Swedish Slum Dog
One step out of Scandinavia creates several giant leaps for underprivileged communities in Nepal.
Björn Söderberg does not believe in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). “We don’t invest any of our yearly profit in CSR,” he says. “Because the whole idea of social responsibility is not that you take a part of your yearly profits and make it into something good, that’s very nice, but it’s charity. What we are trying to do is change the way we do business, we want to make the company in such a way that everything we do contributes to making things better.”
With 50 employees, three companies and an office that occupies half the third floor of a major building in Nepal, you wouldn’t have guessed that Söderberg found his beginnings in the slums along the riverbank of Kathmandu’s Bagmati River.
Söderberg can’t remember how he ended up sharing a shack with ten orphans in one of the world’s filthiest slums, all he recalls is that he “wanted to get out of Sweden” and do something different.
But Söderberg didn’t just want to do something different; he wanted to make a difference. Living alongside the Bagmati River, life seems startlingly devoid of any hope, yet Söderberg saw an opportunity and conceived an enterprise before he even became aware of it.
Together with his gang of orphans, Söderberg set out mine the haphazard mountains of garbage that get deposited along the banks of the Bagmati River. The crew was looking for anything that could be recycled, not that they had any clue what they were going to recycle the garbage into, but “it was November and close to Christmas so I decided we’d make Christmas cards,” Söderberg relates pragmatically.
With the help of how-to videos on YouTube, Söderberg, who spent a week in collage before dropping out of it because he realised it wasn’t his cup of tea, taught not only the orphans but also women in the settlement how to manufacture quality paper stationary by hand and with limited tools, for sale in Sweden. The orders were overwhelming, and with that, Söderberg acquired his first band of employees. “They all assumed I was the leader since it was my idea to make the cards and I understood that, but since I was now going to employ them I wanted to get contracts down so we would all be clear about the relationship.”
“When I prepared the contracts in Nepali and asked everyone to read and put their thumbprint down, I realised that none of them knew how to read.” That’s when literacy classes got thrown into the mix. “For 30 Euros, we paid for reading and writing classes for 15 staff. Once they learned to read and write, we realised that a lot of conflicts were resolved because procedures could be standardized.” Söderberg adds that productivity was also improved, which goes to show that “if you work with social responsibility, the company becomes both profitable and efficient.”
Despite the progress, Söderberg soon reconciled that his informal co-op wasn’t recycling a critical mass that was enough to make a difference to the polluted river system. He says, “We needed something bigger.” That’s when the paper recycling company evolved into an IT company called Websearch.
“At Websearch, we make web and iPhone applications. The biggest problem with any IT company in Nepal, India or China, is finding the right people, and keeping them.” He explains that “many people in Nepal, once they get a university degree, think of going abroad and never coming back. So what we do is look for people who cannot afford to go to university, and hence, can’t afford to go abroad. We pay for them to go to the best universities in the country, and in return, they have to work for us for four years.”
Recipients of the bursary get as good a salary as everyone else in the market, as long as they agree to stay for four years. “The great thing is within their first year, we have already gained return from our investment.” This, Söderberg feels, is the great thing about not just investing in CSR but in being a socially responsible corporation, “it benefits the people, the environment, and the company.”
Efforts to be socially responsible does not end at Websearch’s hiring policy, but transcends into the clients the company chooses to work with; “in the IT company, we make applications for public service, for education, and for promoting green technology.” This practice has also enabled employees of Websearch to see the value in the work that they do.
Never easily satisfied, Söderberg also established a fuel briquetting company that aims to replace firewood. The briquettes comprise densely compacted sawdust from timber mills. “The more briquettes we make the less trees people have to cut down,” explains Söderberg, who runs the three companies alongside his wife Bina Shrestha.
Söderberg encourages corporations; “instead of taking a part of your profit and trying to do something good with it, change the way you do the business. Think about where you buy your products and services from, who you partner with, what demands your company puts on the countries and communities you make your purchases from, and how these products and services are produced.”
Söderberg attests that “what happens when you take care of these demands, is that you not only develop products that are more sustainable, you also get a partner you can work with and trust, so your business becomes more sustainable.”