Bas Van Abel doesn’t want to change the world. Just a little bit of it.
The man behind the world’s first ethical phone, worked out a while ago that he couldn’t do it all.
“We decided to make a Fair Phone. Compared to world peace it is a small thing, but we are doing a good thing.”
The Fairphone story is the stuff of entrepreneurial legend.
It all started when Bas was asked to help out with a charity campaign to highlight the issue of the millions of people killed in East Congo in conflicts related to the mining of the minerals needed for mobile phones.
He started to investigate.
“It was sad, but there was no one real root cause, and I didn’t think that the consumer had an emotional connection to this.
“Was it the economic system?, soldiers?, politics?, the demand from the consumer?, it was all these things. Companies? Shareholders?
“Then I saw a project about making a toaster from scratch – you should see it, it’s beautiful . And I thought – that’s it! Let’s make a phone ourselves and use that phone as a way to find out why the things are the way they are, catalyse change and bring the message of Congo all the way to the consumer in the most tangible way.
He started out by going to a Congo mine where minerals for mobiles were mined without conflict and returned to Holland with a lump of rock, an interesting sales story and a lot of optimism.
At first he enlisted the help of Dutch operator KPN who agreed to buy 1,000 of the non-existent phones when they were complete.
“We had no design, no numbers , no customers, just a lump of rock. We asked them to ‘sign here’ and they did!”
He then started looking at factories in China that could produce the phone – Europe was not possible for several reasons – but once again encountered ethical concerns about the way the workforce would be treated.
“I kept hearing all these stories about Chinese workers jumping out the windows of phone factories. Was it really that bad? What was the real story? Was it about the culture, the operations? So I went to China to find out.”
He found a factory which promised to distribute the money from the contract fairly among the workers, through setting up an independent foundation for the workers and to look after their workers – and signed them up.
The next step was opening a web shop for customers to pre-order a phone that still didn’t exist, and in 3-4 weeks they had 10,000 orders.
So why did so many people go out on a limb and spend money on what at this stage was still a dream?
“I think the economic crisis helped us quite a lot. People got fed up with Big. They want a more intimate relationship with the companies that they deal with. It was the ultimate proof that even for electronics there is a big group of conscious consumers that put their money where their mouth is. They bought in to the idea and the product. It was very powerful. They made a 325 euro statement.”
“Then I realised that I had to do really do it now. I had to start making the phones. I couldn’t sleep. I cried at night. Really! Then my wife said that all these people wanted to make a statement with our phones and that it was great. She was right. I just needed to get on with it.
“We learned how to do it, step by step, and last year we made and shipped 25,000 phones around the world. We now have orders for another 50,000 and we are working our way through them. “
And how have the big boys at the likes of Apple and Samsung reacted to this new way or manufacturing?
“We are for a Fair phone , not against Apple and all the others. We talk to them. They will make the big change in the supply chains – not us. Companies are sociopaths, they are systems, but people can change companies. There is a new reality, a new economic ecosystem, where social value is as important as financial value.
“We believe we’ll never have a 100 per cent fair phone, as fairness in itself is a debate, but 10 per cent is better than nothing. We are doing good things, but you can’t solve all the problems in the world.”
“You could say I’m proud of what we have done. We’ve now got a team of 30. It felt like we were flying in a plane while we were still building it.
And his advice to anyone with a spark of an idea who wants to make it work?
“Hmmm. I would say think twice before you do anything, but don’t think about it too much or you’ll never do it. And have some fun.”