For Feiy’s new Impact Series our writer in residence Nika Dulevich is talking to entrepreneurs who pursue a path greater than just profit and strive to contribute to the greater good with their products and services. The business owner she talked to this month is Kevin Kumala, social entrepreneur and the co-founder of Avani, a Bali-based social enterprise making 100% bio-based packaging from cassava.
In this interview Kevin talks about building a social venture, shares his entrepreneurial insight and opens up about greater purpose behind his actions.
Courtesy of Kevin Kumala
How did Avani start? And how did the first years of the company look like? Avani 是如何开始的？而公司成立的最初几年又是如何？
Actually, Avani started as an accident. I was educated in the USA and ee a background in biology and business. In my second year of medical school I burnt out, so I decided to come back to Indonesia to take a break. I went to Bali because I've been an avid surfer and diver from a very young age. I started diving when I was eight, so the extreme characteristic in me was instilled early on in life. Bali has always been a home for me – a perfect haven with sandy beaches, where I could dive and surf.
However, upon my return in 2009, a lot of things had changed, it was the year when Bali encountered its huge turnaround. With the growing level of commercialization and industrialization, the pristine island of Bali had changed dramatically, especially when it came to plastic pollution. And so when I visited my old diving and surfing sites, they were no longer as they used to be. I used to surf out on Kuta beach, but when I came back it wasn’t surfable anymore, you could barely sunbathe there. The whole beach had been tarnished with plastic pollution ranging from plastic bags, straws, cigarette buds, and even sandals. And as an avid surfer and diver, I was really bothered with it.
I was in Indonesia for a few months trying to find out further what the government was doing in regards to plastic epidemic in our country. It wasn't only happening in Bali, but also in the city I was born in, the capital city of Jakarta. At the end of my two-month research, I finally concluded that there was very little effort that the government was making and there was barely any effort from the private sector. So with a blessed background of both biology and business, I saw a great void I could fill in.
In the end, I decided to drop out of medical school. I wasn’t sure what I was going to set up, but what I had in mind was to start a company to help alleviate plastic epidemic in Bali. From then on, I did further research and around 2012, we finally had a home based industrial cassava bag production facility.
At that time, I was pretty much selling it to my closest friends, I knew it was something that people had never seen or heard of before. We were fortunate that one of our first clients was Potato Head Beach Club because its owner is a good friend of mine. It was our first milestone. When we first approached Potato Head Beach Club we had a team of four people, it was literally me wearing many different hats – I was the Head of Research and Development, the Head of Sales, as well as the Head of Operations. So at the time, we were literally selling to people who were close to us, people who believed in the product and, thankfully, one of them was Potato Head Beach Club, who in 2013 made a statement that they would go plastic-free. And since then we kept on growing our portfolio of products starting from straws and takeaway boxes, now we have cups, cutleries and different types of plastic replacement products, such as rain coats and laundry bags.
那时，我几乎都卖给我最亲近的朋友，而且我知道这是一个大家没看过或没听过的东西。幸运地，我们的第一个客户是Potato Head Beach Club，因为我的朋友就是老板。这是我们第一个里程碑。当我们第一次接触Potato Head Beach Club时，我们四人一组，也就是我身兼多职－我是研发主管、销售主管，以及营运主管。所以在那时，我们实际上是卖给与我们亲近以及那些相信我们产品的人。感激的是，Potato Head Beach Club是其中之一，他们在2013年声明将不使用塑料。从那时开始，我们不断在产品投资发展，从吸管和外带盒开始，现在我们有杯子、餐具以及不同替代塑料的产品，例如雨衣或是洗衣袋。
Avani is a Sanskrit word that means “Earth”. Why did you name your company Avani? Avani在梵文的意思是“大地”。您为什么将公司命名为Avani？
Everything we do, follows the cradle to cradle design approach, complying with the notion of the circular economy. Everything we produce comes from Earth and returns back to Earth, becoming compost. That’s why we couldn't think of a better name than Avani.
You just mentioned circularity and cradle to cradle approach, you also have some PLA products, bio-paper cups, and bowls. How do you take care of them at the end of their lifecycle? 您刚提到循环性和从摇篮到摇篮的途径，您也有许多PLA产品、环保纸杯和碗。那在它们的生命周期结束时，您怎么处理它们？
With PLA products, we always let our partners know that we need their support to deal with these products at the end of their lifecycle. I would like to underline the word partner – we never consider our customers clients, we always mention them as our partners, because we really need mass collaboration; we need their help to make sure these PLA straws are segregated, so that we can take them back and compost in a proper composting facility.
It's fortunate for us to be headquartered in Bali because a lot of trucks from Jakarta come here with various goods. The problem, however, is that these drivers would come back to Jakarta carrying empty loads. So we decided to utilize them to carry separated PLA products used by the customers in Bali, to be composted in our industrial composting facility in Jakarta. The same business model applies on the island of Java, Indonesia. We always remind our partners to keep on separating the PLA products and we will gladly take them back to compost properly.
You said that diversity is Avani’s strength. What advice would you give to those who are thinking of starting an impact-driven business in terms of building a team? 您说Avani的强项是多元化。在建立团队时，您会给那些想要创立具影响驱动力生意的人什么样的建议？
It may sound very cliché, but in the impact-driven business, it’s first who then what. Till today, and we are now blessed with about 70 employees, it's about who we employ and then what they can do for our company. What I mean by it is they should have a fitting character that compliments the core values of Avani. Obviously, the person has to be an environmentalist, he or she needs to have the passion and the drive to preserve Mother Nature. On top of that, soft skills are important – empathy, having the right mindset, being enlightened about how the world works today. So I look more into the soft skills rather than hard skills because I believe that those blessed with good character, work ethic and ethos are the ones who can be placed in any division in the company.
What do you think of your competition? What if more companies get into using cassava starch and other renewable materials to create bioplastics? Would you welcome it or not? 您对您的竞争者有什么看法？如果更多公司开始使用木薯淀粉和其他可再生材料来生产生物塑料，您欢迎吗？
I think that there is a piece of pie for everyone. I'm a big supporter of FSC-certified paper bags. They definitely cost more than plastic, but if you want to become at least somewhat more sustainable and switch away from plastic, first thing that comes to mind is paper. I salute countries like Ghana and Rwanda, which are taking progressive action banning single-use plastic products and switching over to using paper products, with the majority of them being FSC-certified.
I'm a proponent of any type of packaging alternative to plastic, be it paper that is derived from FSC-certified forests or different types of starch bags. The key component here is the end of life management. There is a lot of cassava starch-based plastic out there that requires a special industrial composting facility to be composted properly, unlike our cassava bags. So there needs to be a well-managed waste management system in place in order to segregate such starch bags from normal plastic bags. As long as the producer is responsible enough, like what we do with our PLA products, then I have no problem with such competitors whatsoever.
In general, do you think of social and sustainable business world as a game of competition or a place of cooperation? 大体上，您认为社会和永续发展的商业世界是竞争还是合作？
Definitely cooperation. There is no one product to solve them all, it takes mass collaboration as I said before. For example, we remind our partners to keep on segregating their PLA products, so they need to make an effort to cooperate with us because it's not as easy as you’d think. Sometimes these establishments are “lazy enough” and just put all trash into one bin. But waste management and waste segregation need to start with them so when it comes to us we can deal with it properly.
Avani was born in Bali in 2014 and now you are represented and distributed across Indonesia, Singapore and the Middle East. How do you scale your impact? And what advice would you give to those who want to scale their social ventures? Avani 2014年在峇里岛诞生，而现在您在印尼、新加坡和中东都有代表和分支，您如何增强您的影响？对那些想要强化他们社会事业的人，您有什么建议？
We work through a hub exposure model, where we pinpoint international hubs we want to showcase our technology in. The world is our playground; we want to deploy our technology around the globe. Dubai, for example, the city that receives around 92 million tourists a year is one of such hubs. We believe that it is a great haven for us not only for exposure, but also for the production of the bags and other products. Here we can do business and scale up fast because of the support from the government and the strategic location of the city.
That's one way of scaling. We also chose different cities and countries for the purpose of brand exposure. One of them is Singapore, a very diverse country where people come and go. It's great seeing our products in Bali, Singapore, Dubai, also in Turkey, real melting pots of cultures and individuals. You never know who stumbles upon our products there and sooner or later you realize that another order comes in, because maybe they saw us in Singapore or Dubai. So that's definitely one of the pieces of advice I would give – make sure you deploy your solution to a city or country that is a melting pot, where your product would get noticed right away.
What has been your biggest challenge so far? 到目前为止，您最大的挑战是什么？
Our biggest challenge is definitely the pricing. When people first inquire about our products, the pricing usually comes as a shock to them, since a lot of them compare us to a normal plastic bag. At the end of the day, after discussing further and telling them about the economies of scale, they see that there's only a difference of four to five cents between our cassava bags and a plastic bag made from high density polyethylene. We are also fortunate that a lot of cities around the globe actually charge this $0.05 difference for a regular plastic bag. So we can actually come in perfectly handy when it comes to replacing single-use plastic bags with our compostable bags. On top of that, our cassava bags are actually cheaper than paper bags. So if someone has switched to paper bags, it becomes a no-brainer for them to utilize our cassava bags, which have been proven to be compostable in your home composting ecosystem.
What has been one key factor in Avani’s success? Avani成功的关键因素是什么？
I would say it’s perseverance. If I could take the common denominator between all the Department Heads, it would be perseverance. As a company and as individuals, especially at the Department Head level, we went through a lot in this five-year journey, but we persevered despite the difficulties and all the people who say that ‘Replace’ is not the way to go. There are still a lot of voices out there that are against us, but at the end of the day we persevere, because we truly believe in what we do, in our product.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently, if anything? 如果您要重新来一遍，如果有的话，您会做些什么不同的？
To be frank with you, I don't think I would change anything. I don’t have regrets. Even if we have made mistakes along the way, they shaped us to become who we are today. It has truly been a blessing. I'm an optimistic person, I'm the one who always sees the glass half-full. Without all the turbulences, without all these challenges that we have faced along the way, I don't think we would have become the strong company that we are today
What advice would you give to entrepreneurial individuals who would like to make a positive impact in the world? 对想要在世界做出正面影响的个人企业家，您有什么建议？
Fail as much as you can. I no longer see failure as failure per se. I think the more I fail the wiser I get, and it doesn't matter if you have an MBA or PhD in science, at the end of the day, doing business today is way different from 10, 20 or 30 years ago. The world is getting flatter, the information travels very fast and transparency is everything. So if I could give one piece of advice, it would be to make as many mistakes as you possibly can, you would only grow wiser because of them.
尽情的跌倒。我不再视失败为失败本身。我认为越多的失败，我变得更有智慧。而这无关你有MBA 或理学PhD学位，因为最终，今天做生意已和10、20和30 年前有大大的不同。世界越来越平，资讯传出变得更快，而透明化就是全部。所以，如果我可以给一个建议，那就是尽可能地犯错，你将会从中变得更明智。
Do you think that single-use plastics made from renewable materials is the answer to the global plastic pollution? If not, then what?您认为可再生材料制成的一次性使用塑料是全球塑料污染的解决方式吗？如果不是，那是什么？
It's definitely not. A lot of people ask me about my perspective on the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle), am I antagonistic about it? Of course not, but the statistics doesn’t look great. 40% of our oceans is now covered in plastic; if we don't change our behavior, by the year 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans. I truly believe that relying on the mantra of the three R’s itself will not be enough to sustain our world for the future generations. We crucially need other approaches, be it a new R or something else. We need different breakthroughs, such as repurpose, upcycle, replace, intercept, refuse. In my opinion, if we continue battling global plastic epidemic relying solely on the notion of the three R’s, we simply do not have time to make sure our future generations can enjoy our planet the way we enjoy it today.
那肯定不是。很多人问我是否与3R (减少Reduce, 重复使用Reuse, 回收Recycle)对立？当然不是，但数据显示并不佳。我们的海洋现在有40%被塑料覆盖，如果我们不改变我们的行为，在2050年前，我们海洋中的塑料将会比鱼还要多。我真的相信依赖3R的口号不足以为我们的未来世代维持我们的世界，其他方式对我们来说至关重要，可以是新的R或是其他东西。我们需要不同的突破，像是重新利用、升级再造、取代、拦截、拒绝。在我看来，我们如果持续单独依赖3R的概念来对抗全球塑料的通病，我们根本没有时间确保我们的未来世代可以像我们一样享受我们的地球。
How do you contribute to the environmental and social well-being? 对环境和社会福祉，您如何做出贡献？
As a company, we have above the line activations (editor’s note: untargeted communications that conveys the message to everyone) every month. If it is an educational activity, our primary target group is middle schoolers, because they are our future. I think these kids are at that age when we can still educate them, we can evangelize the good and the bad news about plastic pollution.
And we always evangelize. We deploy our team to get engaged with the students because here in Indonesia, science curriculum is different. I have been fortunate enough to experience both worlds as I went through elementary school in Indonesia and middle school in the US. The way we were taught there was very different. In our curriculum in the USA, taking care of nature and preserving the planet is heavily embedded in the curriculum, while in Indonesia, things like that are not really highlighted. So it was a calling for our team to engage middle schoolers in different extracurricular activities.
We also do a lot of beach and city clean-ups as well as awareness activations. For example, we collaborated with Jakarta Fashion Week last year to show them how much plastic the industry consumes. Believe it or not, clothing and accessories is the second most damaging industry when it comes to putting plastic in the ocean. So not only do we produce and supply products, but we also want to make sure that people around us are on board, especially here in Indonesia, a country that is guilty of being the top plastic polluter in the world.
What does success mean to you? 成功对您来说是什么？
I believe in the connection of the mind, body and soul and I keep on preaching this to my team. Ideally, when our partners convert into using our products, it means we have succeeded in converting their minds and bodies, their establishment to become more sustainable and responsible towards Mother Nature. But what I preach the most is about the soul. I think the soul is not something everybody can have, and it’s much harder to tap into someone's soul than their mind or body.
So success for me is to be able to touch people's souls. Because if you just tap into their mind and body, it's something they can remember for a certain period of time, but if you are able to touch their soul, that's when you can convert them into someone, who really cares about the environment. So for me this is the definition of success – when I'm able to convert someone's soul into becoming an environmentalist.
On your Instagram account @kev.kumala in your Bio you wrote Philippians 4:13 which reads “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” What does this phrase mean to you? And how does it influence your life and business?
在您的Instagram @kev.kumala ，您在介绍写了Philippians 4:13 “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” （腓立比书4:13 我靠着那加给我力量的、凡事都能作。）这句话对您有什么意义？而它是如何影响您的人生和生意？
It’s really funny how setting up Avani was really an accident. I never planned to expand this big, this fast. My main goal was to find the solution for the island of Bali. I know for a fact that there is a greater figure behind me, I feel like there is a purpose in this life and someone put that purpose onto me. So despite the turbulence, the tears, the pains that I endured, I know that there is a greater cause. I know that the reason for my existence in this world is to preserve His creation.
How would you like to be remembered? 您想如何被记得？
To tell the truth, getting awards and recognition is great, but for me leaving a legacy that is impactful for people is secondary, it is more about my vertical relationship to the One Above. As long as I'm doing the job that He has put me in this world to do, I feel that I have become the person that I was given the time on Earth to be.