We believe that the world’s greatest challenges will never be solved by one person or organization alone. We need to work together! We are introducing our new series #MeetTheCreators with a monthly interview with a member showing his/her impact and work for reaching the sustainable development goals.
Meet our SDG this month:
The Sustainable Development Goal Nr 6 wants ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.
Meet our creators this month:
|Members:||Paolo Del Ponte and Marco Righetti|
|SDG:||Nr 6 – Clean Water and Sanitation|
Peace, love and Micro-Sharing
On a sunny day in April, I have a conversation with Marco and Paolo from Re-Coffee and it is about coffee in disguise. This time, the limelight doesn’t go to the bean, but to the second most substantial ingredient for your beloved Cuppa Joe: WATER
You are a team of two entrepreneurs – how long have you two worked together?
Paolo: We have worked together since 2009 when we first met in university and we became good friends. In the beginning, we studied and passed exams together.
Marco: In 2015, we started working together for real. Paolo was on an exchange semester in Lisbon and after I finished my Masters. I moved to Lisbon and we started Project-Aqua together (laughing). Actually, we surfed a lot together. We thought that we will find a great idea in 6 months and start something together, but really, we enjoyed ourselves a lot.
Enjoying yourself seems to have turned into a great ground for you two to develop great business ideas.
Paolo: It’s definitely a pillar of our way of working together. To support tough times, you need to enjoy good times. We have a lot of shared interests like surfing and sports in general and do spend a lot of time together.
Is it mainly the two of you working together or do you are working with a team?
Paolo: Last June, when we had to pivot and change our concept quite radically to find new ways for Micro-Sharing. Now, we are a team of four and an additional two people who collaborate with us from the ZHAW.
Marco: We teamed up with our mentor at Kickstart Accelerator to start a new project creating a cold-brew coffee, which we are aiming to sell at retails and gastro channels in Switzerland. We brought all the knowledge we have about Micro-Sharing into the company: the relationship with Helvetas, our experience with the customers, and retailers.
What was the reason for that shift?
Paolo: The pilot of our original project, Project-Aqua was very successful. We developed a Micro-Sharing concept in which customers could pay an extra twenty cents by peeling off a sticker when they bought a bottle of water at Migros Ticino. By doing so they supported a water well project in Mali. We had a successful proof of concept, but the project was difficult to scale. In the end, it wasn’t our aim to promote the sticker solution that we had developed for project aqua, but to have an impact on the water scarcity problem. With our new cold-brew product, you no longer opt in to Micro-Sharing. By buying the product you automatically contribute to a water project in Ethiopia. The transparency is the same, you know exactly who are you helping and you know exactly how much you are contributing.
Marco: In addition to the micro-sharing aspect, our cold brew will be fair-trade certified (Max Havelaar), in addition to it being vegan. It also is made in Switzerland.
What sparked the idea for your first project Project-Aqua?
Paolo: When we were students, we knew about problems as poverty or water scarcity, but it seemed very far away from us. It felt like someone else was taking care of it and it wasn’t really our job. But after we went on a trip to South America and started to see with our own eyes and it sparked an epiphany. It impacted us and our friendship deeply and really changed us.
Marco: We realized in the end, there are different opportunities depending on where you are born and that’s just not fair. If you are born in Ethiopia or Mali, you do not have the same opportunity set as if you are born in Switzerland, and many basics things we take for granted here there are not.
Do you remember key experiences that sparked that change?
Paolo: We travelled to remote places during our trip and lived together with local people.
Marco: We also visited a village in which electricity only was made accessible six months before we had gotten there. There are all these small things that add up together and when you come back home you notice that really you are complaining about stuff for no reason.
With project Aqua you started supporting projects in Mali, how did you choose the community there?
Marco: We knew in order to do things right, you have to have a lot of expertise and experience, especially when helping in developing countries. Our first aim was to find solid project partners and we were incredibly lucky. Our first partner we wanted to collaborate with was Helvetas. We picked up the phone, had a meeting and that was it. They were interested in our project and said yes.
Wow – that sounds like the most straight forward entrepreneurial story I have ever heard, it’s nice to hear that it can be that easy.
Paolo: Yes, they liked us, they believed in the idea. They helped us to work out a rock solid KPIs.
Marco: For our new project we continue to collaborate with them. We source our coffee in Ethiopia and finance a water project there. However the KPI are different because providing water there to one person is more expensive than during our first project in Mali.
When you started project aqua you received a remark that it was just another water project. What do you do to deal with such cynicism?
Paolo: We were surprised to not receive even more cynical feedback. The backup from Helvetas also helped, so we could do some name dropping and then people realised very fast that the project had something more to it. To us it was proof of our original idea that you can create traction through transparency.
And your success rate was quite high!
Paolo: It exceeded our expectation and the expectations of Migros Ticino. 70% of people who purchased the product peeled off the sticker and opted into micro-sharing during the pilot month. Also from a marketing perspective it worked, for the product owner sales increased.
Marco: After the first pilot month, we didn’t continue any marketing activities, we kept running the project together with Migros Ticino on a low level. After one year we still had 35% participation and the sales level of the product continued at the new rate. Now the product cycle is completed. We are out of the special water bottle that was produced for the project and also discontinued the label.
What do you consider the biggest issue in building a sustainable business?
Marco: If you have a strong social purpose, you are in a grey zone. For normal investors you are not appealing, because they are looking for a high monetary return on investment. Then, there are many foundations, but they only give to non-for-profit organisations. When you are aiming to be sustainable and create profitable growth you can’t apply for that funding. As a small niche investment product, you have to find the right people, mainly business angels, who put their money into philanthropic projects and who are not looking for a high return on investment, but want to create an impact. Those are a good match.
What helped you getting there?
Paolo: In our case we were able to proof really fast that our concept worked. We didn’t sell a story, we had solid numbers and statistics.
Marco: Also the Kickstart Accelerator helped us a lot in introducing us to impact investors. And in the last two years, the financial market is shifting into this direction as well and I think it will be much easier in the next years to find funding for social businesses.
If you had a wish free from the Impact Hub community, what would you ask for?
Paolo: In the end in order to create an impact you don’t have to run a social business. Your everyday choices are, what makes the difference on a large scale. And if you purchase our product it will definitely be a plus 🙂
Marco: It’s great, if you start to think social business, but no matter what you do, try to think about your decisions. When you purchase products for a public services company, which products do you choose? When you work for a big company which projects do you push? If you can bring this thinking into your existing organisation and day to day work, that’s what really counts.
Sonja Bichsel, Storytelling, Communications, Civic participation, Education & Coaching