Earlier this year ABV signed an exciting agreement with global cosmetics company, The Body Shop International (TBSI), facilitated by UK international development organisation VSO. Under the agreement ABV is initially assisting the Samoa-based Women in Business Development Inc (WIBDI), a community organisation with which The Body Shop is associated through its Community Trade sourcing programme. Registered Australian business volunteer Suzanne Blair has recently returned from the first assignment delivered under the agreement.

WIBDI’s mission is to provide and empower vulnerable Samoan families with knowledge and skills, opportunities, access to finance and markets. It has assisted around 700 small-scale farmers to obtain organic certification, and works with them to manufacture various agricultural products including virgin coconut oil, dried bananas and fetau oil. In recent years WIBDI has been shipping two container loads of virgin coconut oil to the UK annually, which is purchased by TBSI. Although ventures such as this do bring in revenue, less than 10% of WIBDI’s income is self-generated, with the great majority coming from international donors.

Suzanne’s business planning assignment comes at a critical time for WIBDI. Minds are being focused on the future as a three year funding program which is WIBDI’s major source of revenue will soon come to an end. TBSI through the ABV assignments is looking to help WIBDI transition to a more sustainable social enterprise-based funding model. With many years’ experience in management consulting, having built from the ground up a business with several hundred employees, and with previous experience in social enterprises in developing countries, Suzanne certainly had the experience to assist with this considerable task. Suzanne believes that NGOs can learn a lot from business. “Donor-funded NGOs can become very static” says Suzanne. “Putting a business focus into an NGO system puts energy into that system. It can shake things up and make the NGO much more dynamic.”

Over the three and a half months she was in Samoa, Suzanne was certainly an injection of energy, undertaking what she refers to as a “top-down, bottom-up, and crossways organic approach to promoting change”. She produced discussion papers for the board, and during three meetings developed an agreed approach and an ambitious goal of 60% self-generated revenue by 2019. With management she developed a simple and workable strategic plan, and sought to shift the finance team to being internal financial consultants rather than administrators. She also established a Monday morning program of organisation-wide training sessions, and worked with particularly motivated staff on individual projects, such as a plan to market to higher-end hotels.

“One of the great things about helping WIBDI to transition to a social enterprise model is that they actually have a product to sell” says Suzanne. “We were not trying to develop a product – a mug or something.” In virgin coconut oil WIBDI have a saleable product, they just need to re-organise to make more of a profit from that product. According to Suzanne by the time she left Samoa the WIBDI team was “social enterprise-ready, in terms of attitude”, and the necessity of “placing a business lens over all activities and testing them against social and financial objectives is now clearly understood”.

A second TBSI funded ABV assignment is planned for early next year. With Suzanne having developed a list of 300 potential business leads for WIBDI, ABV plans to focus the next assignment on building WIBDI’s capacities in marketing and market analysis. In Suzanne’s estimation the goal of significant self-generated revenue is still quite a way off, but her inputs have clearly provided WIBDI some essential tools to forge a path ahead.

This assignment was implemented under ABV’s partnership with The Body Shop International which has sourced coconut oil from WIBDI since 2009. For more click here.

Australian Business Volunteers