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Unlocking Remote Australia

10 December 2018 at 9:07 am
Maggie Coggan
John Burn is head of Many Rivers, a not for profit which works with small business owners in some of the most remote parts of Australia, helping them overcome barriers and showing the rest of Australia what they have to offer. He is this week’s Changemaker.  

Maggie Coggan | 10 December 2018 at 9:07 am


Unlocking Remote Australia
10 December 2018 at 9:07 am

John Burn is head of Many Rivers, a not for profit which works with small business owners in some of the most remote parts of Australia, helping them overcome barriers and showing the rest of Australia what they have to offer. He is this week’s Changemaker.  

It was when sitting in a luxurious Mercedes on a business trip to Jakarta that John Burn realised his life was about to change forever. As he looked through the window, he finally understood that beyond the glass, a completely different world existed. And while he could just look away and keep on going with his life, he didn’t want to do that.  

He knew that through his career, he’d been presented opportunities, and learnt things that could be of use to others, which is why he turned to Many Rivers.

Many Rivers aren’t out to tell small business owners what to do, or how to run their business. Burn says an attitude like that is simply arrogant.  

What they are out to do however, is put the power back into people’s hands, helping people in remote areas overcome economic and social barriers, benefiting not only themselves and their communities but the rest of Australia.

In this week’s Changemaker, Burn talks about what there is to gain from sitting back and listening, the benefit of corporate partners, and connecting the rest of the world to the unique business perspectives coming out of remote Australia.

You spent a lot of time in the corporate sector, was there a specific event that turned you to Many Rivers?

I was doing some work over in Jakarta, Indonesia. As a bank executive, driving along in your black Mercedes, with your tinted windows and doing 20 kilometres an hour, you see a completely different world on the other side of the glass and metal. I thought to myself, I can either stop looking out the window and just keep going with my life, or look outside the window and engage. And I consciously sat there and engaged in that for a two hour drive.

Within six months, I’d left my corporate career and started at Many Rivers.

John Burn

It’s quite easy to block out that side of the world when you’re in a good position, why didn’t you?

When I was younger, my family and I travelled a lot around Australia, and got to understand that not everyone has had the same opportunities that I’ve had. I also realised that opportunities I’ve had through my career might be valuable and useful to other people. I wanted to invest in the development sector, but when you do that in the Australian context, a lot of that ends up being fundraising to send money overseas. But with Many Rivers, the idea was to try and speak to individuals’ structural disadvantage, and that really resonated with me.

So I don’t think it’s that I wasn’t able to switch off, it was because I actually wanted to engage.

The idea of being invited in by the communities and individuals you work with is a big focus for you, why is that?

We don’t presuppose that we have the right answer, it’s quite an arrogant position to run from. When Many Rivers engages in a community or with an individual it’s actually about an invitation. There’s a sense of what are you trying to do and what are the barriers that you’re experiencing? And, does Many Rivers bring something to you as an individual or as a community that might be helpful for you to achieve what you’re trying to achieve?

So the invitation process is absolutely critical because there’s not an assumption that we’ve got it right and you’ve got it wrong, you just need to do what we do. That’s actually a complete fallacy. A lot of that communities we work with particularly in Indigenous communities have these wonderful assets, and a sense of relationship that doesn’t exist in a lot of other parts of Australia.  

Does it frustrate you that this is an aspect people don’t often hear about with remote communities?

It does frustrate me, but it also disappoints me. There are obviously lots of challenges. You go back to the factors of production around land, labour, capital, language and law, that’s generally how the economic fabric of that country works. Just think about what our Indigenous brothers and sisters have experienced their land taken away and the impact of generational welfare dependency on labour. If you don’t have access to land you don’t have access to a job, then you can’t acquire capital and you can’t go to a bank. English is also the economic language of Australia, and that’s not the language that’s being spoken out in most remote communities. If you look at the two hundred years of colonisation of Australia it’s not surprising that Indigenous people in communities are struggling, because it completely turned the economic and social fabric upside down. So when I’m thinking about Many Rivers, and our work, that for me is the lens that I’m operating through which is to say how do we re-align across those five factors and actually address them?

How do you ensure that you are helping people create a sustainable business model?

Supporting people experiencing individual structural disadvantage essentially requires enterprise and economic participation. Our view is that unless you can actually participate in the real economy in a real way, then it’s very hard to move outside of that context. There’s a whole sense that it’s not just economic but social value that is created through self wealth and self esteem, by being able to be in a position where they are able to look after themselves and their family and the community. So we don’t get out of bed everyday and say, “yay, let’s start businesses”. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about supporting people to move out in a sustainable way out of a context that they want to move out of. When we started we were pretty much focused on this idea of micro-enterprise development, so that’s essentially working with individual business owners and supporting them on a multiyear basis and providing access to the products necessary to sustain a business.

Are there any businesses that Many Rivers has been involved with that have really made you proud?

That’s a hard question because there’s just so many. There’s almost a thousand operating businesses that Many Rivers has financed through micro loans, and more than a third of those are run by Indigenous people. And I say every one of those stories is amazing. The survival rates of those businesses is just as good as the Australian average. We had research done by Deloitte, which showed out of the 18 top successful businesses Many Rivers has helped, by employment, 13 of them were Indigenous-run, and most of those businesses were run out of remote communities. If you think about the context of our client group, often facing multiple forms of disadvantage, for them to be able to achieve that is remarkable.

A couple of years ago, I was sitting down with this guy from Elcho Island with one of our micro-enterprise managers, working with a Yolngu elder who was looking to establish a simple fishing business to be able to put fresh fish into Elcho. It was a long process because all the white fella economic concepts had to be translated into Yolngu Matha concepts and then back again.

That’s a big hurdle, but the passion of the desire to be able to provide that for his family and be an example to his community overcame that.  

Do you think people know about the economic opportunities coming out of remote Australia?

This country is literally dripping with economic opportunity from remote communities.  

If you go down to the Yirrakala art centre, it’s a really amazing art centre, It’s really really high quality, but there’s another centre which is about six hours drive further into the bush, at Gapuwiayak, and they are doing fantastic stuff out there. Here in Sydney, there’s a whole lot of people going to be really interested in Indigenous art and artefacts but they have no visibility at Gapuwiayak.

So I think one of the things I’ve realised in Many Rivers, is the important role that we play about bringing those two environments or economies together. We have visibility into Sydney and Melbourne and Darwin as well as into Gapuwiayak, and lots of other communities around the country as well.

How are you going about doing that?

We’re actually developing this idea of marketplace, where we actually start to connect remote communities with mainstream economies around specific opportunities. To create sustainable economies in remote Australia, you have to essentially work on three things the economy coming in, the economy going out, and the economy going around. At the moment most of the economy in remote communities is economy going round, with money coming in often through welfare, recycling through the community. So what we’re trying to do is asking how they can bring the money in, looking at how we could leverage things like the government’s Indigenous procurement policy to redirect economic opportunities into communities and the economy. How do we connect that with the Gupuwiak art centre, and maybe we should run an art hire business in Sydney and Melbourne where people can hire art from different Aboriginal art centres around the country on a higher rotational basis and actually facilitate a marketplace that way.

We also have corporate partners in the mainstream economies and they’ve got connections to the communities, and actually that’s a way of bridging those needs and around products and services that others probably naturally have access to.

How important are corporate partners like Westpac for you guys?

The concept of microfinance in developing countries is essentially like a mini bank, going out and making loans to businesses that can’t get access to capital and enabling them to get started. The idea is to tap into desperation versus desire, because there’s no capital and microfinance companies try and provide access to capital. Now the interest income on those loans is what funds those organisations operate. In remote Australia, that doesn’t work.

There isn’t the population density, there’s not a big natural economy and it’s incredibly expensive to operate in those areas, so you can’t actually run it like a bank and use the interest income on the loan to cover your operating cost. There’s also the issue of intergenerational dependence on welfare, so that impacts people’s desire to participate.

Engaging with corporates was part of our resourcing strategy. So how do we bring in people who have a need and interest to be involved in our client group, on a sustainable basis and who make a contribution. That’s the funding rationale, but the client rationale is that if you’re going to become financially included you need to actually build a track record with a bank, and you can’t do that on your own. In fact we’ve demonstrated it takes about four years for somebody to become financially included. The bank will say that it takes two years proven financials, and a track record to demonstrate, but the first two years of his business can be quite informal as a business owner starts to try and get themselves organised and so often it takes four years before somebody is bankable in that regard. The reason for partnering with Westpac in that example is to provide access to finance to a group of clients that could never afford to do it on their own.

Are you positive about the future of Indigenous-led business?

Definitely. It’s at what I’d call it a tipping point, where afterwards the whole system will change. I can even see in the last nine years since I’ve been working for Many Rivers, I realise how much extra interest and appetite there is growing daily. I think eventually we’ll realise that one of our greatest strategic assets is the country’s Indigenous heritage and history. The economic value of that on its own, let alone the social value of that is enormous. It’s a wonderful opportunity for this country and we haven’t fully grasped or understood that yet.

What has this experience taught you, and have you learnt anything new?  

I’ve learned people are people first and culture is second. A person has individual desires, needs and wants. And then there’s a cultural context that sits around that. I think I’ve also learned about increasing the strength… I’ve always believed this, but seeing the strength of the diversity of culture is a wonderful opportunity. I’ve learned the importance of relationship and journey, and not to be transactional in the sense that actually people being people together is actually really important. And economic growth is actually not the end point, the endless pursuit of GDP for GDP growth purposes is not actually a complete answer. I think we’re starting to understand that more in the context of social enterprise and in the context of what is the purpose of a society.

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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