Bybi’s model for urban social enterprise – how bees can get the city buzzing

Oliver1 Good change starts with what you do. Bybi is just a little project in a big city, but hopefully a step in the right direction.

By Oliver Maxwell, Founder and Director of Bybi

Oliver Maxwell is attending DANSIC13 to give his thoughts on how to finance social innovation.

Bybi, started out with a fascination in the idea of prosperity without growth. How would ordinary organisations behave in a socially and environmentally sustainable economy? And more importantly, how do we get there from here?

Urban beekeeping and honey production provided an answer. The story is simple: The city need bees for pollination but bees no longer live without beekeepers to look after them. The project means that the bees get the beekeepers, the flowers get the bees, the city gets the fruits and seeds that result from the pollination – not to mention that there is no one in the world who isn’t fascinated by bees or loves honey. We make sure that the beekeepers and honey producers come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Plus, the bee-flower-honey relationship is about the best metaphor for sustainable growth there is.

For me the important – and fun – part is bringing together different social layers of the city. When a formerly homeless person stands on the roof of Bella Center with a smoker and veil, teaches kids about pollination or sells honey to biochemists in Lundbeck’s canteen he feels in his own words ”a part of society”. Businessmen and women, homeless and children meet on a level plane.

Our mission in Bybi is to create a sustainable urban honey industry that provides new opportunities for people on the edge of the work market and brings city people in near contact with urban nature. We are a social enterprise, but we are first and foremost a business. We are business that is run according to strong social principles and a commitment to a prosperous society for all.

Partnerships across sectors are vital both to our way of working, and as a step towards the social prosperity we want to see more of. Before the organisation was even legally constituted, more than 30 companies and individuals had contributed in-kind support. This included free graphic design, communications, legal advice and the opportunity to borrow rooms for meetings.

In our first year, five businesses contributed space for beehives, cash support, and agreed to buy the honey back at a good price. Copenhagen municipality offered us free production facilities, a van and social workers to help with recruiting and supporting our first assistants. We also got funding from small, local funds that bought our equipment and paid for a few small pilot projects.

These kinds of relationships have continued, meaning that we now have an excellent network and an opportunity to convert one-off sponsorships into longer term commercial partnerships. We broke even in our first year and made a profit in our second. In 2012 we doubled our production and our turnover, without public sector financing.

We are often accused of being a more environmental project than a social project. I don’t think that this is a fair criticism. It is true that we don’t have 20 ex-homeless people standing daily in our factory, but this is not what we want, or what our vision for a prosperous economy looks like. There is something rather illogical about gathering society’s most ’unproductive’ workers in one place and trying to make a sustainable business. It is very hard to pull off, and I don’t know of any business that does this without taking a lot of public money ’training’ and ’activation’ of their workers.

Bybi takes a different approach. We may apply for money to compensate for the extra costs of our workers who are disabled or incapacitated or to train people up, or for specific projects but not as a core revenue stream. Nor do we want to train people for jobs that don’t exist. We try to spread our social benefit wide and thin – so the costs and benefits are shared.

For example, we get our beehives and frames made by a local employment project, for which we pay market price. This year we will also be drawing in our sales and distribution, by training a team of “honeypushers” who will sell products back to the businesses and on the street, earning 25% on whatever they sell.

We use a small number of ex-homeless assistants in our factory (this year between 3 and 5) who help with processing and packaging the honey and the simpler beekeeping tasks.

We work with other social projects to train new beekeepers. In 2012 it was refugees from the Red Cross and residents from a deprived housing estate, around 40 people in total.

The key element is building up personal relationships across the network, and creating opportunities to move between roles as honey producer, factory worker, volunteer or seller. Some roles are paid, some unpaid. The idea is to give the people in our network real perspective in a growing industry, and at the same time, to prize open a space between being on benefits and being in work.

I’m often asked what can be done to encourage more social enterprises. Money is increasingly available from both municipalities and funds. The problem is, that a social enterprise business model can’t be supported with cash – that would be anti-competitive – and loans need to be paid back. I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that it is harder for social enterprises to loan money than any other business. Rather that too few social business models are strong enough to justify a loan. What we see is that earmarked money goes to consultants and support organisations where there are few incentives to draw a line under unsustainable business concepts and the effect of support is hard to measure.

There is a cheaper way. For example giving start-up entrepreneurs cheap or free access to unused municipal space as offices or production rooms. This is how Bybi got off the ground, in an arrangement that also covered our social profile, by committing us to take on three formerly homeless assistants from Activity Center Sundholm. Two years ago, the rooms were in a rough state. Now they are not only functional, but we are ready to invest in developing them into a full-scale honey factory. Total additional cost to the public sector? 0 kr.

I don’t have any illusions about Bybi being a radical new kind of business or the solution to our society’s social and environmental problems. We are just a little project in a big city. But we are all in some way active in the economy as employees or work-givers, welfare recipients and consumers. There is no really good excuse for wringing our hands and continuing the way things are. Good change starts with what you do. It is easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting, and I hope that Bybi is a small step in the right direction.

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Oliver Maxwell is founder and director of Bybi. Bybi is a social enterprise, which seeks to establish a honey industry on the roofs of Copenhagen by hiring people, who don’t fit into the traditional labour market. Oliver holds a MA in Anthropology of Development from University of Sussex and is certified adviser for social enterprises from Institute of Leadership and Marketing. He has worked as a consultant for the World Bank in Vietnam and from 2008 to 2010 in Center for Socialøkonomi, where he took part in the development of the Danish infrastructure for support to social enterprises.

Read more about bybi at www.bybi.dk. Businesses can get involved by adopting beehives or sponsoring the training of a honeypusher. Contact admin@bybi.dk to hear more.

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