"We should make companies participate in changing the world." There is a whole lot of talk, but much fewer actions. This is what Teija Lehtonen, head of Aalto University's Global Impact unit, Director Jusa Susia at Finpro and Tiina Saukko, CEO of World Vision Finland, concluded three years ago in spring 2012.
The three of them joined forces and proposed a new kind of project, named Weconomy Start to Tekes. It was a programme aimed at Finnish companies, with the purpose of generating innovations that produce business activities for companies and eliminating problems faced by people in developing countries. World Vision, an organisation known for child sponsorship in developing countries, was selected to coordinate the project.
"Corresponding projects, with an organisation in charge, are not found elsewhere in the world," says Maija Seppälä, Weconomy Start Project Manager at World Vision Finland.
New solutions are needed, as funding is increasingly shifting from traditional development cooperation to helping crisis areas and vulnerable countries. This means that over the long term countries like India, for example, may be excluded from development cooperation.
"Nevertheless, there is a great deal of inequality and millions of starving children in these countries. These areas need partnership, and business activities enable us to grow local businesses and industries as well as to improve children's wellbeing," Maija Seppälä says.
Suitable for companies of all sizes
For a participation fee, companies involved in Weconomy Start get expert help in sparring in order to understand the circumstances in developing countries. These experts come from World Vision and separately agreed partners, such as Finpro and Aalto University.
During a term of one year, the programme organisation assesses whether a company involved is suitable for the target market, what kind of partners are available for it, and whether there is demand for its product or service. The programme also includes two field trips to the target country. On the first two rounds, these countries were India and Sri Lanka.
"We have had a variety of companies participating in the programme: everything from Fortum to a one-woman start-up company. The model is best-suited for small and mid-sized companies lacking resources to hire their own staff in the target country, but also for large corporations seeking to get involved in dynamic grassroots cooperation," Maija Seppälä says.
When planning the programme, its core business areas were envisaged to be sectors where Finland has competence and developing countries have a need. Such sectors include cleantech, energy, ICT, education and water and waste management. The reality turned out more diverse, however. One of the projects in the second round of the programme was aimed at developing tourism benefitting local communities.
Examples of other Weconomy projects include the development of composting solutions for hotels as well as cheap housing solutions for people with little income. Start-up entrepreneur Susanna Palmroth started a company that imports local women's handicrafts from India as business presents. The company employs 50 women in India.
Concept supported by Tekes
World Vision developed the Weconomy Start concept with Tekes funding. Maija Seppälä thinks the cooperation with Tekes contact persons was very flexible. Tekes provided assistance and sparring already before submitting the funding application, as the World Vision staff were examining how a development cooperation organisation could apply for Tekes support. It had to be clearly indicated in the application what benefit the project brings to Finnish companies.
"Team Finland's new Business With Impact programme (BEAM) is a welcome addition to funding. It allows organisations and companies to step out of their separate silos and apply for funding within a common programme."
The Tekes project included the development of a service model with premade, easily scalable processes. The service was elaborated during the first corporate round in 2013. The experience gained was utilised in the second round last year.
"All of the companies involved discovered that they benefitted from the programme, even if they discontinued the project after a year. Companies have found relevant partners and cooperation in the target country through us. It would have been difficult to reach the grassroot level without a partner," Maija Seppälä says.
Conquering the world
Two rounds of Weconomy Start have been arranged, with a total of six companies involved. A third round is planned for autumn 2015. Then a new target country, Kenya, will be introduced. Many companies have shown interest in Africa, as a lot of potential is seen there.
"Now the development phase is over. We are looking forward to cooperating with several companies. We want to bring forth success stories that sell the service further," Maija Seppälä says.
Having gained the first experiences, World Vision Finland has proposed a corporate cooperation model to its international network of nearly a hundred countries. Many of the countries have been excited about it.
"We want to encourage companies to engage developing markets. So far, there are not many projects that would genuinely solve poverty problems and be profitable to companies. But we are working hard to make it happen. We need intermediaries who can merge development policy targets with those of corporate life. We in Weconomy feel we are exactly that."
Maija Seppälä, project manager
World Vision Finland
maija.seppala (at) worldvision.fi
Tel. +358 9 6818 3013
Text: Jarno Forssell, Pohjoisranta Burson-Marsteller