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Becoming a B Corp: Meet the businesses resolving to be a force for good

Becoming a B Corp: Meet the businesses resolving to be a force for good

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Various

Every business claims to care about people and planet, as well as profit. But who’s making sure? That’s where the B Corp movement comes in. We meet four businesses, old and new, that have made solid commitments to benefit the wider world, and earned the B Corp stamp of approval.

Gérard Niyondiko knew from an early age what he wanted to do.

As a child in Burundi, Niyondiko experienced “the nightmare of malaria”. He remembers being carried eight kilometres on foot to the nearest hospital – on more than one occasion. And he was one of the lucky ones. Determined to do something to combat the disease, Niyondiko resolved to become a doctor.

It wasn’t to be – he couldn’t get a place to study. So he turned to chemistry instead, still in the hope of contributing to the fight against malaria. Eventually Niyondiko’s career brought him to Burkina Faso where he co-founded Maïa Africa, a company making mosquito-repellent skin products.

Maïa Africa’s challenge was to make a product “repellent for mosquitoes and attractive for humans and not the other way round”, says Niyondiko’s co-founder Franck Langevin. It started out making soap, before realising that the mosquito-repellent effect was lost when parents rubbed shea butter on their kids’ skin after bathing them. So the firm came up with an ointment to replace the shea butter. Niyondiko says: “To have a product that can contribute to solving one of the big problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, and putting it in the hands of people who really need it, I am proud of that.”

It’s a classic story of a company formed to fulfil a particular purpose, which is why Niyondiko and co-founder Franck Langevin decided to get certified as a B Corp. This means Maïa Africa has resolved to benefit the wider world, meeting tough standards for social and environmental responsibility.

For more about how B Corp seeks to cement purpose in business, read our article Profit, meet purpose

Franck Langevin and Gérard Niyondiko co-founded Maïa Africa to help parents protect kids from malaria. Photo: Olympia de Maismont

Their mosquito-repellent ointment is a direct replacement for shea butter. Photo: Olympia de Maismont

There are now more than 4,000 B Corps around the world, but Maïa Africa was the first in West Africa and remains one of only a handful. Even so, for the two founders, B Corp certification is an important way to communicate what the business is all about. “It’s a way to reassure investors that we’re reliable,” says co-founder Franck Langevin, who left the tech industry in France seeking a higher purpose, then learned about Niyondiko in an online course, and came to Burkina Faso to meet him.

Having a clear company purpose also helps with recruitment, says Langevin. “When we hire people, we spend a long time telling them why we’re here and the ‘why’ is crucial. The ‘how’ and the ‘what’ can wait.”

“Being led by impact makes decisions easier. Where should we go? We should go where malaria is. It helped simplify the problem”

Franck Langevin, Maïa Africa

As well as selling to consumers, Maïa Africa works with NGOs to make its products as widely available as possible, and has helped raise funds to support displaced families who are at particular risk from malaria. It is now expanding to neighbouring Togo and Mali, and hopes to enter Ivory Coast and Niger.

“One good thing I’ve found about being led by impact is that it makes decisions easier,” says Langevin. “Where should we go? We should go where malaria is. It helped simplify the problem.”

What it takes to be a B Corp

  • Pass the B Impact Assessment, which measures how your operations impact people and planet (try it out for free here to see how you’d do)
  • Update your founding documents with firm commitments to public benefit
  • Set out how you intend to benefit the world, and report on it regularly alongside your financials
  • Renew your certification every three years to show you’re maintaining – and ideally improving – standards

Planning for the next generation

It’s not only startups that want to weave purpose into the fabric of their business. B Corp certification is also proving appealing for companies with long histories.

“This year we’re releasing a 1950 port,” says Rob Symington of Symington Family Estates, the Portuguese winemaker behind global brands including Cockburn’s and Graham’s. “We’re producing vintage port today, that we think someone’s going to want to drink in 2055.”

Symington isn’t just bragging. He’s making a point about the 138-year-old business: “We have an insanely long-term mindset.”

This explains why Symington Family Estates has set ambitious sustainability targets for 2025, including measuring and reducing CO2 emissions, using less water, switching to renewable energy and supporting the restoration of ecosystems in the local area. Because if you’re in the wine business and thinking about the future, you’re thinking about one thing: the climate. “It’s an existential threat”, Symington says.

Rob Symington brought his family’s wine business into the B Corp community. Photo courtesy of Symington Family Estates

Cover crops growing in between vines help keep soil healthy and contribute to biodiversity. Photo courtesy of Symington Family Estates

It was Rob Symington who introduced the company to B Corp. He had previously launched Escape the City, a business dedicated to helping people pursue purpose, which became one of the UK’s first B Corps in 2015. Then he decided to bring what he’d learned back to the family business, as one of the fifth generation of Symingtons to work there.

At first he wondered how much appetite the company would have for putting sustainability right at its heart. In the wine trade, Symington says, “everyone is used to talking about how beautiful their vineyards are and how much they care about the local environment. It’s largely based on words and nice stories, and it’s not that rigorous.” B Corp is about bringing that rigour, and when he introduced the idea, colleagues embraced it. The company was certified in 2019.

“Any organisation that isn’t doing well on sustainability by the middle of this decade, is increasingly going to be called out”

Rob Symington, Symington Family Estates

Symington now wants all wineries to “use our voices to call for action” on the environment. It might not come naturally to them, but they’d better get used to it, he believes. “Any organisation that isn’t doing this stuff well by the middle of this decade, is increasingly going to be called out.”

A path to credibility

Elsewhere in Portugal, a much younger business is using B Corp certification to show the world what it’s all about. Rita Marques and Diogo Areosa co-founded the travel volunteering firm Impactrip in 2015, and it was B Corp certified in 2019.

The idea for Impactrip started – how else – with a trip. Marques went volunteering in southeast Asia, and loved the ability to get under the skin of the place “instead of just checking off the 10 best places to visit”. But when she got home, she realised there were no opportunities of the kind in Europe. What if someone were to connect travellers with charities seeking volunteers?

Becoming a B Corp helped Diogo Areosa and Rita Marques explain to the world what their business was all about. Photo courtesy of Impactrip

Alongside her day job, Marques started developing her idea in a Word file called myimpactprojectv1.docx. “It wasn’t meant to be a company,” she says. “I just wanted to write down the ideas I had. And slowly I realised it was something I really cared about. I’d spend eight hours a day at work and eight hours on my project. So I thought, I should create it.”

“The process of becoming a B Corp really helped us. It gave us credibility”

Rita Marques, Impactrip

Since Portugal has no distinct legal framework for social businesses, B Corp certification is especially useful as a way to show you fit a recognised model rather than being, as Marques puts it, just “one weird company”.

“We were a young company, just three or four people, the processes were not written, the policies were just in our heads, so the process of becoming a B Corp really helped us,” says Marques. “It gave us credibility”.

A business people want to work for

Companies like Impactrip that work with charities are an obvious fit for B Corp. But all kinds of more everyday businesses are getting certified too. UK-based Bikmo is one of a number of insurance companies with B Corp certification.

Bikmo began life as a comparison site for bike components, before pivoting to insurance. Founder David George wasn’t out to save the world: he was just a cycling nut who wanted to create something great for his fellow riders. And in fact, it makes perfect sense for a company targeting cyclists to become a B Corp, he says, because of cycling’s potential to help reduce CO2 emissions from travel, improve air quality in cities, and support physical and mental health.

“We’re here not just to serve shareholders but to take social and climate considerations seriously as well,” says George. “B Corp was an external validation of what we stand for as a business and how we operate.”

A love of cycling has always been the driving force behind David George’s business, Bikmo. Photo courtesy of Bikmo

What George didn’t anticipate was “how well it would be received by the team”. Committing to B Corp standards has prompted the company to improve its employee benefits and work harder on diversity. George was especially pleased that some recent hires actually sought the company out because it’s a B Corp. “People love it.”

Clearly, businesses built on purpose attract a different kind of person, and a different kind of leader. For Rob Symington, and many more like him, profit alone just doesn’t cut it. The defining challenge facing his generation of business leaders, he believes, is stopping climate change. “We either hit the iceberg or we dodge it,” Symington says. “And I don’t want to get thirty years down the line and think, I just spent thirty years selling wine.”

 

Main image of Gérard Niyondiko and Franck Langevin by Olympia de Maismont 

What you can do

Join 5’s Facebook group for sustainability changemakers and network with other purpose-driven entrepreneurs 

Join here

Complete a B Impact Assessment for your business – for free

Take the assessment

Find out how to get your business certified as a B Corp

Find out here

Read the story of Gerard Niyondiko’s life in comic strip form (in French)

Read here
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