Time to PonyUp
E-waste – there’s a veritable mountain of it piling up across the developed world. But as organisations and individuals discard their outdated tech and manufacturers grapple with end-of-life scenarios, there’s another option.
Lifelong friends Cat Harding and Mardi Brown this year founded PonyUp for Good – a social enterprise aimed at taking useable but unwanted devices, primarily mobile phones, tablets and laptops, from Australian businesses and on-selling them for use in developing countries, donating 50 percent of profits to charity.
“In Australia there are 18 billion tonnes of e-waste going into landfills every year,” Brown says. “While programs like MobileMuster are contributing to landfill avoidance, we felt there was a gap in the market where we could reduce landfill stocks and, at the same time, make a charitable contribution.”
By their own description, Brown, a former head of People and Culture for TEDx Melbourne and Harding, a communications and project management professional, were corporate heavy hitters looking to make a jump into something more personally rewarding.
“There’s a real shift among people towards purpose,” Harding says. “A lot of people ask themselves: ‘Why am I going to work every day?’ and we felt our combination of skills and experiences could be used in a very positive way and so PonyUp was born.”
The goal was finding a way to contribute to waste reduction, but make it benefit charitable organisations. The pair did a small-scale donation drive to benefit Act. Change. Educate. (ACE) – a project operating a school for underprivileged children in Cambodia with which Brown has been working for the past eight years.
“The pilot showed us we could strap a motor to the concept and bring it to a much wider audience to reduce landfill and make a significant contribution to charity,” she says.
“We ran the pilot to understand the industry, ask all the questions we needed to and set up operational processes, such as work out our supplier base. It was our opportunity to create and test our business model.
“It was a friends and family campaign with no lofty expectations. We set a target of 300 devices and we blew it out of the water. We ended up with 4.5 tonnes of e-waste – 20 pallet loads – we needed
to establish our wholesale network very quickly, enabling us to scale up to meet this growth. Our very simple business model allowed us to do this. The contribution to ACE and the school will be around $5000.”
On average, the pair says the type of tech collected has anywhere between five and seven years of further use in developing countries. “These devices not only have a new life, but they support the economic growth of the countries where the tech is needed,” Harding says. “It’s a total win-win.”
The pair chose a social enterprise ‘for profit’ model. “We wanted to be able to sustain our business for a long period of time,” Brown says. “Having worked in a straight charitable environment, it’s hard to operate and sustain it without people getting paid for the great work they’re doing.
“Not-for-profits come under a lot of scrutiny about investing back into their marketing activities and we’ve all seen examples of charities who get a hard time for that. We decided to create a commercially viable and sustainable business that is socially invested and we can then hire the right talent to make it what it needs to be.”
WHAT’S IT ALL ABOUT?
Harding and Brown’s business model is essentially approaching organisations to donate their decommissioned devices. While many companies prefer to data cleanse prior to donation, PonyUp offers a free erasure service that meets US Department of Defence standards for data security.
“It was important that we were able to give corporates the confidence they need that devices would be completely clean,” Harding says. “Our ‘full service’ disposal ensures that any data on disposed IT assets is irreversibly destroyed.”
The devices are then sold to a wholesale partner and 50 percent of the profits go to PonyUp for Good’s designated charity, SecondBite. Harding says the charity is a perfect fit, given it is also working towards solving a significant waste problem.
“We want to be a name player in this market because we know we’re the only ones doing this with a social focus. For the next couple of years at least we will be reinvesting the other 50 percent of income in the business. We’re setting up a board and a foundation, attracting a diverse group of people to help us make the right decisions and reach a pinnacle in the reuse industry.
“Our target is to donate $500,000 in our first three years, so we need to get the message out. The funds these products attract depend on their age and condition. Essentially the sooner they’re donated,
the more value they have, so we’re trying to impress upon corporates that leaving decommissioned devices in an IT storage room for months or years diminishes their value considerably.”
The pair says the tech still has considerable value in developing nations. “In sub-Saharan Africa, older tech is still used for banking, for communicating. There are programs that provide medical advice via text because it’s so challenging for many people to get to a doctor,” Brown says.
“One of the interesting things about older technology is that it tends to have a longer battery life and that’s important where there are electrical infrastructure issues. We know of villages where it’s one person’s job to gather all the mobile phones, take them to the nearest town to charge them and bring them back. Older tech with a five-day battery life can be really valuable.”
Harding adds: “And the result of this is that we communicate back to the businesses who donate to us and give them a picture of what their donation has achieved. It’s not only a feel-good story, but a way they can demonstrate how they’re achieving their CSR (corporate social responsibility) metrics.”