Photo: Mobile Solar Classroom, Uganda

Eco-Entrepreneurship and the Post-2015 Agenda

By Helen Marquard, Executive Director, & Anais Mangin, Project Manager, SEED

Eco-Entrepreneurship and the Post-2015 Agenda

The Millennium Development Goals have shaped development cooperation in the last 15 years, and there has been progress towards eliminating poverty worldwide. Nevertheless, much remains to be done. The post-2015 agenda and Sustainable Development Goals will set ambitious targets not only to end poverty, but also to promote growth and well-being for all, protect the environment and address climate change. The pressing question is: how will we achieve them?

The need to involve the private sector

The private sector certainly has a major role to play. It controls resources that are indispensable in shifting unsustainable production and consumption patterns – not only the financial resources to make the necessary investments to enhance infrastructure, upgrade production sites and conduct research, but also the ownership and knowledge of existing technologies, much of the capacity and environments for innovation, and its skilled and experienced staff. All of these are needed to underpin sustainable business practices that meet environmental protection and core labour standards, right along the value and supply chains.

The private sector further exerts a significant influence over consumption patterns as it produces the majority of goods and services, and directly impacts the living conditions of millions by providing 90 percent of jobs in developing countries (IFC). This is not restricted to the large corporations. Small, micro and medium-sized enterprises (SMMEs) are the backbone of the global economy, providing 66% of permanent, full-time employment in developing countries (IFC). And these figures do not even include micro-enterprises with fewer than 5 employees, which often operate in the informal sector (IFC).

Eco-enterprises: Sustainable development at the core of business

Within the group of SMMEs, eco-enterprises, also called social and environmental enterprises, demonstrate how the private sector can contribute to sustainable development. What differentiates them from other private enterprises? The focus on the Triple Bottom Line: eco-enterprises pursue not only economic goals; social and environmental benefits, most often to the local community, are of equal importance and are viewed as central in assessing the success of the enterprise.

The promotion of social and eco-enterprises is at the core of our work at SEED – a global partnership for action on sustainable development that was founded by UNEP, UNDP and IUCN in 2002.

Diverse areas of work

On the table for international agreement are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. These range across many sectors. And yet for nearly each goal eco-entrepreneurs can make a contribution. Looking at some of the Winners of the SEED Awards for Entrepreneurship in Sustainable Development :

Madagascar’s first community-run marine protected area (Blue Ventures), one of the first SEED Award Winners in 2005, helps to “Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development” (Goal 14). Communities are now running several such areas and find they are able to sustain and even enhance their primary source of income – marine resources – as a result.

Dichung, in Vietnam, contributes to “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable” (Goal 11). Their online platform creates favourable conditions for car and taxi sharing, saving carbon emissions and reducing traffic jams.

Use solar, save lives (now SDFA-Kenya) does its part to “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” More than 50,000 of the enterprise’s locally produced solar lanterns, called “MwangaBora”, have already been distributed to poor rural households.

One enterprise, multiple contributions to the SDGs

The triple bottom line is what makes eco-enterprises special: social, environmental and economic targets. If we use the example of greenABLE:

Social: The jobs created are not just jobs: greenABLE gives on-the-job training and offers its employees the possibility of attending and graduating from external educational programmes. Since greenABLE works almost exclusively with previously unemployed women with disabilities who often have little or no formal education, greenABLE’s mission lies at the core of Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. And in a spirit of co-creation, companies sponsor individuals to cover the costs of skills development.

Environmental: The enterprise recycles waste, so reducing the pressure on landfills and carbon emissions. At the same time it uses labour-intensive, not energy-intensive, processes, All this contributes to Goal 12: “Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns”

Economic: At the same time, greenABLE helps to “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” (Goal 8). In its recycling facility decent jobs are created, and entrepreneurship is fostered through “greenAGENTS”, individuals who form part of greenABLE’s operations and run their own home-based cartridge collection business.

First movers finding unconventional ways and raising awareness

Providing jobs and education to women is one way to “Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls” (Goal 5). More subtle differences also keep women back however. The lack of clean sanitary products for girls’ menstruation cycle can lead to school absence, drop-out and illness. In Uganda, BanaPads provides sanitary pads from natural agricultural waste materials at affordable prices. This not only empowers women to follow everyday activities during their periods, but also raises awareness on a topic which is something of a taboo.

Eco-enterprises, are also innovators and first movers in many other fields: The Mobile Solar Classroom (Uganda) provides computer education on solar-powered computers in rural areas; Mozambikes (Mozambique) brings affordable transport to rural areas using bicycles that are subsidised by carrying advertisements from larger companies; Reel Gardening (South Africa) has developed food and herb gardens-in-a-box: a biodegradable paper strips with pre-fertilised organic seeds which come with instructions about the depth for planting and are ready to be put into the soil.

By finding unconventional ways and often being the first in designing, producing or promoting certain products or services in their countries or regions of operation, eco-enterprises also play a critical role in “ensur(ing) that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature” (Goal 12). Many, and certainly all the SEED Winners, work in close multistakeholder partnerships which bring greater inclusivity and participation.

How can eco-enterprises contribute maximally to the implementation of the SDGs?

There are many small and micro enterprises which are focused on delivering social and environmental benefits. SEED has working alongside nearly 200 of them, across the globe. They have already incorporated the idea of the SDGs in their business models, long before the SDGs will be discussed at the United Nations General Assembly this September. This makes them one of the key actors in realising the SDGs at the local level, acting as exemplars for more conventional businesses and inspiring the launching of other eco-enterprises. However, many questions regarding the role of the private sector overall remain open. One of the major issues that arises is the financing of green projects and how to engage financial institutions at the international level to support such investments.

This, then, will be a focus of the next SEED Africa Symposium to be held on 9-10 September in Nairobi, Kenya. During the opening panel “Eco-entrepreneurship and global sustainable development” UNEP Deputy Executive Director and Assistant-Secretary-General of the United Nations Ibrahim Thiaw, Schneider Electric’s Sustainability Senior Vice-President Gilles Vermot Desroches and other high-profile speakers will discuss the question: What is the role of eco-entrepreneurship in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals and Post-2015 agenda?

To learn more about the largest gathering on social and eco-entrepreneurship in Africa and become part of it, visit our homepage at

Early birds save: Register before 9 July and save 50%!

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