By: Emily Haggstrom Issue: Collaborative Leadership Section: Business
One Organization’s Collaborative Journey to Improve the Lives of Millions
The Paradigm Project strives to reduce environmental degradation, improve the health of women and children, increase economic stability in poor households, produce a stream of verifiable carbon offsets that are monetized to drive competitive investor returns and scale community benefits. But to realize the magnitude of their impact, you must first understand the devastating circumstances driving their mission.
Each morning in tribes and rural communities across eastern Kenya, young girls and mothers wake and ready themselves in their traditional thin cotton robes to make a trek they’ve made before and will likely make hundreds of times again. Armed with an axe and a few feet of rope, they head out, most times together, but just as often alone, on a long desolate route that is often plagued with danger, in search of firewood to use for cooking fuel to feed their families.
These women leave their homes and will spend over 30 hours a week, walking on average six miles a day, through some of the most desolate terrain; crossing through preserves, rock beds and areas that have been clear cut to haul back their weight in wood. This painstaking process exposes them to risks such as rape, beatings, and pillaging along the way. But they are not alone; they are among the 2.5 billion people in the world with limited or no access to fuels for cooking. Once they return home they are subjected, along with their children, to working hours over an open fire pit within their small huts, billowing smoke so thick and dense it burns their eyes and lungs. These open fire pits burn constantly throughout the day until the flickering embers lull the women to sleep at night. This endless chore ceases only when they are eight months pregnant or when they physically can no longer make the trek. Most, if not all deaths are the consequence of acute lower respiratory disease that has gone untreated. The health risks alone are staggering, but consider the environmental waste and devastation from years of stripping the land.
In fact, each year, 2.5 billion people forage for firewood and other biomass sources to use as fuel for cooking fires. People across the world are using their own forests and tree refuges as resources for their daily cooking needs. But, with the amount of people in search of wood each day, the amount of trees being cut down is staggering. As a result, in a few years, these native people will have depleted entire forests that they rely on for their livelihood and sustenance, without the means to replenish the earth with nutrients that stabilize the top soil, which needs to be tilled for farming or to feed their animals. This type of extreme deforestation is what sets off a destructive series of cyclical events that affects these communities’ precious and invaluable ecosystems.
For example, farming is not even possible without insects to pollinate plants or without the trees to regulate rainfall and provide shelter to indigenous animals. Without the trees, natural earth cycles are halted or transformed; slowly erosion and floods begin to decimate the landscape into a barren, arid and fruitless wasteland, plunging the poor even farther into poverty.
According to the 2010 Nature Conservancy Report, Saving Forests to Fight Climate Change, deforestation not only plunders the land that sets off a series of events, but it also assists in accelerating CO² emission levels that without the help of the trees, creates incredible amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. These gas emissions that are largely present in developing and underdeveloped nations, exceeding all global transportation related emissions combined.
And while many organizations already exist to mobilize relief efforts and aide in organizing economic and environmental improvements, many often don’t succeed or create a culture of long-term reliance from the people that they aimed to serve. “Over the past 50 years, Africa has received more than $1 trillion in foreign assistance, yet none of us really have much to show for it,” said Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, “Per capita income across the continent remains essentially where it was in the 1960s. Yet organizations across the world continue to mobilize without properly understanding the consequences that occur after they leave the given communities they were trying to help. One company, however, The Paradigm Project (TPP), is trying to stop the bleeding and change the paradigm. Neil Bellefeuille, Paradigm’s CEO, and Greg Spencer, Founder and Chairman, looked at Eastern Kenya’s foreign aid situation and realized much of what they wanted to do had already been instituted by other organizations and were already underway, “We wanted to find a way to use business as a tool to serve development,” said Bellefeuille. With enterprise in mind, Bellefeuille and Spencer decided they would distribute clean-burning cook stoves. The difference in their program versus others was that instead of giving away cook stoves, they would sell theirs, allowing families to have consumer choice. Their challenge was that they had to make the stoves affordable, so they had to look at subsidization programs.
Together, Bellefeuille and Spencer piloted a program model that would prove revolutionary to the world of relief aid. TPP is a low profit limited liability company (L3C) designed to act as both a nonprofit and for-profit entity. It was started by a group of individuals to create partnerships and develop a model that was not only feasible to generate social and environmental prosperity within rural communities, but to ensure that it could be sustainable. By establishing themselves as an L3C, TPP was able to generate successful investment capital from thoughtful donors, socially responsible corporations and private equity firms to form an ongoing revenue stream. Utilizing corporate and private funding proved to be successful in generating capital for TPP. But, to guarantee sustainability and support, the leadership team focused on delving into the complex dealings of the carbon markets to obtain carbon credits that could prove profitable to all involved. “It’s a complex process. Hopefully, as we move forward, the model will become a moniker for the way that you can access different pools of capital and utilize it for development, because that, to me, is the compelling thing about it,” said Bellefeuille.
This unique foundation was instrumental in establishing TPP as a major player, with a smart and sustainable business model for foreign development and aid projects. More importantly, the model showed immediate and significant results. TPP quickly garnered support from major players within the world of international giving. Organizations like World Vision, Compassion International, Food for the Hungry, and Envirofit had signed on to help with logistics, due diligence, and technical support. TPP continues to refine their model, seeking new donors and contributors, while developing new business opportunities that align strategically with the mission. By establishing themselves as an L3C, they have the unique ability to be eligible to receive low interest program related investment (PRI) debt to further their activities. With several revenue streams purposed for each segment of the business, TPP is able to focus on what is important—making the communities they work with sustainable through the pool of cash from offsets in the voluntary carbon market. “With the right philanthropic audience, there is tremendous value in having a donation create future monetary returns,” said Scott Hitt, TPP Chief Marketing Officer.
With the first round of stoves in Kenyan communities, TPP has begun to monitor families who have received stoves to track the health benefits as well as the savings, both financially and productively. “People recognize as do we, that what we are providing is not a long-term solution. They really understand the greater good, but it is because it affects them so directly,” said Bellefeuille. With increasing positive results, donor and capital alignment, in September TPP committed to distributing 400,000 stoves across Kenya.
Also in September, The Paradigm Project was honored by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) as “an exemplary approach to addressing challenges in environment and energy.” It was during this annual forum that U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves (GACC) and committed $50 million to fund the deployment of 100 million cook stoves by 2020. As a member organization within the CGI, TPP is now eligible, along with other members of the GACC, to develop the effort globally and strategically. Because the commitment is a government resource, it is still unclear how TPP will access the funds or how they will be allocated. Like any good business, TPP will continue to follow its model. And, if and when they gain access to the GACC funding, it will just be "gravy."
To become involved with The Paradigm Project or to find out more information please visit www.theparadigmproject.org.
Emily Haggstrom has a B.A. in Journalism and Media from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is a member of the Level One Society in Denver, Colorado and sits in on various charity committees. In an effort to impact her local community she also volunteers for Whiz Kids Tutoring, Inc. as well as Denver Health Medical Center.
This is a story of a 40 year old, Ann, a Kenyan Meru farmer who is HIV positive.
Prior to purchasing a stove, I used an expensive cooking method of three stones and a lot of wood causing a smoke filled kitchen and health problems, especially in the children. I purchased a bundle of firewood for $1.90, which lasted only three days. Frequently, our family skipped lunch to pay for dinner’s firewood.
The expense and danger of the wood burning stove made frying a luxury we could not afford. For example, boiling Githeri, a mix of dry maize and beans, consumed half of our firewood. I heard about the stove during a community visit, and after seeing the demonstration, I immediately signed up to purchase one. I’ve completely stopped using the firewood cooking method and have been using the stove for nine months.
It has entirely changed my family’s well-being—I no longer worry about the children’s safety and the smoke. Now I can eat meals before taking the medicine for my HIV. But now, the firewood I purchase lasts over a month and saves me $16.80. With the savings, I use the money for my children’s secondary fees. I love the huge savings, smokeless cooking, safety, design and family elevation the stove has given me. My hope is for a better future, savings and enjoyment by using the stove.
This is the story about a 40 year-old Mercy, a Kenyan Meru farmer.
I’ve used the stove for eight months to cook for a family of four. It saves on firewood, cooks fast, and is smokeless and safe for use around the children. We’ve seen health benefits by reduced hospital visits for colds and the flu. With the money saved, we are able to cook special meals like chapati, rice and even meat twice a week; previously these were luxuries. We only cooked twice a day before but manage three times now. With the heat that remains on the liner after cooking, we boil water for bathing and washing dishes. My family hopes the stove will be durable and bring an economical and brighter future. My teenage children enjoy the stove and borrow mine frequently. They have now asked me to buy one for them.