The corporate sustainability movement – which combines corporate responsibility with environmental awareness – has increasingly become influential in the past twenty years. We talk to Rino Solberg, Chairman of the Better Globe Group, about his plan to eliminate poverty in Africa by planting trees.
We’ve all heard of corporate responsibility, the notion that big corporations and businesses should behave with a strong social and moral ethos. However, since the 1990s, another idea has taken off – what George Kell, writing for Forbes, calls the corporate sustainability movement.
The corporate sustainability movement marries business, ethics and environmental awareness, or environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors. And ESC is good business. A report by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment and Arabesque Partners published in 2014 found that “88% of reviewed sources find that companies with robust sustainability practices demonstrate better operational performance, which ultimately translates into cashflows.”
With these kinds of figures, it is not surprising that forward-thinking companies put ESG high on the agenda. Better Globe Forestry Ltd. is one of those companies. Dedicated to helping countries in Africa overcome poverty and corruption through self-help, the company has developed an innovative tree planting project. We talked to Rino Solberg, Chairman of the Better Globe Group about the project, and what motivated him to try and address the pressing social problems facing people in Africa.
What made you decide to tackle the enormous problem of poverty and corruption in Africa?
After being a serial entrepreneur for 40 years, I decided that I wanted to change my focus from just running businesses for profit – in the best case I could only be the richest guy in the graveyard – and instead use all my energy, time and money to do good for needy people in Africa.
However, in my view, the only way poverty can ever be eradicated is to teach the people how they can be self-sustainable. We had to look for something that would help approximately 70% of the people living in Africa, mainly small farmers, make more money. We also wanted the farmers to start thinking in ‘long-term work investments’ and plan for sustainability, instead of just living season by season.
So we decided to start a tree planting programme. We settled on a type of tree – quality mahogany ones we felt would be the best, if we could find one that majored within 20 years. We, therefore, spent two years finding the right tree, which could be part of that plan and could help them also make money long term.
In 2006, after two years of research, we found the right tree. It was called ‘Mukau.’ So then we started the process of poverty eradication through what we have called ‘Social Entrepreneurship: The Better Globe Way,’ and I wrote a book about it.
Why was planting trees – and in particular, the Mukau – part of the solution to poverty in Africa?
Because tropical mahogany trees are the profit side or ‘engine’ in the whole business and there is a huge demand for high-quality tropical timber. Money is created for everybody – from the poor farmers and our operation to the ones who finance the trees in the first place.
This is also where sustainability comes in. Too many farmers in Africa are selling the same product with huge competition. They have not understood that any market is driven by supply and demand, so they sometimes keep planting the same product they have farmed for generations, even though there is a limited market for it.
We make the farmers our ‘partners’ with a fifteen-year contract. This partnership gives them access to microfinance and money every five years. In the fifteenth year, we have a buyback agreement with them – we buy them at 10% above the market price at any given time. We can do this because our goal is to eradicate poverty, not to maximise our profit.
Better Globe Forestry also publishes a quarterly tree magazine called ‘Miti’ (trees in Swahili) to educate the people about tree planting.
You have said your second strategy to eradicate poverty is microfinance. Can you explain what this involves and why it matters?
Absolutely. One of the most critical issues with giving poor people a small loan is that they are given a trust they never had before – this helps them keep their dignity and build self-respect.
The practical side of it is that they can get money to help themselves as well as start saving for the future.
In our microfinance system, people who have a savings account also get shares in the bank and become owners of it. This means that if the microfinance bank has a profit, they are the ones who get it.
You’ve recently launched Trees4RealEstate.com, Trees4Cars.com and Trees4Shopping.com. How do these schemes work, and how do they relate to your three objectives for reducing poverty in Africa?
Better Globe Forestry’s Vision is to eradicate poverty and corruption in Africa.
Our Mission is, by social entrepreneurship, plant as many trees as there are people on this planet and thereby finance a sustainable implementation of the vision.
After our fourteen-year pilot project in Better Globe Forestry, where we have planted two million trees, we were able to deliver three new business concepts which will change the way many people buy houses, cars and the way they do their shopping.
The main reason for starting these three new companies was to find a way to finance the planting of approximately nine billion trees.
Let’s look at two of these schemes. Anyone worldwide who buys a house (Trees4RealEstate.com) or a car (Trees4Cars.com), regardless of whom they buy it from, can join our system and save 20% of the price. It is absolutely free.
The only thing the buyer must do is to persuade the seller to invest 4% of the selling price to buy mahogany trees from our Norwegian companies Trees4RealEstate (or Trees4Cars) in the name of the seller and the buyer. Both the buyer and the seller can then log in to our websites and see how many trees they own and when they get paid for them.
In the fifteenth year, when the trees are fully grown, Better Globe Forestry repurchases them at 40% of the price of the house or car, with 20% going to the seller and 20% to the buyer. Everyone wins.
What’s your vision of the future in Africa – and the role you will play in it? Anyone can tell that Africa is going to be the next booming continent. Six of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in 2018 are in Africa. That means there are many opportunities there for people who want to invest their money in the coming years.
There is a massive need for process industries in Africa, and that is where Better Globe Forestry will be. We will put up factories for mahogany furniture and floor tiles so we can utilise our timber fully, as well as create work for the people there.
Better Globe Forestry is in the lead to eradicate poverty and corruption in Africa, and we believe we have found the key to do this, as well as the tools to make it happen.
Through giving away my book ‘Put Integrity First,’ publishing a children’s magazine called ‘Bingwa’ (Champion in Swahili), which is distributed FREE to schools to fight corruption, and producing our own Bingwa TV program, we intend to play a significant role in transforming this great continent into the next Asia of development. We’ll be eradicating poverty one family at the time and to eliminate corruption one child at the time.
Time will tell how much success we will have.