Gunter Pauli: A forest can be grown in the Gobi desert

Gunter Pauli

Gunter Pauli is the author of “Blue Economy: 10 Years, 100 Innovations, 100 Million Jobs” and the founder of Zero Emissions, Research, and Initiative. He has been called the Steve Jobs of sustainability by Le Point, the Huffington Post, and the Tasmanian Times. As an entrepreneur, he advocates a business model which aids both financial and environmental aspects to production.

Pauli has been travelling, and he visited Mongolia for a week, using the time to lecture at the National University of Mongolia and the Mongolian Chamber of Commerce, to star in economist Jargalsaikhan Defacto’s interview hour, and to see the opportunities the country offers. In his lecture, he spoke about how finding out that his and the world’s first zero emissions soap factory destroying the rainforest led him to develop a new business model with the help of the UN and other scientists. He later talked about the results from his projects which sound almost surreal, including building a forest on a low pH, acidic land, making paper using stones, and creating soaps from oranges.

The following is an interview with Gunter Pauli about his main principles in business, the roles of corporations, scientists and entrepreneurs in the blue economy business model, and the opportunities Mongolia has.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

It is interesting how you’ve created a forest in 20 million hectares of desert in Columbia. Could it be implemented in our Gobi desert?

If I were a scientist, I might’ve replied “maybe”. But because I’m a businessman, I will reply “of course”. But we not only grew a forest in a dry and arid land, but we made life flourish. It’s a lot of years’ work. I’ve seen water being created where a tree is planted. Now in Columbia, we give everyone three liters of water for free. We gift six-year-olds bicycles. Because they drink three liters of fresh water every day and use bi-
cycles for transportation from the age of six, the hospital that opened there has come to close, because it no longer has any patients.

I can’t really give detailed information about opportunities Mongolians can use since I haven’t been here for a long time. But there’s no such thing as bad soil. A forest could be grown in your Gobi desert. Again, there’s no such thing as poor soil, but a poor brain. As I have first observed, Mongolia has vast resources of sand. Then you import thousands of tons of glass. Why aren’t you producing glass on your own. It’s just important to find the solution.

What are your main business principles?

The main principle is, we have to respond to local needs, which are clean water, fresh air, healthy food, comfortable building, healthcare, clean energy, good education, and a system that is ethical. I want to respond to basic needs with what people have. That means that we cannot focus on trying to compete globally and cutting costs, or competing with the Chinese, which is a hopeless game anyway.

I’m saying, why don’t we change the rule of the game? Because we’re always generating more value with what is locally available. It’s my basic principle.

Could you give me an example?

Well, I know that when I take a cup of coffee, there’s 99.8 percent that is not in my cup of coffee. From the bean, which you grind, you get coffee. We ingest only 0.2 percent [of the bean]. As for Turkish coffee, we ingest 0.5 percent. So what do you do with the rest?

The problem is that most people don’t even think about it. For us, this is just a cup of coffee. We don’t think about that 99.8+ percent that we don’t use.

That’s where I come in. I’m saying, what do we need to make coffee? We need hot wa-
ter. We pour hot water over it. If we do so, I’m saying that you’ve sterilized it. It’s sterile, as the hot water kills bacteria. I can farm mushroom in my substrate now, which is the biological waste. It’s a nice fiber which has been sterilized. So if I look at the cost of anyone farming a mushroom, they are buying raw materials and spending a lot of energy to purify the substrate. I don’t have to do that anymore. That means 80 percent of my costs are gone. So I’m competitive. I can start a business. Likewise, there are now more than 3,000 coffee-based businesses in the world. How I come in is by saying: We’ve now got coffee, and we’ve got mushroom, but what do we do with the mushroom? It also has waste. The white stuff of the mushroom that grows through the coffee are actually amino acids. They are a great food. We don’t like to drink coffees with amino acids, but a chicken loves it, and a cow and a goat will eat it. Because they intuitively know that the mushrooms are rich in amino acids. So if I have all these essential amino acids which a chicken needs, that means I drink my coffee, I have my mushroom, and I have my chicken food. Then I drive out of the city and see this big chicken egg company where they have a big feeder with tanks, which were all imported at very high costs.

I’m saying, why don’t you give them the waste from the coffee after you harvest the mushroom? Because it’s much richer and much better. The eggshells will also become nice and dark naturally.

This is how I think, “How do we cascade?” As a result, you never waste anything, you al-
ways generate more value. Just on the coffee, mushroom and chicken food cycle, instead of making 500 USD on your coffee, you will make 2,000 USD on your coffee.

Your book says that you are planning to create 100 million jobs by 2020?

Yes, I have said that this approach will generate 100 million jobs. Today we have created about three-and-a-half million jobs. So I’m far from my 100 million, but I have three million, which is not bad.

One of the biggest challenges of sustainable development is the lack of cooperation between scientists, policy owners, and economists. How can the cooperation be aided?

For people to work together, they have to get out of their little black box. Everyone lives in their little black box, or their air conditioned atmosphere. They have a comfort level.

To get them out of their level, you have to motivate them. Now, there are two ways to motivate. Either you have a stick and you chase them out of there, or you describe to them the opportunities. When they’re face-to-face with many opportunities, they’re ready to get out. Not all, but a few are ready. That’s what we need. I’m much more the person who persuades people to get out of their comfort zones because they get a vision and see something. The advantage I have, after working in this field for more than 20 years, is that I can show that it works. I can say, “And by the way, that forest [which was planted on acidic soil], it stands. The forest is producing water. The hospital is closed [because there are no more patients], we don’t need that anymore. Don’t talk to me if you have questions. Talk to the people who have done it. I’m not ready to debate the details of it, this is my experience, this has been my role, and this is what we have achieved. And for the rest, talk to the people who have done it. You don’t believe that stone papers are a fact of life? Well, go to China and see the factory.”

It’s crazy how many traditional methods there are that we don’t realize.

The problem is the internet. The internet only gives us data and information. There’s no wisdom on the internet. The internet gives you what you put in and what you put out. But it doesn’t make relationships. If you’re Google-ing chicken food, you’re never going to get mushrooms and coffee. You will never.

Why? Because Google isn’t programmed like that. Ask Google: What do we do with recycled bottles? Then you’ll find some websites saying you can make textiles out of it. But noone will say “and those textiles can be mixed with coffee, and now you have a textile of a much higher value because it absorbs body odor”. You don’t find it on Google, because Google isn’t programmed like that.

Since it isn’t programmed, people don’t make the connections. This is the biggest injustice that we have on the internet. We have data, we have information. You find what you want, but only that. Anything related to it, you don’t find it.

Is there a way it could be programmed like that?

Of course. That’s why we work with mathematicians. But we’re not Google.

I don’t want to be it either. I don’t want to be a software company. What we want to do is to function like foundations; we just want to make certain that people see the opportunities on the basis of what has been done.

What roles do corporations and start-ups play in this initiative?

When you’re an expert at making soap, and I tell you I can take the peel of an orange and squeeze the soap out of there, you would say, “That’s not how the industry does it”. The soap industry uses palm oil or animal fat. The industry is not using peels from citrus fruits, so that’s the problem with the established industry. It will only do what it knows. Because once you have an established industry, you have what is called a supply chain management. Your supply is managed from your raw material all the way to your customer. Anything new is a disturbance.

You don’t want disturbances. You want your cash flow, your profits, and your market shares secured. It will do anything to force stability in the flow.

As for an entrepreneur, when I know that I can take an orange juice factory, and using their peels, I can make my soap. For me, this is a great opportunity. As a young entrepreneur, I can just take that waste which costs nothing, I can squeeze it out and start my business at a very low cost compared to the costs that these big guys have. Now these big guys, if they want to do this, they have to write off what they have. That is why in all these innovations, which I recall in the “Blue Economy”, you need people who have no experience. You need people who don’t know how it’s normally done.

If I were to hire an expert in paper making to make stone paper, he would say that this is completely wrong. “Where is the water? – We don’t need water. – No, no, no. We need water and cellulose. – We don’t need cellulose. – Then you don’t have any paper. This is no paper,” we would converse.

That is why we appeal to young people and say, “You have no experience. What good news! If you had experience, we would be in trouble. We would be doing everything everybody else is doing.”

So, first of all, no experience. Second, mental framework. You don’t need money. You need to find where the money is. I’m sure there are some restaurants in Ulaanbaatar which are offering fresh orange juice. So, someone is squeezing it, and where is the peel? My question is that when I’m an entrepreneur, if you have a peel and you throw it away, give it to me. How many businesses do you know where you get your raw materials for free?

A very few.

I can give you hundreds. The problem is that you don’t see that. This is my role; to open up their eyes so people see many opportunities. I came from the Presidential Palace and I’m walking here. I go by this wonderful coffee shop. Beautiful.

If I’m an entrepreneur in Ulaanbaatar, I would go there and ask how much waste coffee they have, because they’re roasting and brewing the coffee. My question is, how many kilograms do they have a day. If they have five kilograms, they could have five kilograms of fresh mushrooms a day. How many mushroom farms are there in Ulaanbaatar? Maybe a very few. Are they using the five kilograms from the coffee shop? The five kilograms is in the city. So I have no transport to the farm. Instead, I can do it in a little room somewhere in the city, and there are a lot of little rooms in the city that I’ve seen. If I can do five kilograms a day, it will be 150 kilograms a month, because mushrooms don’t take the weekends off.

Fresh mushrooms would easily go for five USD per kilogram when delivered in the city. With five kilograms, my God, I’m doing 750 USD a month, and you will have to work probably an hour a day. Where is the opportunity?

These orange peel soaps, coffee mushrooms, and stone papers are all real?

Yes, all tried and done. Nothing is fantasy.

Are you implementing any of these projects in Mongolia?

No, I’ve just arrived here. I’ve been here since Saturday. I leave on Wednesday. For me, this is the first opportunity to understand what the opportunity is, and to talk to people. Soon, I’m going to see some of the mining projects.

That’s why I want to see. My first role is to see, and to listen, and ask where are the questions, and what are people worried about, and such.

So far, as you have seen, how much potential does Mongolia have?

Lots of potential. Every country has it.