Creating Businesses out of Problems



OLBIOS: At BroadLeaf Group you harvest and recycle water and solar energy for homes and industries in South Africa. What technologies do you use to address the issue of water scarcity, what are your water recycling solutions for industries and what is the impact of offering tailor-made PV Solar systems for large industries?

Julien Verzier: Before I answer the question, I first would like to tell you a little bit about where we come from, what we do and why.


Broadleaf Group started on the domestic market, we chose to penetrate the domestic market as a first step in order to understand the gaps in the market, know the suppliers, get in contact with clients and familiarise ourselves with different solutions. As much as a B2B model was always the objective, the domestic market allowed us to develop our expertise while growing the business organically from the ground up. Over the last couple years, we have made our transition onto the commercial and industrial market and are now exclusively focusing on providing solutions for large water and/or power consumers.

Our philosophy is that Broadleaf Group must acquire knowledge today regarding how to provide sustainable services and solutions that will be essential to solve tomorrow’s problems. The African continent’s population is booming and will continue to do so exponentially over the next few decades. In our contemporary economy, growth is associated with waste which is precisely what we are trying to combat. It is our intention to try and support this growth by providing solutions which are as respectful of the environment as possible. One of the nicest things about Broadleaf Group is that we are all aligned on similar social and environmental values. Rhett Osborne (founder), myself and all employees want to make a difference. 

However small our contribution may be, we chose everyday to work towards solving today’s problems while trying not to contribute to creating one for tomorrow. One of the keys to implementing impactful solutions is its ability to be replicated. On the African continent, it means that it must be affordable, there is no point in developing a solution that no-one can afford! In order for our solutions to be affordable for African industrials who don’t always have access to capital, our business model is based on the savings generated by the solution. I think that the willingness to contribute to positive externalities coupled with the ambition of making it affordable for our clients summarise who we are and what we are trying to achieve.

Broadleaf Group has developed two department which are complementary to one another:

Broadleaf Group was funded with the idea that companies can contribute to solving environmental problems instead of contributing to it. In 2018, Cape Town was one of the first cities around the world to face a water shortage, we were all limited to 50L/day/person for a couple months. This crisis helped people and businesses realise that our resources are finite and thus precious. We decided to develop a water branch that could help address the water shortage for domestic applications first and commercial/ industrial then. Our water department mainly focuses on water recycling solutions. One of the concepts of the circular economy is to transform waste into resources. Our water treatment plants are doing exactly that!
We are proud to be able to service five hundred or a thousand blocks of flats and give the opportunity for residents to re-use their waste water for flushing toilets, maintenance of common areas and for the irrigation of a community gardens. We must eradicate the idea that resources have a single life cycle, that they can be extracted, used and thrown away. We are very fortunate to work with architects, property developers and industrials that share our vision and design commercial or industrial processes where resources can be used several times rather than once. It benefits both the company and the environment.

We aim to continue saving millions of litres of water in the coming years, not only in South Africa but on the rest of the continent as well.

Just like our water branch, our solar branch has exactly the same vision: how can we support industrial growth with a minimum impact the environment. Our solar pv solutions are designed to help businesses be more resilient and competitive on their respective market. In 2021, unreliable power is sadly still an issue in most developing economies. Living on one of the continents where the sun shines the most, we find that unreliable and expensive power is unacceptable. In a globalised world, African industries are competing directly with European, Chinese or American products but they are not given the power resources that are required to compete.
If we want to start producing locally for the growing African market, the first step is to provide cheap and reliable power. Just like our water solutions, our solar projects are funded based on the savings induced by the solution. They are therefore affordable and replicable. We look forward to doing our first project outside of South Africa in 2022 and roll out our solutions in the rest of the continent.

You mentioned the expression tailor made. You are correct, with each new client comes a new journey and a new challenge in order to reduce our client’s environmental impact while ensuring savings. We build long lasting relationships with our clients in order to accompany them in their transition to a more environmentally friendly production/operation process. This does mean that our involvement with our client is quite extensive, we like to know everything there is to know about our sites. In our line of work, the devil is definitely in the details!

O: It seems that one major concern in the field of renewable energy is power generation that depends on natural resources that are not within human control. How do you deal with this problem? 

J.V.:You must make allusion to the fact that solar power only produces power during the day. You are right, but luckily, most large industrials also work and therefore use energy during the day. We however see the fact that we get to enjoy free energy from the sun every day for close to 12 hours as a beautiful opportunity. Our electricity production is indeed dependent on the sun, but luckily, it comes up everyday without exception! Our planet is offering many different sources of energy. Whether we look at hydro, wind, geothermal, etc, just like for a country, an industrial can look at diversifying its energy mix in order to produce. It is our objective to be able to offer comprehensive solutions that can utilise the resources of the land in symbiosis with its environment. Not as a constraint but rather as an opportunity!

O: You have also worked at DigiLink, a very interesting digital platform which enables enterprises, non-profits, schools and governments to connect, build and finance impactful projects to address SDGs, focusing essentially on the 17th SDG whose aim is to enable partnership and cooperation to foster investments. Can you tell us about the momentum and impact of these partnerships in South Africa?

J.V.: Working with DigiLink was a fantastic adventure. The idea started when discussing with the Yunus Centre in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Mohammad Yunus has developed an incredible network of like-minded people that work to address social and/or environmental issues across the globe. Again, the idea is to help develop businesses that are designed to solve problems. I see this way of thinking as the only way forward if we wish to keep our planet and environment as we know it. And yes, companies can be designed to produce positive externalities without being NGOs. We call them social or environmental enterprises. Their objective is to create a business out of a problem. I grew up with this model in mind and I am proud to put into actions everyday with Broadleaf Group. 

The idea behind DigiLink was simple: how can we facilitate the funding of impactful projects by making the offer and demand meet on a digital platform? Time and resources were unfortunately limited for the founders. While the platform was built and operational, resources ran out before impactful projects were funded. This is something that I still regret until today as the potential for impact was huge. My hope is that Broadleaf Group will soon be able to fund projects internally to, in time, be able to have a similar vision as DigiLink for environmental projects.

O: South Africa has been significantly influenced by the ongoing COVID crisis. Can you tell us how you have experienced this emergency on the ground and how this crisis and the lessons learned form it could positively influence civil society’s efforts towards the realization of SDGs?

J.V.: Despite all the tragedy that Covid has created in people’s lives, I am grateful for the opportunity for reflexion that is being provided. This crisis has forced everyone to take a step back, analyse their situation and design solutions that can help be more sustainable for the future, I see this as a positive outcome, regardless of the immediate devastating impact for many households.  Businesses have restructured themselves to look at the future with hope, optimism and intent. We have seen it in our industry. Many companies are trying to be more conservative in the way they use resources and optimise their processes, both for economic and environmental reasons. 

You are right in the sense that many businesses have closed their doors, the economic situation in South Africa is precarious and the unemployment rate is higher than ever before. But this is not the first crisis South Africans have faced and this won’t be the last either. What matters is how we evolve and learn from our collective mistakes. This is an opportunity for the economy to restructure itself towards the real economy, building resilience is a common target which can only be reached if shared amongst the whole population. The economy can only be stable and sustainable if its direct environment is benefiting from it. Companies are therefore starting to understand that designing a business which is anchored locally is fundamental.
I am convinced that this crisis must be analysed within a long spectrum as opposed to being seen as an isolated event. The relationship between the state and citizens is changing where more and more of the responsibility of looking after people and the land is shifting to locally designed programs as opposed to a ‘top-down’ approach dictated by the State. The economy is like a boat on the sea, changes of directions are slow but I do believe that all companies and individuals that form part of the engine all have a role to play in this change of direction. I hope that this crisis has showed that because States are only capable of providing so much support, it is our responsibility as entrepreneurs and individuals to make that change happen.