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Interface & ZSL empowering coastal communities

Updated: Feb 4, 2023


Miriam Turner, formerly / Interface Dr Nick Hill / Zoological Society of London

Net-Works is an inclusive business that empowers coastal communities in 36 communities in the Philippines and Cameroon to collect and sell used fishing nets, which are recycled into yarn for carpet tiles. Miriam Turner is director of disruptive innovation at Friends of the Earth and former assistant vice president of co-innovation at Interface. Dr. Nick Hill is senior technical specialist at ZSL.


Karen: How did the idea for Net-Works come about?

Miriam: It began as a corridor conversation with our sustainability director, who mentioned that our raw material supplier, Aquafil, had found a way to make recycled yarn from old fishing nets. I wondered whether they’d considered sourcing nets from small fishing communities in addition to large commercial fisheries. I’d been looking for an opportunity to bring a social dimension to Interface’s work, alongside its strong environmental commitment, and I thought this could be the answer.

Nick: I had just handed in my Ph.D. on fisheries in the Philippines when I got a call from Miriam, who I knew from university, asking me to join a workshop to discuss this recycled nets idea. A lightbulb went off during that meeting and I put together a proposal for sourcing nets from the Philippines. Fast forward a few weeks and I was traveling to the Philippines to do a scoping visit with fishing communities there. The visit confirmed that our idea could work, and I proposed partnering with ZSL to deliver the project. ZSL was already working in the area and had the right expertise, knowledge and local network. A couple of months later, in June 2012, we began setting up our first pilot project in the Danajon Bank region.

Karen: What motivated you personally about the project?

Nick: I am passionate about making marine conservation pro-poor, and moving it away from its over-dependence on donor funding. Net-Works offered an opportunity to pilot a conservation model that is self-financed at a local level and empowers communities to tackle their own environmental problems. I’m keen that we learn from this pilot to find similar solutions to broader environmental threats. Miriam: I have always been passionate about social justice. With an inclusive business, you’re trying to empower people at the bottom of the pyramid to address the social challenges they face. Net-Works gives small, artisanal fishing communities the opportunity to join a global supply chain, diversify their livelihoods, and protect the marine resources they rely on.

Karen: What challenges have you faced in setting up and running Net-Works?

Nick: Getting buy-in from all different levels – from colleagues to the communities. IfI had a dollar for every time someone said “that’s not going to work” I’d be rich! People are always reluctant to try something new until they’ve seen it working, so getting those “firsts” under your belt is vital. Achieving the right balance between clarity and detail in the communication is hard, especially because of the huge cultural differences between a Filipino fishing community and audiences in the UK or US. People in the West want to know the impact on income or numbers of jobs. But fishing communities are far more interested in less quantifiable aspects, such as empowerment, risk, and opportunities.Most people in these communities don’t know the value of their incomes in dollar terms: they only know whether they have been able to put food on the table, repair their house, or pay the school fees. You have to strike a balance between data-based accountability and meeting communities’ needs.

Miriam: At the outset, some people struggled to get their heads around the fact that it wasn’t the traditional corporate-NGO sponsorship arrangement: it was a partnership. We had to constantly reframe Interface and ZSL’s relationship in this way. Internally, I had to demonstrate the value of Net-Works, presenting the business case in different ways to different people, depending on whether I was talking to the CFO or the head of marketing. That’s what intrapreneurs do within their organizations – hustle and make the case in different ways to different people. Once you’ve proven that the concept works, the next challenge is scaling up. Net-Works is in that phase at the moment. The goal is to expand to other countries and diversify the business model. It means bringing more partners and funders in and setting up the right financing model for the future. Karen: What impact has Net-Works had within the partner organizations?

Miriam: For Interface, Net-Works has proven that it is possible for a manufacturer to build an inclusive business within its own supply chain. It has been a great example of the benefits of nurturing intrapreneurship within a business and the advantage of companies and NGOs collaborating together to develop innovative and impactful solutions. Nick: Many of the elements that are key to the Net-Works model, such as community banks, are being replicated across other ZSL projects. We have nearly 3,000 members of community banks across the Philippines, Cameroon and Mozambique – many outside of Net-Works. Net-Works has really changed the way people think: from perceiving micro-finance as irrelevant, staff are increasingly understanding its potential. We are also applying the Net-Works approach to other products and environmental issues, such as the creation of bigger and better marine protected areas to replenish the fish stocks that local communities depend upon. We’re building a body of expertise on community-led, self-funded conservation.

Karen: What’s been the high point of the journey so far?

Miriam: The best thing for me is hearing other people talk so enthusiastically aboutNet-Works: a colleague who says that they told their family about it, or someone at an event who comes over to me and says ‘I heard about Net-Works and I think it’s brilliant.’ Another moment that sticks in my mind is when we won the Ethical Corporation award in 2014 for best business-NGO partnership. I was on maternity leave with new-born twins when I got the news and I felt so proud. Net-Works is like my third baby!

Nick: Seeing our communities decide to make small weekly contributions to an environment fund to help pay for local conservation projects, rather than wait for money from external sources, was a huge inspiration. And getting our first big shipment of nets out of the Philippines was also a great moment. You have no idea how complicated it is for a conservation organization to export waste nets! Karen: What advice would you give to other intrapreneurs wanting to create an inclusive business?

Miriam: Ask yourself “how can the resources and expertise in this organization be used in the best way to create the most good?” Then, once you have an idea, start small, get the right people in the room, and actually do something. Remember that you don’t need a massive budget to get started. Nick’s scoping trip to the Philippines cost just a few thousand pounds.

Nick: Have a vision and a sense of what you want to achieve, but don’t be overly tied to one way of getting there. You have to be able to roll with it. Spend time investing in the relationships with your partners. And listen more than you talk. Senior mentors are vital too – both Miriam and I had supportive bosses who championed Net-Works at voard level and helped us move quickly.

Miriam: A final bit of advice: invest in self-care. It can sometimes feel like you’re pushing water up a hill so it’s really important to recharge. That’s what the League of Intrapreneurs is – a watering hole where you can talk to like-minded change-makers and stay connected to your heart and your gut.

This blog post was originally published by Ethical Corp, in partnership with The League of Intrapreneurs and Net-Works.

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