Conservation Enterprise Development: Choosing your Strategy

Creating a business that conserves culture or protects the environment, sells a product and generates a return isn’t easy – being tied to a particular place offers both constraints and opportunities that are quite different to classic entrepreneurship. Here’s some options for an enterprise development strategy that aims to innovate in value creation beyond the usual suspects – sustainable livelihoods/cultural tourism/REDD+ and so on. It follows on from my previous article about the benefits and types of conservation enterprise development.

Knowing your place

Choosing your strategy starts with asset mapping – understanding the unique, special or superior features of your place. Assets can be of many types; environmental, cultural, organisational, connective. They may be utilised already, or they may be something that people know about, but up till now has just been there, part of the place, waiting to be tapped into. It’s great to be as participatory as possible about this as it’s a good way of building momentum for your enterprise. Here’s a tool that can be used to make sure you aren’t missing anything out, and remember – the assets of your team also count.

Once you know the potential resources you have to draw on, don’t assume that the choice of industry or product is obvious. Innovation occurs in creating original and engaging value propositions, so don’t stop at the same old ideas. You can use the following frameworks to identify new and innovative conservation economy business ideas.

Experience Economy

The experience economy framework comes from an HBR article by Pine and Gilmore. It’s a few years old now but it remains a great framework to explore different ways an asset can be turned into a compelling experience. The four forms of experience – from education to just enjoying the view – can be used to take one asset or resource and turn it into very different value propositions for very different markets. At Larrakia Nation we didn’t make money selling art, but we discovered a whole range of markets for experiences that we successfully tapped into to generate income for our artists – from content for conferences to cultural training workshops.

Destination Management

A Destination Management Company (DMC) is a tourism business that has extensive local knowledge and business contacts to market their region to tour groups and events companies. Using this strategy, think about what assets you have that makes your place unique and compelling for visitors – and what is missing to make it a truly attractive destination. It’s a great fit with community based tourism development initiatives, but you also need to anchor the region in the international market with higher end accommodation options to generate sufficient income. An example near me is Da Bac CBT – they’re been really successful in becoming a local DMC for Intrepid Travel.

Village to Vogue

“Village to vogue” means working with local designers to modify form, function and quality of their crafts and use it to create eye-catching, on-trend homewares and fashion items both at home and internationally. Using this strategy, your team explores what a local craft could become when combined with the right design and expertise – it’s often something functionally very different. I’m impressed by the way African Trading Port sells amazing homewares, and also articulates additional value to the consumer through telling the story of the communities that benefit from making them.

Place-based branding

Place based branding is about turning your commodity product into something unique by creating a brand unique to your area, backed up by superior quality and sustainable production methods. One of the classics is this story about how Copper River fishermen in Alaska used place-based branding for their salmon. Key to this type of value proposition is being able to demonstrate that your product is actually superior in addition to the conservation outcomes – credibility is essential.

De-risking supply chains

Big companies are worried about bad headlines. It’s often hard to have a lot of information or knowledge about ultimate origin of their products – and the impacts they could unintentionally be having on the places they buy from. Giving them confidence that they’re not going to be publicly outed as indirectly employing underage workers or causing lead poisoning does matter. Use this strategy option to brainstorm the key risks from buying products like your place’s and work out how you can guarantee there are no nasty surprises – engagethechain.org has lots of ideas.

Community Buy-outs

Communities can leverage external funds from impact investors to buy out existing businesses and run them as for-purpose enterprises – even if they’re not selling the commodities the business produces for higher prices or increased volume – through tapping into the personal support of the community and accepting lower rates of financial return. Can you buy something out, make money and save the environment through engaging the community in a different way? A project I worked on that ended up with a buyout by the Nature Conservancy in partnership with the local Aboriginal community is a good example of this.

Shortlisting

Generating ideas (I like the term “ideation” as brainstorming is so ’90s) is a semi-structured process – there’s the A to B to C but within that you also have the great ideas that pop up and get everyone excited. Once you’ve taken the assets of your place, you’ve put them through the different frameworks and you’ve come up with a bunch of ideas, all potentially wildly diverse. Here’s the key criteria to assess whether you invest further in developing what emerges from your workshops:

  • Scale – no matter how small you start, is this going to stay a sideline activity or is this something that can grow and provide an income for dozens of people? This is a function of the size of the potential market, potential production volume, and the price you can get.
  • Sustainability – can you sustainably utilise (more of) this resource without depleting stocks or creating other adverse environmental impacts. If need be, rethink the product – can you create more value through using less in a more sustainable way?
  • Impact – is this business model going to directly address the threats to local culture and biodiversity? Does it change local incentives and behaviour? Will it generate the income to pay for the activities you need to restore your place? If you can’t see a way to deliver the impact your place needs, will other strategies be better?
  • Capacity – this is about you and your team. Do you have the expertise and networks required to make you idea happen? If not, can you acquire them? After all, you’re going to be more likely to be successful in an industry you are familiar with, unless you have a long time to learn through trial and error.

I’ll keep posting guidelines for each of the conservation enterprise development stages in the coming months, so keep an eye out and as always – please share with me your insights and experience.

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