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On the road to a just world: Echoing Green funds social and environmental entrepreneurs

November 11, 2019
topics: Economic Inclusion
by: Yair Oded
tags: climate change, environment, Green Economy

For over 30 years, Echoing Green, a prestigious fellowship programme, has been uplifting and supporting entrepreneurs seeking to tackle major social and environmental issues. 

The programme locates visionary leaders from across the world and provides them with the tools, network, funds and expertise necessary to develop their initiatives and have a positive impact on their communities and countries.   

The fellowship operates through a two-year programme, during which the fellows receive personal guidance from a portfolio manager who helps them develop leadership skills, structure and strategies in order for their vision to materialise and thrive. “We walk them through competencies like fundraising and well-being, and, at the same time, they have a full-time portfolio manager to support them,” said Neil Yeoh, Deputy Director of Echoing Green’s Individual Fellow Support, who also oversees the climate portfolio. “The portfolio manager’s function is threefold: we’re a coach, a thought-partner for them, and a connector for our network both internally and externally,” he added. 

Over the two-year period, fellows are granted a stipend of $80,000 for individuals and $90,000 for partnerships, as well as a flexible benefit stipend. “Funding comes from a range of areas,” said Yeoh. “You need risk-tolerant patient capital for the next generation of solutionists to develop impactful solutions to the most pressing issues in the world. [Echoing Green’s] money comes from a mix of philanthropy, foundation money, and individual donors.”

Even after the two-year programme ends, Echoing Green fellows enjoy a life-long support network through, for instance, international gatherings connecting fellows, alumni, business leaders, and institutions, as well as pro-bono legal and investment advice. 

So far, the fellowship has supported over 800 innovative leaders from 86 different countries. Through a highly competitive selection process, Echoing Green nominates 30 new leaders every year. “The one thing that differentiates Echoing Green from the other fellowships out there, is that we have a very strong diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lens to how we fund, and we’re willing to take a bet on the leader," said Yeoh. "We see potential in that individual where they have a solution that can generate systemic change in a social area and we incubate them.” 

Echoing Green’s fellowship supports initiatives centering around several issues, including climate change, education, health, human rights, poverty, and racial justice, and its programmes are run through three main funding portfolios: global solutions, which addresses issues across the board and across sectors and industries; the climate change portfolio; and black men’s achievements, which funds initiatives tackling American social justice issues with black men and boys. 

Yeoh indicated that they observed three main trends among their 2019 climate fellows. The first was a significant increase in African social entrepreneurs with technical engineering skills working to develop large-scale technology solutions in order to mitigate the impact of climate change on their communities and countries, and promote ecological sustainability. One such initiative is Khainza Energy Limited, created by Arthur Woniala and Yunus Masaba, which aims to facilitate access to clean, affordable energy for people across Uganda by packaging high-quality biogas in recyclable cylinders for cooking and heating.

Yeoh also referenced the proliferation of nascent hard-technology startups in need of risk-tolerant patient capital (as provided by the Echoing Green grants), which would help them develop their products and bring them from the lab out into the marketplace, including solutions ranging from “additives to reduce emissions from diesel engine vehicles in the U.S., to micro bioreactors to convert organic waste to activated carbon in India.”

One of the most notable trends observed among the 2019 climate fellows, however, is a surge in local U.S. city climate initiatives empowering local businesses and residents to take climate action and become an active part of the solution. 

ISeeChange, a global online community encouraging people to post about the changes in their environment, is an example of such an initiative. Founded by Julia Kumari Drapkin, ISeeChange empowers local communities to document the changes noticed in their environment over time as a result of climate change through their platform and mobile tools. The data collected by locals, as well as by ISeeChange investigators, is then synced with weather and climate data in order to create a big picture that reflects the actual struggles of people on the ground, help communities adapt as best as they can to changing climate trends, and ensure that their voices are considered in the crafting of climate policies. 

Drapkin’s observations regarding lack of specific climate data began earlier in her career, when she worked as a climate reporter. “As I covered disasters it was the same thing over and over - we weren’t specific enough, we couldn’t get granular enough. We couldn’t say climate change is impacting you and your daily life right now,” Drapkin told Fairplanet. 

Over the years, as Drapkin worked on developing ISeeChange, which originally started as a media project, she realised the enormity of disparities between the actual effect of natural disasters (such as storms and floods) and the model data employed by city and government agencies in order to construct infrastructure and prepare for them. “We may spend a lot of public money on infrastructure that’s actually not well located or targeted for the problems they were designed to solve,” said Drapkin, adding that, “If you combine community stories and data to actually document these events in real time in real life, it’s actually proven to be more accurate than the model data and have suggested changes that need to be made.”

ISeeChange is based in New Orleans, where the results of poor climate data collection had dire outcomes. Following the catastrophic storms and floods that hit the city several years back, the data collected by authorities for reconstruction and damage control purposes was collected from sources that didn’t necessarily reflect the scope of the devastation, as it largely neglected the voices of low-income and minority communities. The result was the execution of inequitable recovery efforts that failed to resuscitate and strengthen many of the local communities in the city. By conducting expansive and thorough interviews with local communities, ISeeChange was able to provide an accurate map of the flood damage sustained by locals and highlight the disparities between those and the city’s original maps. ISeeChange then partnered with the city of New Orleans and used its data in order to change infrastructure design, support communities in need, and lower community insurance rates around flooding by increasing risk awareness. 

“We don’t empower communities; communities are naturally powerful,” Drapkin said, “so what we’re doing is mobilising and channelling that energy to visualise and document their experience; take that anecdote and turn it into the empirical data formats that are needed for cities and engineers and people to actually act upon.”

Rust Belt Riders, a Cleveland, U.S.-based organisation upcycling food waste into valuable products, is another example of a solution empowering local businesses and residents to take environmental action in lieu of adequate government support and legislation. The organisation was founded by Daniel Brown and Michael Robinson, when they sought to tackle a most-troubling phenomenon: over 40 per cent of food waste in the United States ends up in landfills. What started modestly with the two founders cycling around from business to business and collecting food scraps has gradually evolved into an expansive local operation to reduce food waste and advance the economy in the U.S. Rust Belt by creating sustainable soil, mulch and fertiliser products produced from discarded food. 

“Our core business is providing services to organisations and businesses, which looks a lot like services you’d be receiving from landfills or recycling services,” Brown told Fairplanet, “but we recently launched a programme that we call our community supported composting programme, where individuals can start to utilise a similar food waste diversion service. They have a few strategic drop off locations throughout the city of Cleveland, where members are able to dispose of their household food scraps.”

“What makes our effort pretty unique nationally,” Brown added, “is that we’ve been able to do and make what we’ve made in the absence of legislation or policies that would otherwise provide tax incentives or mandates dictating how food-waste ought to be managed. We think that our laws and rules around food-waste in Ohio are not the most border-looking, and so our approach and tactics to encourage people to participate have been slow and methodical and considerate of the communities we’re trying to serve.”

Both Brown and Robinson indicated that becoming Echoing Green fellows has seriously benefited their efforts and opened up new prospects for their organisation. “Echoing Green has already made a whole bunch of introductions to other organisations that might be facing similar issues as we are or navigating similar scenarios,” said Robinson, “the network, the staff, and the resources that they’ve provided are going to be extremely helpful.” He went on to add that, “Echoing Green recognises the kind of intensity that comes with doing [climate] work and taking the time to understand a dire situation with great detail in order to come up with systematic solutions, and they provide that kind of emotional support necessary to be able to do this work despite other forces that are extremely interested and vested in not making the changes necessary to continue to have a planet that will sustain human life.” 

The common thread connecting all these initiatives is the focus they place on engaging local communities, addressing their specific needs, and turning them into a core part of the solution to the ecological collapse of our planet. “I think that community driven solutions are critical to systemically tackling climate change,” Yeoh said. In his view, capitalism is largely to blame for the degradation of our environment; grassroots initiatives, he believes, are our biggest hope. “ If you have a broken system, and then you use that broken system to fix [itself], it doesn’t play out that well. If you put voices to communities that are actually impacted and ask what they think and what they need, you may be able to build more resilient cities and communities to what’s inevitable in climate change,” he said. 

This isn’t only true of climate change. Such an approach has the key to transform the way we tackle issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, widespread xenophobia, and economic and health disparities - just to name a few. Echoing Green does a huge service by uplifting solutions from the ground up. In turn, such initiatives could not only inspire large-scale policy, but also encourage local communities across the world to follow suit and empower the voices within them clamouring for social and ecological justice.

Article written by:
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Yair Oded
Managing Editor, Author
The programme locates visionary leaders from across the world and provides them with the tools, network, funds and expertise necessary to develop their initiatives and have a positive impact on their communities and countries.
Over the two-year period, fellows are granted a stipend of $80,000 for individuals and $90,000 for partnerships, as well as a flexible benefit stipend.
Such an approach has the key to transform the way we tackle issues of racial injustice, gender inequality, widespread xenophobia, and economic and health disparities - just to name a few.