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Technology & Innovation

Social Change at Scale: Peter Thum’s Fonderie47

Do charities exist simply to exist or do they exist to achieve something specific? Peter Thum says social entrepreneurship can address issues we once thought were impossible to tackle.

What’s the Big Idea?

There is no shortage of ideas in today’s knowledge economy. There is, however, a shortage of actionable ideas. How can we take on seemingly insurmountable issues like climate change, the eradication of diseases and the scarcity of natural resources? Tackling these issues used to be almost the exclusive purview of governments or large corporations who had enormous resources to bring to bare. Take NASA, for instance. The Apollo spaceflights were launched at a cost of $25.3 billion in 1973 (or $170 billion in 2005 dollars).

Technological innovations are rapidly changing all of that. In the case of space travel, for instance, X Prize Founder and Chairman Peter Diamandis says what used to cost one billion dollars and twenty thousand people to get a space shuttle into orbit can now happen with “a team of twenty people funded by a single individual.” 

On a whole range of global issues we are seeing small groups of individuals or NGOs play a larger role than ever before. And in a previous post, Big Think documented the story of social entrepreneur Peter Thum, who launched Ethos Water, a bottled water company that aimed to “use consumer behavior to tackle a social issue.” In other words, Thum was able to take advantage of the multi-billion dollar bottled water industry and use it as a “funding and communications platform” that addressed the world water crisis.

Thum’s efforts payed off. He sold the company to Starbucks and has now launched a new venture called Fonderie47 that acquires and destroys AK47s in Africa, then brings some of the metal back home where he says “we partner with exceptional designers of jewelry and watches and accessories” who incorporate the materials from these guns–which is primarily steel–into their designs.

Where Ethos provided something useful to Africa and other parts of the world–water–Fonderie47 aims to take something harmful away–guns. In Thum’s words, they are out to fund “the rapid destruction of these weapons.”

What’s the Significance?

“Does a charity or do charitable efforts exist to exist or do they exist to achieve something specific?” Thum said to Big Think. It’s a particularly valid question to ask. After all, his immediate efforts will not eradicate all of the AK47s–the killing machines that have enabled so much rape and genocide and poaching and fear in Africa. However, Thum has a realistic perspective on the issue. 

“I think demonstrating for people that something is possible is the first step” says Thum. “I think people generally, if they were to look at the problem would consider the issue of arms in Africa as sort of an impossible issue.”

Where does Thum think this effort will eventually lead? He tells Big Think:

I think if we can start to draw down some of the numbers and demonstrate that it’s possible and show people that what kind of difference it makes in someone’s life that weapons are being removed, then we can start to attract interest from other funders, from other NGO’s, from international organizations and ultimately from governments who will see this as a way of facilitating stability and ultimately higher economic activity.


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