Wiping out poverty

21 Nov 2013

Author: Fran Molloy

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For social entrepreneur Simon Griffiths two seemingly unrelated businesses – selling toilet paper and running a bar – are proving to be the ideal vehicles for making a difference. Profit from both businesses is helping to fund vital projects in developing countries.
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Simon Griffiths is an Australian entrepreneur who has turned his considerable business talents towards saving the world “from the bottom up” – through toilet paper, and beer.

“Basically, we’re funding philanthropy through consumers, by creating high-quality products and services and making them non-profit or profit for purpose,” he says.

Overseas development agencies receive the profits from Griffith’s two social ventures:  ‘Who Gives a Crap’, which sells environmentally  sustainable toilet paper, and ‘Shebeen’, a Melbourne bar selling beers and wines from the developing world. 

Last year, Griffiths attracted worldwide media attention by staging a live-stream video to crowd-fund his first $50,000 in toilet-paper sales, while he sat on a toilet in a sparsely-furnished Melbourne warehouse. Fortunately, the cash flowed in quickly and he was off the loo after 51 hours.

Griffiths and his business partners Jehan Ratnatunga and Danny Alexander will donate half the profits from ‘Who Gives a Crap’ to Water Aid, a charity focused on providing safe water and sanitation and hygiene education to the world's poorest people.

The business sells good quality toilet paper in bulk, available online and through independent supermarkets and delivered to homes and offices in most major centres in Australia.

Griffiths says that quality and eco-credentials have been really important, along with irreverent marketing that uses a host of bad puns like “Let’s wipe out poverty”.  

Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says.

He will also distribute profits from his earlier social enterprise, Shebeen, named for the makeshift bars he frequented across Asia, Africa and South America in his travels.

“Those were the places where you'd have really memorable experiences; you'd connect with someone you would never otherwise be able to. They brought everyone together regardless of culture and background and wealth or class,” he says.

“We’ve tried to recreate that environment in Melbourne, so we get a group of 70-something ladies coming in for lunch once a fortnight and dads bringing their sons – it's amazing to create something that is really cross-generational.”

Growing up in Australia meant that Asia was on his doorstep, Griffiths says, and that’s been a big influence on his career.

“Australians travel a lot. We almost take it for granted how incredibly easy it is to travel, and for me our proximity to Asia has really ended up shaping a lot of what I've done.”

While a university student, Griffiths spent many months travelling through South-East Asia, sometimes volunteering on development projects, often exposed to substantial poverty.

Those experiences stayed with him, and fresh out of university with a degree in economics and engineering, Griffiths turned down a dream job with management consultancy McKinsey & Company to work for a development agency in South Africa.

But full-time aid work was frustrating. “I was very limited in the number of people I could impact on a daily basis,” he says.

“Progress was glacial because development projects are hamstrung by lack of funds.

“We know how to resolve the problem; but the capital to fund the solutions isn’t getting there fast enough.”

Griffiths says that the key to raising capital is not to find one or two more billionaires like Buffett and Gates to donate their fortunes, but to get a little extra from a lot more ordinary people; and social enterprise is the key.

Starting out around six years ago, Griffiths was at the vanguard of the social entrepreneurship movement in Australia, a movement that has also spread across Europe.

“When I first started in this area, people my own age understood perfectly what I was trying to do but it was very hard to find people who would back it financially,” Griffiths says.

“I think now the landscape has shifted entirely and there’s a much larger number of people playing in this space, businesses but also potential backers and investors. Someone starting out now can go and get experience with someone in a social enterprise and that would definitely be the best way to do it.”

Opportunity International Australia, a charity funding microfinance programs in developing countries, last year published a report calculating the number of social enterprises in Australia had increased by 37 per cent in the previous five years.

The Australian government’s Social Enterprise Development and Investment Fund (SEDIF), established in 2010, now has $40 million in funds under management with over 50 social enterprises progressing to loan application stage and ten already funded.

“Social enterprise is part of the repertoire of the new economy,” says Jo Barraket, who is Associate Professor of Social Enterprise at Queensland University of Technology.

She says that Griffiths typifies the new Australian social entrepreneur.

“Social entrepreneurship appeals to younger people coming out of higher education with great business capabilities and strong professional ethics, but who don’t necessarily relate to traditional forms of non-profit organisations,” Barraket explains.

“They want things to happen fast – and they often have got the capabilities to create an online business in a very short time. They are turning to social entrepreneurship as a vehicle for fulfilling their ethical aspirations rather than going to traditional non-profits.”

For Griffiths, beer and toilet paper are more than commodities; they are foot-soldiers in a global philanthropic revolution.