In February 2013 we had the chance to spend some time with Willie Smits and the Masarang foundation in Tomohon Indonesia. In 2001 Willie Smits initiated a Indonesian foundation which he named the Masarang foundation (Yayasan Masarang) after the mountain range where the first reforestation project the foundation took on is located. The goal of the foundation is to help saving nature by empowering local people in Indonesia. They do this by providing education, stimulating and supporting local culture and facilitating sustainable alternatives for unsustainable practices that are currently contributing to the destruction of the Indonesian environment especially palm oil plantations, wildlife trade, deforestation for agricultural use, corruption, depletion of agricultural land, pollution of land, waste-dumps etc. Willie Smits vision of the world was a real inspiration to us, which we wanted to share with you. So we asked him if he agreed to an interview with us via Skype a few months after we visited him to reflect on his vision on entrepreneurship. Below you can find the worked-out interview with Willie, enriched with some movies Jeroen made during our visit to the Masarang project to clarify some of Willies answers. Enjoy!
“The Masarang foundation was not your first project and is currently also not the only project you are working on. How many projects did you initiate during your career?”
I started up and participated in about 200 various projects over the last 34 years. All focused on environmental and social issues like rescuing wildlife like orangutans or educating foresters in reforestation and farmers in organic farming.
“With so many projects initiated: do you consider yourself a sustainable entrepreneur?”
Absolutely not! I’m an inventor, a designer, a technician maybe even a philosopher but I’m definitely not an entrepreneur.
For me business represents a lot of the things that are wrong with the world today. Striving for more and more production, efficiency, money and power without looking at the real costs of business for others is just the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve.
“Why is your foundation then setting up a sustainable enterprise?”
Unfortunately it is businesses that are nowadays controlling what is and isn’t happening in the world. So in order to maximize our impact indeed setting up a sustainable business does make sense. But it isn’t the foundation or even me that should run the business. The business should be a spin-off, which is run independently from the foundation, although some of the profit of the enterprise should be flowing back to the foundation in order to fund some of the other activities within the foundation that can’t and shouldn’t be turned into a business like providing underprivileged children with school grants.
“The new sustainable enterprise is based around a mini sugar factory called the village hub, which is being installed in traditional Indonesian villages surrounded by either original or by the foundation replanted forest containing sugar palm trees. These sugar palms are being tapped at least once a day in order to obtain sugar water. Here you see a movie of Mr. Yusuf, one of the sugar tappers already supported by the Masarang foundation tapping one of his trees.”
“A lot of your projects and this new sustainable enterprise is no exception, focuses on Indonesia, is that a coincidence?”
Well, apart from the practicalities that I am an Indonesian national I mainly tend to focus on Indonesia because of the opportunities that still exist here to save nature and the fact that there still are local cultures that revolve around traditional and sustainable practices.
In countries like the Netherlands we are currently spending a lot of money, time and energy in finding a sustainable way of life. Here in Indonesia, without even knowing it, a lot of local cultures are as sustainable as can be: using concepts like zero-waste, local production, cradle2cradle, self-sufficiency etc.
With the foundation we are trying to preserve this local knowledge and culture, use this as an foundation for our activities and possibly even bring this local knowledge to other regions, countries, enterprises, foundations etc.
“We really experienced this culture of self-sufficiency ourselves as well. The sugar palm does not only create sugar water, but many other products like medicines, bioethanol, rope etc. Here you see a movie of another farmer supported by the foundation using the fibers of a young sugar palm to create his own rope.”
“The mission of the Masarang foundation is: saving nature through the empowerment of local people. How are you trying to empower people?”
Empowerment for me is about education and probably even more about this transfer of knowledge we talked about in the previous answer. If we can make the people in Indonesia realize and understand that their own culture, knowledge and skills are worth preserving and even worth sharing with others, we are automatically empowering people and hopefully preserving that way of life.
“If the enterprise you and the foundation are setting up becomes a success, is this then a approach you want to continue in the nearby future?”
I have many more ideas and inventions that could be of great benefit to the world, but these aren’t available for the main consumer yet. If this enterprise becomes a success we might consider using the resources from it to develop these ideas to start more spin-offs in the future that could then again contribute some of their profits to the foundation. How this would work in practice? I don’t really know: I most certainly am not interested in running all these enterprises myself. Maybe that is something you could ask your readers to comment on?
“Thank you very much for this short interview and the possibility to follow you around for a month. It really gave us and now hopefully also the reader of this interview, a great insight in your most recent projects and motives.
One last question: If you could ask people around the world one thing, what would that be?”
I would ask them: “Please think about what is really valuable in your life. Is life about big TV’s or another new car or is it about friends, family, enjoying life and the environment you life in? What is the real value of life?”