In February 2016 Stan and I attended the Inside 3D Printing conference in Dusseldorf, Germany. Frankly speaking, it was entirely different from what we expected. We thought that it would feature far more start ups and makers, but it turned out to be a typical industrial manufacturing conference with a very strong corporate focus.
Definitely, we were in the wrong place. Being in such a company we started looking for like-minded, casually dressed fellows and that is how we bumped into Ronan Hayes.
Ronan was delivering a presentation as the co-founder of Reflow a socially responsible 3D Filament startup. That was the most interesting presentation during the entire event and so naturally we started chatting. I had never heard about Reflow and I was impressed by their activity, so I asked Ronan to arrange an interview with the original founder of the company, Jasper Middendorp.
Tony, Threeding.com: Hi Jasper. Thank you for accepting our invitation for this interview. First, tell us about ReFlow?
Jasper, ReFlow: Reflow is a community brand that creates high-quality 3D print filament that is affordable, ethical and sustainable. Our 3D print filament is created in developing countries from bottles collected by waste pickers. By selling our product on the international market we make sure waste pickers earn twenty times more from the plastic they collect.
We currently have production facilities in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Oaxaca, Mexico. Our initial sales push is focused on the 3D printing market in the United States and Europe. The product sales will shift towards local sales as this market grows in developing countries. Within five years we aim to produce filament in ten additional countries where there is a growing 3D printing market and a significant waste picker population. Within ten years we'll have a global community that will be able to produce filament right at the consumer’s doorstep.
As there is a clear international market for filament, the focus of our social enterprise efforts is currently on filament production and sales. Within the techfortrade foundation we are also piloting the sales of 3D printers made from e-waste and, together with the World Bank, testing the feasibility of 3D print technology in business applications in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Tony, Threeding.com: Can you tell us a bit about your team and brings you together?
Jasper, ReFlow: We’re a global born team of 9 people with 7 different nationalities spread across the globe. Engineering and production teams in Tanzania and Mexico, Machine Development in the US and HQ in Amsterdam. We build partnerships with local teams and coach and empower them to build businesses around 3D printing.
We have a wide range of skills ranging from our CMO, Ronan Hayes, who has built brands and led communications strategy for companies of all sizes, Lyndsey Lewis, our COO, a mechanical engineer who has led an all-women team to five consecutive FIRST Robotics world championships and myself, Jasper, who in my work at Enviu, has set up social enterprises all over the world.
Tony, Threeding.com: Can you tell us more about where you get the plastic from?
Jasper, ReFlow: Our plastic is sourced from the expansive waste sites found in Tanzania, Kenya and Mexico. In most developing countries, there is a large group of waste pickers that are often among the poorest communities. As a last resort, they collect plastic bottles to support their families. They have very little means to create additional income and because of the recent steep fall in plastic prices (as much as 80% over the last four years) even this income is rapidly disappearing.
By recycling plastic into 3D print filament, we can create an alternative income stream where it is most needed and break the poverty cycle for these individuals. But we think the problem is even broader than that. The attitude that people have to waste, particularly in western countries, is completely blind. Your average European consumer does not realize that we dump or illegally trade up to 90% of our E-Waste in developing countries every year or that plastic is rapidly infecting every aspect of our environment, even fish ecosystems. We need a paradigm shift and we need it now.
Tony, Threeding.com: What motivates reflow and how do you plan to make a social impact?
Jasper, ReFlow: In the first few years, our social impact will focus on directly improving the lives of waste pickers and getting plastic off the ground. Worldwide, there are over 150 million waste pickers that live on less than $1.50 per day. It is now more important than ever to create an alternative, sustainable income stream for these vulnerable individuals.
Our impact grows with the growth of our business. Every kg of filament sold results in 120 bottles removed from the ground and $3 additional income for waste pickers. In the first three years, we aim to sell 50,000 kg of 3D print filament, which will result in waste pickers earning $200,000 extra and the removal of 6,000,000 plastic bottles from the street.
Our longer-term impact is to kick-start 3D print technology in developing countries, which will have three major impacts:
Stronger local economies
Reduced CO2 emission through reducing product transport
Widely available quality products that fit local needs.
Advancement of human capital in developing countries
Imagine a world where products are produced locally, where people at the bottom of the pyramid are empowered to take up their own manufacturing and incomes earned in developing countries circulate in the local economy. That is the world we are trying to help create and we believe the exponential nature of 3D printing will help take us there.
Tony, Threeding.com: Can you tell us a bit about your business model?
Jasper, ReFlow: We’re a social enterprise that uses profits to scale our impact. We take a margin on any filament that is produced locally and sold on the international market. This margin allows us to grow production, scale to multiple countries and create strong impact to local waste pickers.
Our future growth model is based on being first-to-market as the filament producer in emerging markets. The 3D printing market in developing countries will witness an enormous growth over the next five years. We see a lot of similarities with the development of mobile banking in developing countries. Mobile banking was able to grow so rapidly in developing countries because of a broken banking infrastructure. Many people lacked access to basic banking services and when they did have access, it was costly and inefficient.
When mobile payment came into market in 2006, even the poorest people gained access to banking products and could wire small amounts of money on the fly. By 2015, Sub-Saharan Africans were three times more likely to use mobile money as Europeans and Americans, think about that ! In the same way, 3D printing technology will be able to grow due to a crumbling transport infrastructure, limited capacity for local production and the low quality of products available.
Tony, Threeding.com: As a Social enterprise and start-up claiming a social impact, you are always going to be met with criticisms around motivation or even exploitation. How do you intend to face this line of questioning?
Jasper, ReFlow: It’s easy for us. We are serious about the people we work with; 25% of the profits we make go back into improving the lives of waste pickers. Because we work in developing countries, we can offer an ethical and sustainable product at competitive prices. Although labor is indeed less expensive, we create honest jobs with fair incomes that help people and their families sustain themselves.
You have to consider that even to create a sustainable filament right now in Europe would be far easier from a technical, logistical and financial perspective. That’s not us, our intentions are pure and we feel people will see that through the work we do and the communities and partners we reach out to. No matter how genuine your actions are, skepticism is unavoidable in this arena but you can’t let it discourage you. We’re always trying to make our model and brand stronger because we know that’s how we can amplify our impact.
Tony, Threeding.com: How do you think our industry will develop?
Jasper, ReFlow: First and foremost, we think the true potential of 3D printing in a consumer or maker space context, will manifest itself in countries where manufacturing and transport infrastructure is lacking. It’s there that the technology will start to make sense for consumer oriented products on a large scale. Often focusing a technology at a problem is where you see the most powerful breakthrough. This is never going to happen if we focus on the potential of 3DP for only 7% of the world’s population.
Secondly, it will become more and more important to connect 3D print related products to the open-source and social mentality of the 3D printing community. As the market grows, it will no longer be sufficient to have a product that’s just good. Story will become one of the key drivers.
The third aspect is that the future is not in increasing the efficiency in centralized processes but in decentralized, flexible processes set up close to markets. Even though 3D printing is a decentralized technology, filament production is still done by traditional industrial processes. Decentralization not only reduces transport and distribution costs, but it also means a flexible model allowing tailor-made solutions.
Tony, Threeding.com: Anything else you want to share with us?
Jasper, ReFlow: First of all we want to draw attention to two of the most innovative group of engineers and innovators in East-Africa. AB3D in Nairobi and STIC LAB in Tanzania. These guys are innate inventors and a joy to observe at work.
We also have a design submission platform running right now to help launch our crowd-funding. The goal is to connect some of the amazing art being created right now using 3D tools and techniques and connect it to this social cause and we’ve had some amazing artists already get on board. If you’re a talented 3d artist / animator/ sculptor or can use 3D modeling to any degree, we’d love to get your participation http://reflowfilament.com/design/
And most importantly, We’re an open source company striving for open collaborations, ideas and inspiration. If you feel you want to work together and that this will add value to both of our goals please get in touch and collectively we can print the difference.