One Goal At a Time: 17 SMEs tackling the Sustainable Development Goals in effective ways


The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were developed in 2015 by the UN general assembly and outline 17 key global challenges which are to be achieved by 2030. While governments, large multinational organisations and aid groups all have a part to play, local businesses and SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) can be catalysts to change by addressing root issues and providing locally tailored solutions with lasting impact. Here, for each of the goals, an SME which is addressing that challenge has been listed. These organisations are making sustainable changes through skills development, transforming supply chains and shifting public perceptions. Some of the SMEs tackle more than one SDG, as many of the goals, interlink so their inclusive business models can result in more extensive sustainable impact.

1. No poverty

This global goal involves eradicating extreme poverty, which is measured as living on less than $1.25 a day. There is also a focus on mobilizing resources, building resilience and providing equal access to economic resources. Zidisha is a microfinancing scheme tackling the lack of access to financial services for 1.7 billion people worldwide, reducing obstacles to financial access through crowdfunding loans. They offer loans to residents in Ghana, Indonesia, Kenya, Nigeria and Zambia, now assisting in financing over 250,000 projects. The system works through entrepreneurs in low-income countries applying for small loans for business development. Lenders can then select the projects they want to fund, and loans are repaid incrementally. The company is unique as it is the first online microlending community that directly connects lenders and entrepreneurs, without any intermediaries. The direct person-to-person communication allows lenders to better understand how their money is being used and form a genuine connection between lender and borrower. It is also more cost-efficient as there are minimal overheads for Zidisha, so borrowers can keep more of the income earned from a loan investment.

Find out more about Zidisha here

2. Zero hunger

Malnutrition is a pressing issue in both high- and low-income countries. A recent survey conducted by the Ethical Corporation revealed that this goal has been the SDG with the least action, with only 20% of multinationals looking to engage in ending hunger and improving nutrition. SMEs also play a crucial role in tackling this issue. “Jasberry” is the first Thai certified B food corporation, producing the naturally cross-bred, high yielding rice variety “Jasberry rice” which has 40 times more antioxidants than brown rice. Siam Organic, the social enterprise that developed the Jasberry rice product, provide their network of small-scale farmers with rice seeds, guaranteeing a premium price for the rice whilst requiring farmers to keep at least 25% of their harvests for household consumption. They consult with weather experts to advise farmers on when rainy seasons are expected to start, as well as having a microfinance partnership with Kiva, to assist the purchase of organic fertilizer and further improve their production. Farmers are trained in organic farming methods so that they can meet international organic certification standards, reaching over 2500 smallholder farmers in Thailand. Through guaranteed prices for Thai rice farmers who would generally earn just $0.40 per day, they simultaneously provide a highly nutritious staple food product for local communities and international consumers.

Find out more about Jasberry here

3. Good health and well-being

“Aakar” innovations are striving to break the silence and spread awareness around Menstrual Hygiene in India. By manufacturing and distributing economically viable and fully compostable sanitary pads, the social enterprise employs and educates women from under-resourced backgrounds to transform their health, confidence and economic status. The company removes access barriers to sterile sanitary products which prevent infection, through the set up of production units in rural villages and urban slums. This allows female entrepreneurs to produce and distribute the innovative “Anandi” pads in their own villages. Not only do Aakar innovations target the third SDG, but they are also addressing gender equality and sustainability, covering a number of other SDGs. The pads are manufactured in mini-factories which are woman-supervised and employed, to provide local opportunities as well as the development of entrepreneurial skills. Now reaching over 1 million female consumers and employing over 600 women in factories and on behavioural change programs for boys and girls, Aakar innovations are tackling core issues as well as supporting sustainable community transformations.

Find out more about Aakar innovations here

4. Quality education

Hippocampus is a social enterprise that provides high-quality education for children across all economic backgrounds. Starting from a library in a suburb of the Indian city of Bangalore, they later expanded their work to reach out to children studying in government schools and those that attend community centres in slums. The organisation began to develop preschool centres in underprivileged villages, run by extensively trained local women. They soon progressed to create innovative schools which support activity-based and differential learning. Today they are one of the largest and most respected educational operators in Rural India, running 14 schools, with 600 teachers and over 11536 students. Hippocampus also assists private schools and community centres in running better schools, pre-schools and libraries.

Find out more about Hippocampus learning centres here

5. Gender equality

Opened by the “Stop Acid Attacks” team in the Indian city of Agra, “Sheroes Hangout” provides a safe space for acid attack survivors to regain self-esteem and develop entrepreneurial skills to set them up for a prosperous future. The café employs these persevering women to provide skills training and rehabilitation, in a society where most survivors are expected to spend the rest of their lives in shame behind closed doors. Incorporated into the Café environment, the organisation also hosts social debates and music sessions, promoting public awareness of the consequences and proximity of violence against women in India. Leading pioneering campaigns with women at the forefront, Sheroes Hangouts are bridging the gap between survivors and society whilst also pushing for changes in government policy.

Find out more about Sheroes Hangout here

6. Clean water and sanitation

Around 40% of the world’s population don’t have access to a toilet, resulting in 289,000 deaths from diarrhoeal diseases of children under five every year, caused by poor water and sanitation. “Who gives a crap”, is an Australian Certified B corporation which sells 100% compostable toilet paper and packaging made from bamboo and recycled paper. Their products are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and the Business Social Compliance Initiative which focuses on management in the global supply chain. They donate 50% of their profits to accredited organisations such as WaterAid to help build toilets and improve sanitation in the developing world. They have now donated over £1,500,000, filling a huge gap in the global market for essential disposable products which minimise environmental impact whilst also having a positive social result.

Find out more about Who gives a crap here

7. Affordable and clean energy

“Biolite” develops technology for sustainable energy provisioning across the world. Their parallel innovation business model involves producing products that target off-the-grid clean energy for outdoor camping enthusiasts whilst simultaneously re-investing revenues into accessible energy for emerging markets in India and sub-Saharan Africa.  Their leading wood-burning stoves use thermoelectric technology, requiring 50% less fuel and producing 90% less smoke than conventional open fires. Thus, targeting the 4 million deaths per year that are due to the inhalation of toxic smoke from biofuel fires. Their products also can reduce the amount of time that rural families spend collecting firewood, which disproportionately affects women, whilst also minimizing carbon emissions as 25% of global black carbon is released through open fires. The focus on durability and affordability of their products means that rural families don’t have to pay disproportionately high fuel costs as in the current system. Biolite also ensures usability by maintaining the cultural component of cooking on an open fire and providing assistance for product use, through company trained local people. By tackling “energy poverty”, the company also offers microfinancing schemes to buy its products, leading to longer-term sustainability and community independence.

Find out more about Biolite here

8. Decent work and economic growth

One key feature of SMEs that make a real sustainable impact, is the investment into communities and individuals so that they have ownership over economic growth and can create opportunities for themselves. Divine Chocolate is an exceptional example of this. Set up by a co-op of Ghanaian farmer and supported by the Fairtrade community, the company was developed to champion cocoa growers, ensuring farmers were paid in cash and Fairtrade premiums were invested into social development programs such as education and training. Now a certified B corporation, they sell high-quality chocolate products to the mainstream market in the UK, USA and Sweden. They have been a catalyst for change in the chocolate market, being the first Fairtrade company to have the majority of its shareholders (44%) as a co-operative of 100,000 Ghanaian cocoa farmers. Their socially and economically sustainable business model provides opportunities for local community growth, whilst also empowering women as a third of their farmer co-operative are female.

Find out more about Divine Chocolate here

9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure

The vision of “One Planet Living” involves a positive global existence within the Earth’s natural limits of resource use. Bioregional, a UK based business, have created this flexible framework to advise infrastructure, communities, and governments on how to achieve the goal of sustainability. They work with ambitious partners that desire to make a change, providing training and leadership services to aid partners in creating a “One planet living action plan”. Through assessment, monitoring and working towards a circular economy, Bioregional have succeeded in advocating for sustainable infrastructure, including advising other companies on how to achieve the SDG’s. Some of their successes include helping European-based home improvement company Kingfisher to set ambitious and approved science-based targets for low carbon business. They have also advised the development of the Springfield Meadows housing development in Oxfordshire for affordable zero-carbon homes with space for nature.

Find out more about Bioregional here

10. Reduced inequalities

Based in New York City, Sweet Generation is an artisan bakery which uses the sales from its award-winning food products to support an internship programme for 16-24-year-olds from resource-deprived neighbourhoods. Their RISE programme (reach, inspire, shape, elevate) provides meaningful opportunities and training for entrepreneurship, business planning and culinary craft. They also partner with other internship programs that include compensation so that young people are supported throughout their time. Each cohort participates in 8-weeks of workshops that give marginalised youths the chance to gain valuable experience and to increase access to employment opportunities. With a background in the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development, founder and CEO Amy Chasan has strived to fill the gap in underfunded enrichment and development programmes for young people. RISE has now served over 60 young people and continues to reduce inequality by giving youths the skills and training to have a positive economic impact in under-resourced NYC communities.

Find out more about Sweet Generation here 

11. Sustainable cities and communities

Regenerating cities and incorporating nature into urban areas is the mission of geospatial AI firm, “Green City Watch”. Applying innovative technology to an ecological setting, they strive to build smarter cities and greener urban environments, highlighting the need for data-driven assessments. Some of their past projects have included improving the accuracy of measuring green roofs in Amsterdam using Very High Resolution (VHR) satellite imagery, as well as the development of “the Green and Blue Footprints tool” which can be used to inform infrastructure management, benefitting local governments across the world. Their latest projects include developing software to assist Sydney in achieving its goal of reintroducing more greenery by 2030, as well as following up with further measurements for Indonesian policymakers after the success of their comprehensive green space datasets. Green City Watch’s highly skilled scientific team, including CEO and co-founder Nadine Gallé, are paving the way towards a better understanding of how high-quality green space and ecosystem services can be incorporated for more sustainable cities in the future.

Find out more about Green City Watch here

12. Responsible consumption and production

Coliba, the Ghanaian Plastic Waste Recycling Company, addresses key obstacles in waste management and the circular economy. Powered by digital solutions, the company has created an app that enables homes and institutions to start and request recycling services digitally, overcoming a number of logistical barriers. They incentivise individuals by supporting and training entrepreneurs to run Coliba operations in communities with little recycling services. With 80% of contracted employees being women, the company is also inclusive, targeting high working standards. The recovered plastic waste is converted into flakes and pellet that are sold to manufacturers, allowing for the creation of new products at a lower cost and with less energy. This recycling system supports waste pickers whilst also increasing sustainability at the manufacturing end. They have already recycled 700 tonnes of plastics, and their mission is to increase Ghana’s recycling rate from the current 2% to 92% by 2030.

Find out more about Coliba here

13. Climate action

Founded in 2009, Ecosia is a search engine that tackles global deforestation by using the income generated by search ads to plant trees. The Berlin-based social business is the first ever German certified B corporation, focusing on full transparency in all areas of their enterprise, including financial reports and receipts for all of their tree planting projects. Ecosia has now planted over 93 million trees in 15 different countries, working with local partner communities to ensure that forestry projects are done in the most socially and ecologically sustainable way. CO2 emissions from the search engine are also neutralised through the building of their own solar plants which then supply clean energy to power the searches. Forest growth is currently one of the most effective ways of sequestering atmospheric carbon, so Ecosia acts as a carbon negative business through the use of its own renewable energy and planting schemes.

Find out more about Ecosia here

14. Life below water

Regenerative ocean farming is a pioneering model, gaining real traction as it addresses the need for more circular food systems which don’t negatively impact natural ecosystems. “GreenWave” has developed a polyculture ocean farming system, growing a variety of seaweeds and shellfish with zero inputs. This sustainable food production system can sequester carbon through the formation of seaweed forests, whilst simultaneously restoring ocean ecosystems as shellfish are renowned water filters, supporting varied marine life through the provision of habitats and improved water quality. These farms have relatively low set-up costs, creating jobs by minimizing barriers to access and only requiring 20 acres to produce high yields as the model has a vertical structure. The seaweed produced is an effective fertilizer, reducing the need for industrial input in agriculture, whilst also presenting uses in livestock feed and for bioplastics. Green Wave’s innovative design was named in TIME magazine’s top 25 inventions of 2017, now further developing and expanding the application of their model whilst providing training and skills for those who want to set up their own farms or join the network of buyers.

Find out more about Green Wave here

15. Life on land

Carbon offsetting is rapidly becoming a popular solution for climate change mitigation, particularly for large corporations that have minimal alternative sustainability practices in place. However, if not implemented effectively, it can have a detrimental impact on local communities and biodiversity in off-setting regions. “Carbon Tanzania” have a pioneering business approach, ensuring that the value of sustainable management for natural resources is realised throughout the stakeholder network, including forest communities and the companies providing finance. Their targeted projects generate forest carbon offsets which are then sold on the market, creating revenue which is paid directly to the local communities for development needs. Implementing a REDD project design, they use landscape conservation solutions to form partnerships between landscape users. Their conservation efforts have been verified by a number of third-party organisations, including the “Climate, Community & Biodiversity Alliance”, ensuring that they can protect wildlife in forests whilst promoting a mutually beneficial relationship with local communities.

Find out more about Carbon Tanzania here

16. Peace, justice and strong institutions

“Sourcing justice” is a social enterprise which assists businesses in analysing their supply chains to work towards the eradication of modern slavery. Offering services such as risk assessment training, and personalised consulting, they give reports and advice for meaningful and actionable steps, ensuring justice in all areas of business. Through the work of Founder and CEO Jennifer Wascak who is a US-qualified attorney and with support of a legal expert advisory board, they support purpose-driven organisations to develop and integrate practices for achieving greater equality in global supply chains. Sourcing justice champions human rights, allowing businesses to make tangible changes in their supply chains.

Found out more about Sourcing Justice here

17. Partnerships for the goals

This final goal is the route by which lasting impact by the other 16 can be made. A successful sustainable development agenda requires collaboration between governments and the private sector, with partnerships built upon shared values for people and the planet. Technology could further facilitate partnerships and communication; however, accountability and transparency are key in all areas.

SME’s offer the opportunity to unlock further resources, making long-term investments into communities and innovative infrastructure. They present a significant proportion of the global economy, whilst possibly having the greatest potential for sustainable systematic change. With the practical framework of the Sustainable Development Goals, small businesses can strive to share knowledge and expertise to achieve these goals.