A Transplanted Life - For Good
23 October 2014 at 8:47 am
An Australian couple who left their comfortable lifestyle behind to work in the developing world are now devoting their lives to tackling smoky stoves in India's slums, writes Nadia Boyce in this week’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
In 2010, Steve and Jane Wilson left their engineering and nursing careers in Australia and relocated their family to Kolkata, India, with the hope of making a difference in poverty-stricken communities.
The multi-faceted enterprise that resulted, Ashadesh, combines the social and the environmental and drives change in both the first world and the third world.
Australians looking to counter their carbon footprint can buy certified carbon offsets – in the process funding programs to replace the coal or wood-fired stoves used by India’s poor – and the source of one of the worlds largest public health problems.
Four years on, Ashadesh is on the brink of expansion and the goal of making a difference to some of the world’s poorest is within its grasp.
Pro Bono Australia News spoke to Steve Wilson, connected via Skype from the slums of Kolkata, where he told of his motivations, his future plans and the challenges of implementing change concurrently in societies that are literally and figuratively worlds apart.
A Leap of Faith
The WIlsons’ move to the Indian city of Kolkata was a gamble that paid off off for the family – driven in part by faith, disillusionment with the daily grind in Australia and a desire to help those in need.
”Previously I’d been spending time amongst more marginalised people in Brisbane,” Steve WIlson says. “I was feeling a sense of vocation towards wanting to do something that would be empowering to people who are vulnerable and marginalised. Over a period of time, feeling a sense of discontent in my career as it was – I was doing things on the side that were a lot more fulfilling.
“We read some books and the idea that westerners could go and live in the slums of Asia, we got in contact with some people who’d done it, and we thought we’d give it a go.”
Wilson says his presence on the ground in Kolkata has proven essential in developing Ashadesh, dismissing the possibility of running it remotely.
“As far as the project goes, it’s been vital [to live here]. To even just try and conceive of how the project would work, to consult with local community and do surveys of what will and won't work, there’s no way that I could have made this project happen if I’d kept living in Australia.
“Even developing the local implementation, we’re working with a local NGO and they’re very excited about the project, but it’s really needed someone here to drive it, and that person has been me.
“For a lot of good ideas, for it to happen, it’s not just about getting a general buy-in from an organisation, you really need someone on the ground here with the passion and energy to move it forward.”
Smokefree Solutions for a Third World Problem
India’s problems with smoky stoves were apparent to Wilson from day one. It was only their reluctance to rush into any project, he says, that stopped them launching a program upon arrival.
“On the first morning [in India], we woke up, and smoke started wafting in the window. It was our next door neighbour starting her coal-burning stove, which she has done every morning, for decades,” he says.
“Over and over we saw this was a very significant thing facing these families and the community. Diseases from smoky stoves are one of the largest public health issues in the world. 3.5 million people die each year from it.”
The program aims to replace traditional ‘smoky’ stoves with LPG gas systems- previously too expensive for the poor. Subsidies and assistance with paperwork and accounts support families in entering the LPG market.
“LPG gas here is the cooking fuel of the middle class – the Government has a very good subsidy scheme once you get over the hurdle of actually getting into the system.
“We found that everybody wanted to get into the gas system. It’s by far the most convenient option. It is actually cheaper than buying coal or charcoal or wood, but because of the Indian Government’s subsidy, it is actually the cheapest fuel around. It is that burden of getting into it.
“Once you help get families into it…it’s around about 6.500 rupees per year in savings, which is about a month’s wages. An ongoing reduction in cooking expenses makes a really big difference to families. They can use that to take the next step out of poverty.”
India’s bureaucracy and problems with corruption have proven a hurdle to overcome in running the program smoothly.
“It’s a challenge trying to get people into a system where the bureaucracy is trying to take whatever money they can,” Wilson says.
“The bureaucracy in India has been rated as one of the the worst in Asia. Dealing with bureaucracy here at any level is very challenging. Dealing with corruption – we’ve come up against these issues and have sought to navigate them in the best way we can.
“Also dealing with that culture – it runs throughout. Dealing with the people we work with to instill a culture of integrity and honesty and instilling a system of checks and balances and accountability. I’m quite pleased with the way we’ve been able to do that, but it’s been a challenge.”
Carbon Offsetting as a First World Luxury
Underpinning Ashadesh’s stove replacement program are funds acquired through the sale of certified carbon credits in Australia’s growing but niche voluntary carbon offset market.
”It’s predominantly at this point in time individuals who feel a responsibility for their carbon footprint and see this as a great way to reduce their carbon footprint while doing some social good as well,” Wilson says.
Despite the fact his target customer base in Australia is far removed from the realities of the issue at hand, he says he has had success in communicating the value of Ashadesh’s work.
“As I unpack the benefits, people have been able to understand the project more fully, and there’s been a great appreciation for it,” he says.
But leveraging environmental consciousness within Australia to tackle a health problem in the developing world is not without its challenges.
“It’s certainly a challenging environment in Australia, to be talking about carbon offsetting,” Wilson says. “Very separate to the voluntary carbon offset market is the whole debate around the carbon tax – and for a lot of people, some of these concepts are a little confusing, the idea of a voluntary carbon offset market compared with the carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.
“We’re basically appealing to people’s good conscience. They’re not getting anything in return for it, they want to do good things for the world, they’re serious thinking about climate change and their carbon footprint. It is a challenge, and it’s only a very small minority of people interested in offsetting their carbon footprint – that’s the reality of it.”
Wilson has big plans in the pipeline for his social enterprise.
Ashadesh is set to be extended in the near future, with the finalisation of a partnership with a local NGO expected shortly. The local implementation of the stove replacement project will fall under a social business formed through the partnership, forming a new organisation that will extend the social impact of the original program by incorporating a vocational training and employment centre.
Ashadeash, meanwhile, will work to expand its Australian customer base, Wilson says.
“We haven’t had the problem of running out of funds thus far but if we’re able to expand our customer base we’ll be able to extend our work into more communities,” he adds.
“I think particularly trying to get into the business market is one of the directions we’re looking to focus on. The idea of a carbon neutral business – there are many companies that have gone down that track. They can account for their carbon footprint and also have the chance to brand themselves as more environmentally-conscious as well.
“It’s coming more into the stream of business consciousness but still it’s a minority of companies. We can give them the chance to advertise and say they are a certified carbon neutral company.”
The model he has developed has potential to be taken even further, he says.
“There are many developing countries where this is a big issue. About half of the world still cooks with a coal or biogas stove. There are many projects trying to improve stoves, but not many doing it with carbon offsetting.
“I feel there is definite potential for this model to go elsewhere. The advantage of doing it with carbon offsetting is that you’re able to help families get into technology that would be unaffordable to them otherwise.
“[This journey] has obviously been challenging, but it’s certainly been rewarding.”