As part of our 10th Year Anniversary, our Trailblazers in Impact Interview Series celebrates some of the partners we’ve worked with over the years in creating positive social and environmental impact.
This issue of our Trailblazers in Impact Interview Series features Jane Dunlop, CEO and co-founder of farm-to-market virgin coconut oil producer Green Enterprises Indonesia (PT GEI) based in Aceh, Indonesia. Following IIX Growth Fund’s investment in PT GEI in 2018, which later brought together additional investors C4D Partners and Stichting Administratiekantoor Green Enterprise Nederland, PT GEI has continued to grow and scale its operations, improving the lives of over 4,300 smallholder farmers through increased income and improved agricultural practices. Today, they’re supplying to the global cosmetics company LUSH.
By creating a sustainable and organic value chain for coconuts, Green Enterprises Indonesia is providing sustainable livelihoods to address the on-going problem of land-conversion from increasing palm oil demand, as well as the loss of the island’s extensive biodiversity.
Green Enterprises Indonesia is a triple bottom line business model, and we are excited to continue working with them to create positive social change in the Indonesian agricultural community. Enjoy the read!
- What pain point are you addressing and how are you addressing it?
We are addressing the pain that the planet is facing—the loss of biodiversity. Biodiversity is Earth’s life support system—but it is way out of balance.
Green Enterprises) is an impact enterprise that sells organic certified, raw virgin coconut oil that is fully traceable to its source. We operate along the entire coconut value chain: our coconuts go from smallholder organic-certified farms, to our value-added processing factory in Simeulue Island in Sumatra, Indonesia, and ultimately, to the world as the highest of quality sustainable coconut products.
As a company, we’re actively committed to the conservation of wildlife and wild places. One of the major challenges and limitations of conservation and environmental work globally is that there is a lot of rhethoric and opposition to the status quo, but little action to actually get out there and build the world we want to see.
After ten years living in Indonesia, developing deep links to Sumatra, we had seen first-hand the forests and wildlife—from elephants, tigers, to orangutans—disappearing due to land conversion for palm oil, coffee, and other high-value commodities. We set out to build a business that would play a positive role in the economy and the environment, offering a new approach to business through organic coconuts as our vehicle to create real and sustained impact.
What we do is inextricably tied to conservation. We contribute towards more traditional conservation work. We partner with Aceh conservation organization Forest, Nature & Environment Aceh (HAkA) to protect island habitats and to support government ranger programs for critically endangered turtles. We are supporting work to prevent extinction of Asian Songbirds through breeding programs alongside protection of wild places so that the birds can be released into the wild once a stable population is established. We have founded the Ecosystem Impact Foundation and a sustainability program ‘Keep it Wild’ to lead on conservation and bring people together for the purposes of learning, sharing, partnership and growth.
- What is your growth strategy?
Our strategy is simply to grow! We have just today started production at our new processing facility through funding from the IIX Growth Fund and C4D Partners. It’s an exciting time. A very productive time where a lot is being planted.
We are targeting clients who are rigorous about their supply chains and wish to source the finest quality organic certified raw virgin coconut oil with positive environmental transformation at its core. At the moment we are targeting clients with a minimum order of one ton, mostly in the cosmetics industry.
Currently, we sell over five tons of coconut oil a month to global cosmetics brand Lush which mostly heads to the UK. Lush is providing us with incredible amounts of support as we look to set up more of a UK-Europe presence, as well as with our ambitious replanting program. Shortly, we will begin to produce 15 tons per month and are looking for buyers of this scale. The more we grow, the greater our potential for positive impact.
It can be challenging for us to connect with new partners as we are locally based in Simeuleu at present, going through establishing our new processing factory, getting organic certification, and all the fun that occurs with a business on an island off the coast of Sumatra. We work hard to bridge global opportunities for new sales as much as possible, but it can still be challenging. We’d always love to hear from anyone who might be interested in our products.
- What are your main challenges in growing your company?
Remoteness and capacity on Simeulue island. We operate on a remote island. Professional capacity here is pretty low. We need to get creative about attracting people to the company, and potentially need to consider expansion into the North Sumatran capital of Medan in order to attract young and educated Indonesians to the team. But it also means that we need to be creative, and to build and train people up. This makes us more of a family, and it’s pretty special. It takes time, but it’s much more rewarding.
Lack of enabling environment. Enabling conditions for us to start a coconut business in Simeulue are very weak. Starting the company took 18 months. Moving our registered office address has taken at least another 18 months. Our water connection sometimes stops because the government water agency cannot pay their electricity bills. Ordering 200L drums for our virgin coconut oil exports can take up to three months. There is no professional transportation link from the island to Medan (the capital of North Sumatra). But all of this can become our opportunity too – people realise the effort we go and value that.
Access to Funding. Indonesian palm oil companies can easily raise bank finance for expansion based on their land holdings and accepted business model. PT GEI’s business model is untested and we don’t own the land, which has limited our access to financing. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have some of our own funds and from family who have invested to get us going with initial seed funding. We closed our investment round with IIX and C4D in late December 2018, which was a massive milestone for us. For the first time, financing the enterprise wasn’t an issue.
- What was it like working with IIX?
IIX invested in PT GEI via their IIX Growth Fund in early 2018. Prior to this we worked together with IIX for around 18 months on due diligence, including several visits to Simeulue by their team. We were the first investee business via the Growth Fund. Working with IIX has been an absolute pleasure and we are very grateful to have IIX as our investment partners.
Since investing in PT GEI, IIX has helped us to crunch numbers in our financial model for days on end and have worked directly with us and our coconut farmer partners to set up a genuine impact framework. IIX has supported us to fulfill roles and administrative requirements for our Singapore company. Most importantly, for us and for the type of start-up business we are—IIX has been patient and understanding when things have happened that are out of our control. At the same time, IIX required us to improve our systems and report wherever we can. The support has always been practical understanding. IIX really cares about us as individuals and as a business, and it makes a real difference.
- Tell us about yourself, how you decided to become an entrepreneur, and how you created PT GEI
People describe me as creepy positive person. As I get older, I realize I’m very lucky to have a natural tendency towards positivity in all situations and believe that everything we encounter teaches us something and lets us grow.
My partner, Luke, and I founded PT GEI together after 10 years of being immersed in real life sustainability challenges in Indonesia. Luke had a very clear vision and isn’t afraid to take risks. I also see the future, but am more a process, systems, and people-oriented person, and (mostly) enjoy working with our team to take PT GEI from a messy start-up to a professionally run business.
My father was a big influence, always encouraging his three children to build our own businesses—such as finding a way to earn our own pocket money while growing up. I also took notice of how he always treated everyone with respect and interest, enabling him to make a deep connection with people.
We had the opportunity to work in Indonesia on tsunami reconstruction in Aceh, which catapulted us into learning about global sustainability issues. We had the unique opportunity to work alongside a brilliant green governor with a social and environmental conscience, with international investors who were buoyed by the potential of the carbon markets and with indigenous communities.
Through this work we realized that the concept of a green economy had a lot of potential, but it was being implemented in a way that didn’t take real politics into account. Projects were too big, too ambitious and not realistic, or donor financed that ended when the funding ran out.
We’ve been engaging with IIX for almost 3 years now, and received an initial investment in late 2017. It’s wonderful to have investment partners like IIX who intimately understands and empathizes with the challenges we face. This really shows in IIX’s ability to get a unique balance of hold us to account while simultaneously supporting us to grow. You need to be able to understand and empathize with the context in which we operate in order to strike this balance, and really are able to do this. We are thrilled for the partnership and see a lot of opportunity to grow together.
- What keeps you motivated and how do you avoid Founder burnout?
I think I’m always on the verge of burnout at the moment. Not going over the edge too often is the challenge!
Connecting with people – truly connecting with people – keeps me motivated. I love sitting with the women who work in the factory during lunch breaks and just chatting about our kids or what’s going on in our lives. I love spending time checking out our water supply with the land owner. And I enjoy late night meetings in hotel lobby with our tax consultants. We’re all people, and any genuine interaction is an enjoyable one for me.
To me, PT GEI will be most effective if we really connect with ourselves, others around us and with nature. By connecting with nature we can learn to respect her limits. And by connecting with people we find unity, and the differences between us dissolve. By connecting deeply into ourselves we heal ourselves. It’s all interlinked.