Costa Rica, Convergence, and CSR

Public-private partnerships have not earned itself a popular approval in many communities around the world as a means to reduce poverty and improve livelihoods, and surely the process to converge NGOs and private business firms and government is a complex one. Nonetheless, I believe the idea of a convergence economy proposed by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has some bright opportunities, including NGOs who recognize the resources they can leverage by seeking out dedicated businesses for support and businesses who recognize the long term benefits they can leverage by engaging NGOs who are aligned with public welfare issues and the protection of natural environments. Governments, therefore would accordingly need to facilitate and act as an umbrella actor to help foster the accommodating policy fora so that such a convergence can take place.

Take Costa Rica for example, in a recent article by Robert Blasiak ( a former LUMIDER!), the country has independently “self-imposed” this idea of convergence first in regard to environmental protectionism and economic development, recognizing the diverse societal gains of their biodiversity of lush tropical forests (more hectares of forests:carbon neutrality; ecotourism: local employment). Because as Robert so nicely summarizes:

“Costa Rica’s success in slowing and ultimately reversing the deforestation trend is due to recognition by policymakers of the value of the country’s ecosystems.”

For Costa Rica, and it may be a unique case given the country’s natural environment endowments, the lesson is drawn from a seemingly nonchalant, yet out-of-the-box epiphany by the government: constitutionally justifying  “a healthy and ecologically balanced environment” for all people and operating without a standing army for the last 64 years! But nonetheless, Costa Rica drew my attention and certainly speaks to what the WBCSD  envisions, a future  of a “convergent value chain” or:

“…a flexible model in which different participants play different roles at different times, according to the recipients’ needs and according to which entity has the necessary mix of skills and resources.”

And it looks somewhat like this in Costa Rica. Because as the Costa Rica works towards carbon neutrality (independent of the international finance and institutional support might I add), big businesses in the country such as Florida Bebidas (aka Florida Ice & Farm Co.) are integrating more sustainable and environmental conscious efforts into their operations as a beverage brewery company. It appears to me that the model represents a convergence of stakeholders in this regard using a mix of financial and program development resources and local on-the-ground labour input. For example, Florida Bebidas’ (financial resources) pay for environmental services such as watershed conservation, coordinated by state agencies and national foundations such as the Foundation for the Development of the Volcanic Mountain Chain or the Costa Rica National Forestry Fund (program development and implementation) who then train and pay landowners and community producers for the services their land is used to provide for water users. (See one 2003 watershed program here)

Since my digging has not yet discovered local NGOs’ collaboration with business and government, this could mean several things, including: whether there are still gaps in seeing the effects of a fully multi-sector oriented scheme, the fact that the different stakeholders are still not seeing eye to eye and maybe there hasn’t been an active request to NGOs for support, or possibly even a lack of interest or hesitancy by these organizations themselves to be involved. However, what seems more probable is the potential for new value captured in the overall value chain model where not only has a company committed to CSR campaign for waste reduction and responsible consumption behaviors, but it has committed to working with people and stakeholders outside of its direct industry, and for the main reason recognizing that its long term growth depends on it. Ultimately it is such a convergence of stakeholders that the social and environmental impacts have equated to training landowners, employment generation, water resources management, social network development, and ultimately the conservation of Costa Rica’s precious ecosystem.

Social Inventions require audacity, vision, and everything else in between

I recently sent an article to a few of my dear Lumid alumni and previous project management team members (you lucky souls know who you are) reminding them of the great times we had devising a mock organization and project on Ugandan women’s development and feminine hygiene. And it’s true as one of my team members commented that I just cannot get of the subject…of the Period that is…because this story is simply too innovative to resist.  It helps me to reflect on some simple rules about social entrepreneurship, filling a need in society while simultaneously creating a business model.

Where 70% of women in India simply are not able to afford sanitary napkins a study by AC Nielsen highlighted the poor sanitation and hygiene conditions of women, especially in rural India. On top of the taboo of speaking about menstrual health, often the opportunity cost of buying sanitary napkins could mean daily necessities such as milk. And the other methods used by women for their periods involve rags, newspapers, leaves that may be unhygienic and ascend to infections such as RTIs or potentially cervical cancer (Sinha, 2011)

The Audacity:

In 2006, an Indian man and high school drop-out took a risk and made a disruption in order to transform lives and improve women’s access to more affordable sanitary napkins. He began to investigate the composition of sanitary pads. Arunachalam Muruganantham (i’ll call him Murug for short) began to wear women’s panties and created a “menstruating uterus by filling a bladder with goat’s blood…occasionally squeezing the contraption to test out his latest iteration.” Deemed a pervert by his wife, mother, and ostracized by others in his community, he continued his research and even created his own millionaire’s alter ego (one that Donald Trump would be proud of) in an attempt to obtain testing materials from U.S. firms to support his investigation.

Finally, murug was able to fashion an electricity generated sanitary napkin machine that de-fibers cellulose (from tree bark), compresses and seals it into a napkin and sterilized by ultraviolet light (the kind only a Starwars hero could appreciate). Each machine under the control of four woman can produce about 1,000 napkins sold at retail price for about $.25 per package (8 per package).

What’s the gain? Well, according to Murug’s research, U.S. consumer giants like P&G and J&J burn their corporate pockets (think P&G commercial, “in a small village in Africa” Nia has a happy period because she has tampax) of half a million dollars(!) on a machine that does the same as Murug’s machine which costs $2,500. Although the number of napkins produced are not comparable to the numbers produced by P&G, a unique business model was born out of his invention that will assist in reaching his vision of a “100% napkin-using country”.

The Vision:

Rather than becoming a commercial enterprise, Murug spreads an idea and tries to fill a need. His company, Jayaashree Industries, helps rural Indian women and self-help groups buy a machine (via govt loans, NGO), teach them how to operate it (about three hours of instruction), and ultimately creates jobs that allow the women themselves to make an income. Although currently there are only 600 machines in use by women across 23 states in India and abroad, Murug envisions 1 million jobs to be created as his invention and the business model becomes more viral and expands in other developing countries.

Everything in between:

What’s equally important as access to affordable sanitary health is creating an awareness, and in this case an awareness especially relevant among half the population of India. Although I cannot begin to say I understand the lifestyles of Indian women in some parts of the country, the immediacy  of one woman’s response to a cautioning against reproductive infections: ‘So what? How long are we going to live anyway?’ really hits home the need for more social innovators like Murug and responsible businesses like Jayasshree Industries to jump start development and raise awareness.

So Team Papy, B, S, I, and E, don’t be too bummed about not getting our mythical funding for the project, there are social entrepreneurs and changemakers out there who are!

Interested in Jayasshree Industries and How’s the de-fibering done? You can watch a series of short videos here, the first without voices complemented with Chinese elevator style music in the background