Big Issue Vendor

Each week in The Big Issue we bring you a celebration of the thinkers, the creators, the agitators. We’re looking at somebody who has come up with an invention or an idea that is moving the dial. This week, we speak to Bas van Abel, who discovered that while the world’s love affairs with gadgets isn’t going anywhere, there’s also an appetite for guilt-free, less disposable tech.

When Bas van Abel picks up a call, he feels the weight of a suffering planet. But at least the reception’s good. The 41-year-old founded social enterprise Fairphone in 2013, with a clear vision but not much else. He had learned of the tragic conflict in eastern Congo, fuelled by money from mining in the area, and that most of those minerals were used to make electrical goods. Computers, toasters, lightbulbs. Phones.

Van Abel had already been concerned that we, as consumers, had become alienated from technology and the process behind the products we rely on. So, for van Abel, Fairphone started as a campaign. Manufacturing mobile phones was only to make people pay attention.

Based in Amsterdam, van Abel’s background is in technology, art and non-profits – threads which, he says, always ran through projects he took on. The father-of-three is demonstrably well-read and well-rounded, having earned degrees in electrical engineering and interactive design before going on to work in both. Crucially, he has also never been short of a project: he co-authored Open Design Now, an exploration of a technical revolution taking place in the field.

Why don’t we make a phone and try to look through the phone at how the world works?

He retained a fascination with technology in a social context, and was a proponent of open source models. Saying he “thrives in creative chaos”, he compares his enthusiasm for innovation to children playing football – running towards the ball first, figuring out what to do with it later.

“We decided to be strategically naïve,” he says. “We knew that stuff came from the ground, that electronic devices start from somewhere in the mine. Why don’t we make a phone and try to look through the phone at how the world works? We didn’t want it to be a finger-pointing project, we just needed to prove that there was a market.”

He was soon in Congo, investigating mines which were unconnected to the conflict. “We found some mines, after bribing some people,” he says. “There was a moment when I thought, ‘Well, this is going to be a difficult ride’. We were trying to create a fair mobile phone and the first expense we had was a bribe.”

Ethical materials were eventually sourced, and Fairphone opened for online pre-orders. Some 25,000 people bought a phone in the initial wave. “Newspapers picked it up and boasted of this biodegradable, fully fair, totally world-saving phone, which was a bit of a challenge to live up to, as five people who didn’t know how to make phones,” van Abel says.

My 3 tips for success

  1. Be strategically naïve. If you’re too invested in all the reasons why your field works the way it does, your ambition will be dampened before you can act on it.
  2. Be transparent about your company’s shortcomings. People trust authenticity.
  3. Refuse to settle for the status quo, but don’t be dogmatic – you have to play by the rules some of the time.

They soon ironed out the practical details with the help of a development team in China. But instead of upholding an idealised notion of their product, the Fairphone team took a radical business approach: vulnerability. They were honest with customers about their product’s shortcomings: it was true that they were working from a ‘conflict-free’ mine, but it was also the case that Chinese labour conditions on the Fairphone production line were poor.

The founder held his hands up, ready to make changes when Fairphone had the resources, and it worked. Within a year and a half 60,000 of the phones had been sold and Fairphone had 40 employees.

Van Abel, who had never run a company, was now CEO and getting to grips with balance sheets. It was a steep learning curve, but it was “fantastic,” he says, describing it as having “the typical Silicon Valley startup feeling, combined with purpose”. But never settling, he sensed it was time for a shift of focus. He realised that they could invest money in mines and help improve working conditions, but that ultimately it shouldn’t be part of their model at all because of mining’s environmental effects.

Sustainability was soon at the core of the operation; van Abel was fascinated by the prospect of creating a modular phone that customers could easily repair themselves using inexpensive spare parts – a far cry from common smartphones, their batteries glued in and lifespan frustratingly short.

Changing the relationship between consumer and product, he says, is “the sustainability holy grail”. Creating phones people could hold on to for longer would mean a drop in production, which would dramatically reduce Fairphone’s carbon footprint. Van Abel laughs, envisioning himself as a CEO announcing to shareholders that his plan was to have consumers buy fewer products. “That’s the difference between being a social enterprise and being one of the big companies. You can engage with the dilemmas that your business model creates.” Fairphone 2 launched and again, van Abel proved that consumers were desperate for guilt-free tech.

Two weeks ago, van Abel stepped down as CEO, explaining that a company at this stage requires skills different from his own. He’ll join the supervisory board after a short sabbatical spent with his family, chasing new projects and – he hopes – taking a breath for the first time in five years. He hopes the social enterprise will continue to grow, his perspective unchanged from when he launched it: success for Fairphone puts change on the horizon of a wasteful industry.

Illustration: Lyndon Hayes