ATEC: Bioenergy for the planet

Inspired by our February Pause Fest panel, this is the second in our series of climate crisis conversations with impact-driven businesses.

July 2, 2020

July 2, 2020

Inspired by our February Pause Fest panel

This is the second in our series of climate crisis conversations with impact-driven businesses.

This time, it's a chat with Ben Jeffreys, CEO of ATEC* Biodigesters International. Harvey worked closely with Ben and the team at ATEC* to set up the social enterprise's digital strategy, which meant we were lucky enough to take a trip to Cambodia to see these biodigesters in action. Seeing the impact they have on both community planet made it an unforgettable experience. And the reason we were so keen to have Ben on our Pause Fest panel.

In this conversation, Ben talks more about how biodigesters are being used to help Cambodian farmers regenerate their soil, cook safely, and get their kids back in school.


If you’re paying attention to the current global climate crisis, and because you’re reading this we assume you are, then it’s safe to assume you’ve had a conversation about waste. And we mean all kinds of waste. Yes, even that kind.

Managing waste is the ultimate topic of conversation for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint but it’s a hard subject to get 100% right. Waste is a tricky business. Just ask Ben Jeffreys, CEO of ATEC* Biodigesters.

As CEO of ATEC* Ben thinks a lot about waste, in fact, he readily admits that the topic keeps him awake at night. A joint venture between NGOs Engineers without Borders and Live and Learn, ATEC’s team of 45 works with Cambodian farmers, and their families, to turn animal, green and human waste into biogas and fertiliser.

The tech behind a biodigester is simple. You start with cow manure which has small bacteria in the manure that breaks down any organic waste. You can then throw in kitchen waste, green waste, and manure and it all gets broken down into biogas, which can be used for cooking.

ATEC evolved from the work Engineers without Borders and Live and Learn had already been doing with farmers in Cambodia. They knew that around 80% of waste in developing countries was organic waste and so they’d been working on a prototype biodigester to turn that waste into energy. The idea was then pitched to Google’s Impact Challenge and received AU$500k.” Ben says. "The tech behind a biodigester is simple. You start with cow manure which has small bacteria in the manure that breaks down any organic waste. You can then throw in kitchen waste, green waste, and manure and it all gets broken down into biogas, which can be used for cooking. What remains can be used as organic fertiliser for farming."

Biodigesters are big news in Cambodia. A typical farmer with 2-3 livestock can create 1500 litres of gas a day, which is enough to cook 3 family meals and provide 20 tonnes of organic fertiliser per year. The importance of being able to cook with natural gas rather than wood is multifaceted. Climate change is very real to Cambodian farming communities and there’s a fear that the local forests they depend on for wood will one day disappear. For those living without a biodigester, cooking with wood is the only way to survive, however, the use of wood in a kitchen brings its own set of problems.

The problem with cooking with wood is that over time you get a build-up much like you would with smoking cigarettes,” explains Ben. “In Cambodia, cooking with wood kills more people than traffic accidents every year and, globally, it kills more people than malaria. It’s a worldwide health problem, particularly for developing communities.

The ability to cook cleanly is a huge health benefit to a household but another, more unusual, benefit a biodigester can bring to a family is time – especially to the women and children of the house.

“Women and children have always been responsible for going out and collecting the daily wood, which takes a substantial amount of time,” says Ben. “When that chore is removed women have, on average, 20 hours more a week to themselves and we’ve seen many start small businesses. It  also allows the kids to focus more on their schooling.”

The role a biodigester can play within a community is incredible but it can also play a huge part in giving something back to the planet. “Regenerative farming is a really important topic for us at ATEC and we’re always looking for ways to get organics back into the soil,” says Ben. “70% of the soil in Cambodia is classified as degraded. It’s quite sandy and the continuous use of chemical fertiliser has just killed it off. We’ve found there’s no micro-organisms present and it can’t retain water or sequester carbon. Getting the organics in there with the fertiliser from the biodigester is good for the farmer (it can increase the crop yield of rice by 5% and vegetables by 30%) while also reducing fertiliser costs and it’s obviously incredibly beneficial for the environment.”

After recently closing a successful US1.6m Series B round of funding, Ben and the team are focused on extending ATEC’s PAYGO scheme, which gives farmers the chance to pay off their biodigesters over time. There’s also an expansion into Bangladesh, a license and distribution deal being set up so the business can license the technology and, of course, the continued transition from startup to scale-up mode.

Globally, there are 200 million small scale farmers who could benefit from having a biodigester and we’d love to support as many as possible

“Globally, there are 200 million small scale farmers who could benefit from having a biodigester and we’d love to support as many as possible,” Ben says. “As a social enterprise, impact is always our priority. We always put impact before profit, which means consistently looking for ways to have a positive impact on the planet. For us, It always comes back to waste, and the challenge of converting waste into energy is what keeps me awake at night!

"But I think we all have a role to play in reducing our waste and our carbon footprint, particularly if you own a business. You can conduct an energy audit, get some smart metering going and generate as much electricity as you can on site with solar. There’s more awareness around the climate crisis out there at the moment and, before the coronavirus hit, there was a real shift in the conversations we were having as a society. We can all see that it’s here, it’s real and we should all be doing our bit to help.”

To learn more about the work we did with ATEC* read our case study blog post

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No items found.
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LVLY
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OBG
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Parliament of Victoria
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WIRE
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iDE
No items found.
22 Bricks
ABCH
ATEC
Abundant Water
Anantaya Jewellery
B Lab ANZ
BZE
Bank Australia
Client Fabric
Clockwork Films
Compass Studio
Cyclion
Dog & Bone
Evee
Gewürzhaus
Goodtel
Green Collar
Hagens Organics
Hey Doodle
Jasper Coffee
Jaunt
KOSI
KingPump
LVLY
Lumen
MIIROKO
MK Local Foods
Marnie Hawson
Merry People
No Lights No Lycra
North West Guadalcanal Association (NWGA)
OBG
One Small Step
Parliament of Victoria
Peninsula Hot Springs
Portable
Possible
Prisma Legal
ReCo
Shadowboxer
Strongim Bisnis
Studio Schools Australia
Thankyou
The Sociable Weaver
Time
WIRE
Whole Kids
iDE

No items found.
No items found.
22 Bricks
ABCH
ATEC
Abundant Water
Anantaya Jewellery
B Lab ANZ
BZE
Bank Australia
Client Fabric
Clockwork Films
Compass Studio
Cyclion
Dog & Bone
Evee
Gewürzhaus
Goodtel
Green Collar
Hagens Organics
Hey Doodle
Jasper Coffee
Jaunt
KOSI
KingPump
LVLY
Lumen
MIIROKO
MK Local Foods
Marnie Hawson
Merry People
No Lights No Lycra
North West Guadalcanal Association (NWGA)
OBG
One Small Step
Parliament of Victoria
Peninsula Hot Springs
Portable
Possible
Prisma Legal
ReCo
Shadowboxer
Strongim Bisnis
Studio Schools Australia
Thankyou
The Sociable Weaver
Time
WIRE
Whole Kids
iDE

Targets

Results

Clients | Help conscious business grow

No destructive clients. Revenue breakdown: 15% Good, 60% Great, 25% Amazing (Here’s what the classifications mean)

🟢
  • No destructive clients.
  • Revenue breakdown: 10% Good, 66% Great, 25% Amazing

Client survey metrics

  • 3 /5 value for money
  • 8 / 10 likely to recommend
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  • 3.4 / 5 value for money
  • 8.8 / 10 likely to recommend

Maintain current revenue

🟠
  • Revenue down 16% YoY

Team | Be the best versions of us

  • All staff spend 70%+ of their time on clients
🟢
  • Spent 71% of our time on clients (over by only 76 hours).
  • Regular, honest check-ins about how we feel
🟢
  • Stand ups, development sessions, watercooler chats, impact updates and more.
  • Targeted and clear personal growth, if we are better our clients will be
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  • Lots of on-the-tools growth, structured learning through weekly Lunch ‘n Learns and Intro to Programming at RMIT.
  • Improve and increase capability across team
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  • Elevated our tool nerd level. See here.
  • Expanding output skills: Market research, Web design, strategy & development, video editing, and automation strategy.
  • 9 day fortnights, with option for 4 day weeks
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  • 40% work 9 day fortnights, 40% part-time hours, 20% standard working hours.

Community | Lift the communities we’re part of

  • Protest and boycott important issues (Australia Day, Melbourne Cup)
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  • Buy with intention from local and discriminated groups
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  • We continue to be intentional about our suppliers as outlined in our policy and report the details in the Community chapter of our report. We took it one step further this year with a public call to pledge to audit suppliers in this campaign www.supplier-impact.com
  • Invest $20k in impact businesses plus $20k of 100% pro bono time
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  • We delivered some pro bono time but dropped the ball and had no official measurements in place. We also did not invest $20k in impact businesses because of the reduced revenue with Becky on maternity leave.
  • Sarah personally donated her photography equipment valued at around $7,500 to empower a content and brand producer in the Solomon Islands.
  • Have a RAP, engaged stakeholders and implemented more change
🔴
  • Due to competing priorities and limited time (no lack in desire) we de-prioritised our Reconciliation Action Plan as we want to do it meaningfully and have the capacity to follow through. However, we took a few first steps outlined here.

Environment | Crank up the action on climate and environment

  • Be climate positive at work and at home
🟠
  • We don’t track our CO2 emissions, rather we take a much more general and high emissions view. However, this year, we didn’t donate to the environment (see above) so we can’t say we countered our CO2.
  • Donate 5% to the environment
🔴
  • We fell short here, we didn't make the donation. More details here.
  • Re-use, recycle and manage dangerous waste
🟢
  • We continue to implement our hazardous waste policy and are on a continuous learning and improvement journey.
  • We repair damaged hardware and minimise purchasing of new equipment.
  • Personally we're all Facebook Marketplace fans.
  • Advocate for climate change / inspire sustainable living
🟢

Governance | Operate fairly and squarely as an impact business

  • Maintain current ownership and governance
🟢
  • Harvey is 100% owned by the Smallchua Family Trust and Rebecca Smallchua is our sole Director.
  • Share templates, documents, insight into business for good
🟠
  • We haven’t actively done this publicly, but when people have asked, we have shared. And we’re sharing a series of things as part of this impact report.
  • Re-use, recycle and manage dangerous waste
🟢
  • We continue to implement our hazardous waste policy and are on a continuous learning and improvement journey.
  • We repair damaged hardware and minimise purchasing of new equipment.
  • Personally we're all Facebook Marketplace fans.
  • Maintain B Corp score from 134.1 with workers included
🟢
  • We applied for our B Corp re-certification at the end of this financial year and are pleased to report we achieved the same score (to the decimal point). Wild!
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