The landscape of climate change and sustainability mirrors that of the capital-laden Silicon Valley. Billions of dollars are invested in sustainability startups and green technologies, with investors chasing narratives of exponential growth and market dominance. The goal is often to find the next “unicorn” – a company that could bring about significant changes in reducing carbon emissions or in other areas of sustainability, making a huge payoff for their portfolio.
However, just like the rest of the world companies in the software industry, many climate change and sustainability initiatives are launched in environments that offer limited access to capital. Few local investors are willing to fund ideas that may not turn profitable for years, and bank loans for such initiatives, which often lack tangible assets to guarantee the debt, are scarce. This can lead to additional financial hurdles for the founders of these initiatives.
Consequently, many founders must rely on self-raising funds, whether from their savings or from friends and family. They may initiate services to earn cash, which then can be used to support their sustainability project development. This makes it tougher for these initiatives to take risks, whether it’s investing in new ideas or expanding their operations. Scaling takes longer under these circumstances.
Those who prevail in this capital scarce environment evolve into practical, resourceful, and capital efficient entities. They may not be growing at a breakneck pace, but their ability to stay afloat helps them survive situations that a venture-backed company couldn’t without more external funding. These entities don’t have a well-trodden path to follow. They rely more on their abilities, rather than a network of investors flush with cash and expertise.
However, with the right support, the best ideas win, not the entity that is based in the most developed market. It’s not about which organization has the biggest headquarters or the splashiest narrative. It’s about the potential to make a real impact on climate change and sustainability.
When investing in sustainability initiatives, it’s about finding those that have thrived despite these challenges. Companies or initiatives that have managed to self-fund their projects and find the right fit for their sustainability efforts are valuable. These initiatives can grow without the need for excessive capital or flashy narratives, indicating the enormous potential in providing them with more resources and experience.
The world has shifted in favor of initiatives based outside of the West, a trend that was only accelerated by the ongoing climate crisis. The best ideas can now find support and thrive, not just the ones from the most developed markets. Traditional VCs are still hunting for unicorns, but in the world of climate change and sustainability, the perfectly packaged unicorn will rarely exist. Instead, investors must realize that there are plenty of “unicorns” hidden in plain sight, ready to make a significant impact on the climate and sustainability if given the right support and resources.
Let’s further illustrate this comparison using real-world examples from the field of climate change and sustainability initiatives.
This Bangladeshi organization is a perfect example of a “rest of the world” company in the field of sustainability. It has been deploying small-scale renewable energy solutions, particularly solar home systems, in rural Bangladesh for more than two decades. Despite the challenges of limited access to capital, the organization has installed over 1.5 million solar home systems, empowering communities and catalyzing social and economic change.
Ecotact – Ikotoilet project:
A Kenyan company, Ecotact, has been addressing sanitation issues in urban and semi-urban areas in Kenya. With little initial capital, they built pay-per-use toilet and shower facilities that have served over 30,000 people daily. Their innovation and frugality have demonstrated that sustainability initiatives can indeed thrive even in capital scarce environments.
AUARA is a Spanish social enterprise that sells bottled water, using 100% of its dividends to develop water projects in underprivileged areas of developing countries. With a strong focus on sustainability, all AUARA’s bottles are made from recycled plastic. This company started with limited resources and has built a successful sustainable business while making a significant impact on the water crisis in developing countries.
Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat:
Both these American companies have shown how innovative sustainable ideas can compete with established markets. They have produced plant-based meat alternatives that have gained traction even amongst non-vegetarians, marking a significant step towards more sustainable food systems. Both companies were once viewed as risky investments, but they persevered, balancing growth, product development, and market outreach.
One more remarkable example of such an initiative is Earth5R.
The citizen volunteers driving this movement are committed to driving sustainable change at the grassroots level. Earth5R’s resilience in the face of limited resources showcases how a company can work towards the betterment of the planet without massive capital investments. With decentralized action programs, citizen leaders have engaged communities around the world in circular economy based projects, focusing on waste management, upcycling, and citizen training.
Earth5R has not only survived but thrived, developing a network of dedicated volunteers in over 65 countries. The team has developed several sustainable models for waste management and community development, positively impacting local ecosystems and livelihoods.
This movement has proven that the key to success is not always found in a plush office in a developed market but in the passionate pursuit of impactful solutions, making it a hidden “unicorn” in the world of climate change and sustainability. Initiatives like Earth5R underline the immense potential lying untapped in the global fight against climate change.
These examples illustrate the fact that there is immense potential in climate change and sustainability initiatives outside of well-funded spheres. With the right support, these ‘hidden unicorns’ can become key players in mitigating climate change and promoting sustainability. The importance lies not just in finding these promising initiatives, but also in providing them with the resources and recognition they need to grow and make a greater impact. Therefore, taking action on climate change is not just about investing in the most prominent or well-established initiatives, but also about fostering and nurturing those that have the potential to bring about real, substantial change.
– Written by Saurabh Gupta. Saurabh Gupta is an eminent environmentalist and the founder of Earth5R