so+ma is a Brazilian social enterprise that utilises a reward programme to create new habits and expand opportunities in low-income communities.
What is the problem So+ma is trying to solve?
We are trying to reduce inequality in Brazil. In the same moment that we are influencing people to have new behaviours about habits, all of which tackle the SDGs, they will be able to have more opportunities on the other hand. We are adding those two things together. The word soma in Portuguese means addition, so the plus is in the middle to add two parts. We are also adding, I would say, environmental issues on one side and social issues on the other.
Tell us about your programmes.
The way that we do our “knowledge programme” is to empower people to understand that it depends on them, not anyone else, to have an impact. The programme is free, so you just have to enrol. We are not looking for money, because we are talking to a population that has very little money, and we are looking for their attitudes. We started with recycling and now we are prototyping water. Next we want to go to finance behaviour and then strategies against food waste. All of these issues have common goals down the road.
How do you create impact?
We have two different types of impact. Quantitative and qualitative. We can tell you the actual quantity of waste that has gone into recycling. And we know who brought the recycling, what kind of material and where the material went. On the other hand, we have a lot of qualitative impact. When people start changing their ways of seeing waste, they also see what they consume, how their environment is different near them—they see the street is less dirty, they see the canals are not clogged.
When people deliver their recycling, for example, that action is transformed into points. Those points are exchanged for either products, courses, or services. We can tell people how much it would cost if they had to buy it, and we know how much money they are actually saving, just with their actions and behaviour. People think, “Wow, what I have done has bought me a better community, bought me a better chance, and I was able to save money.” It is a win-win and they have done it only with their attitude.
Can you also give us a sense of numbers, in terms of your impact?
We first started in one community and now we are going to three communities. Just in the first two communities, we have been able to impact more than a thousand families. And then one of the communities has just started a month ago.
More than 91,000 kg of waste was diverted into recycling. The waste pickers have improved their efficiency by 30 per cent, and also the waste recovery rate. If people bring in their waste pre-sorted, for example, you get more points, so the entire chain has been more efficient, and this helps it to be so.
This is very interesting. So, your target users are families in those communities?
Yes. I am talking about families because recycling and waste is a family thing. Our target users are the low-income people in low-income neighbourhoods, because it is where we can have more impact, socially and environmentally.
Do you see yourself as an inclusive business?
Yes. We call ourselves an “impact business.” There are tons of definitions about that. So, we are an inclusive business, but we are going more towards being an impact business.
How have your partners and customers responded after you founded the company?
Big companies really helped us to push everything. They are the big sponsors. Also, the ones that are being impacted, the communities and, also, the government. They are really looking at this model as an innovative idea that we can adapt and use it for even different behaviours.
We are very happy with the response of our customers and our partners. We have been welcomed by the partners, the customers, and mainly the community—that’s what is most important to us.
What do you think are the key success factors in implementing your business model?
I would say two major things. One has been going to the places where we want to implement and listening. What are their expectations? What are they afraid of? While we are implementing, we are learning and constantly adapting to guarantee engagement and true impact.
The other is not being afraid to change our business model. One thing that we never changed, is the goal: trying to improve opportunities to reduce inequality. That has never changed. If we have an idea, then we put it in the marketplace. But we are flexible, and I would say that really helped to get us where we wanted to go.
How can entrepreneurs, donors, implementers and facilitators adopt a more holistic view of achieving social and environmental impact goals?
We do not have the answers for everything, in a world that is ever-changing, very quickly. We really need to understand or learn how to have more complex thinking. What I mean by complex thinking is the interaction of two or more things that bring different results. We cannot predict the results. We have to see the system in a more intuitive way and understand the interaction of different people and projects. We cannot predict 100 per cent. But with more holistic thinking, we are going to be able to address the social and environmental aspects of the SDGs in a better way.
I think that is also a good thing that the SDGs have done, that people look at things more systematically now.
When you look at the goals, they are all connected. I would love for people to see those seventeen goals as a system, not as individual goals by themselves.
Do you think that people will stick to newly adopted behaviour, even if there were no reward programme?
That is a great question. I am going to bring in a theory to answer it. I am studying behavioural economics by the guy who got the Nobel Prize this year. What he says is that it is almost impossible not to influence people. When I am talking to you or when you are talking to me, it is impossible not to influence you.
The way that we are doing it is ethically and with true purpose by giving a nudge.
How we can give people a tiny nudge to make them get out of their comfort zone? We, as humans, would like to remain in our comfort zone. If we do not have a reason or a little help to change it, we do not do it.
Do people change after a while, if there is not a reward? Yes, they do. We have been in one community for one year. For local reasons, we weren’t able to open our space at one point. People would go there to deliver their waste, even if we were not open and unable to give the points.
Also, the way that we are using the reward programme is more than just making people think about waste. It´s a way to give people an opportunity. Because all the rewards you get are opportunities. That´s why the business model is summing up two different things. Because we want—unlike every other programme in the world—for people to use their points to make records, to have new abilities, to get a better job.
Do you still have something to add?
It is important to say that if you want to achieve something different, you have to have a lot of resilience and patience—and you must take the system into consideration. You cannot change things in a month or in a year. I would say to entrepreneurs who really want to create an impact business, it is a lot of hard work, so start small, understand the big picture, and go after it to get it done. The results you will achieve are amazing.