this which would be nice. Hi Brad, keep working hard!
Another great innovation is from Darcy; a guy at University of New South Wales. He's writing his thesis on this and again, it's in my space. It's a solar powered extractor fan. So there's huge issues within developing countries and remote communities from cooking on open fires inside their homes or huts. There is no chimneys which means there's no escape for the smoke and it's terrible. The big drive is to solve that by using solar cookers or other biomass cookers, which have a slow technology uptake. Darcy's working on a extractor fan to bridge the gap between what they're currently using and what people will use maybe in 10 years, 15 years, hopefully a lot sooner than that. So that's a great innovation as well with great social change built around that certainly in developing countries. So I wish them both very well and a lot of luck.
I can definitely see why those two innovative projects came to mind for you. So to finish off, Simon, what are the top three books you'd recommend for our listeners? [19:05]
I struggled with this. As a children's book author I was going to list the books I wrote but I won't. That's a little bit too narcissistic. The first one I have here is The Innovator's Dilemma, which is a bit of a Bible as far as innovations are concerned. It's by Clayton Ann Christensen and it's a must read. Second to that is the Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. I believe in that book and in the philosophies of it. Another strong book, which is business orientated, is by Sir Alex Ferguson who's the ex manager of Manchester United. Through the Harvard business school he wrote a book called Leading. On the back of it, there's a quote that I think is very powerful, it resonates with me.
Alex Ferguson says 'my job was to make everyone understand that the impossible was possible. That's the difference between leadership and management'.
I think that really resonates with the conversation we've had about social innovation and social enterprise.
We've really got to try and make people believe that what we're doing is possible.
That sounds like a really great, diverse list of books so we'll have to check them out.