Dryland Permaculture Research Institute is an inspiring and well-established enterprise located a few kilometres north of Geraldton’s city centre. The organisation meets the current and anticipated needs for practical knowledge and appropriate plants and technologies for ecologically sustainable living in Geraldton’s near-desert conditions.
Experts in Permaculture design and practice
The current customers include local and national gardeners, commercial and government groups needing plants, and international wwoofers and researchers. There is a growing demand for the sustainable design, training and practical experience DPRI offers. Its activities include research into new agricultural systems and species, nursery plants, land rehabilitation, honey and compost-tea production, permaculture design services, and accredited training in permaculture.
Who’s the entrepreneur?
Julie, the owner, is on the cusp of shifting to a new business model to get better personal, financial and community-wide returns on the 20 years of investment in the business. She has a cult-like following amongst locals who seek her expert knowledge and heirloom seeds, and a willing group of local volunteers. I think it’s fair to say that Julie doesn’t put that much time and attention into marketing, networking, or figuring out how to make massive profits, but that’s because she is busily leading in the way it is best done – being a living demonstration of what is possible!
How is it a social business?
Although the current legal structure (sole trader) doesn’t meet the criteria for a social business, that is more a result of convenience than being the most appropriate means to achieve the organisation’s aims. DPRI meets every other criteria: the entire business is about social and ecological good, it uses volunteers who receive training and invaluable experience in exchange for the their labour (or, in the case of leading hand, Johnny, his reward is a place to store his bike collection!), it’s essentially non-profit distributing with money earned externally (e.g. contracts for mining companies) being re-invested into growing the organisation’s social impact (e.g. new accommodation for volunteers and trainees), and some of its services are already delivered explictly non-profit (e.g. heirloom seeds).
How will it grow its impact?
The next steps for the enterprise are to put in place a business model and legal structure (e.g. a foundation) that to support and collaborate with a growing network of supports and customers who value her services. The trick will be doing it in a way that doesn’t take too much of Julie’s attention away from the core business by defining and recruiting new roles, creating a legal structure that can attract external donations and investment, and packaging a few core products and services in a way that makes it easier to scale-up and meet increasing customer demands.
I think this organisation is a classic illustration of the ideas that underpin the Sirolli Institute’s approach to ‘Enterprise Facilitation’, and also the findings of NEF’s Bizz Fizz program – both challenge the myth of the individual entrepreneur who can do it all, and emphasise the importance of networks of supporters and collaborators. In this case, DPRI is using partners to help create demand (e.g. by word-of-mouth promotion), partner to do activities that the entrepreneur is not so efficient at (e.g. accounting), and provide new channels for marketing and delivering the value to customers (e.g. through government agencies and NGOs).
I get intensely excited at the potential for DPRI’s knowledge to profoundly influence the way Geraldton develops. We have a world-class permaculture facility right in town. And with Geraldton’s vulnerability to rising energy prices and climatic changes, making the shift to a post-carbon, ecologically-sustainable system of food production is fast-becoming a central challenge. And that challenge of growing food in conditions is going to be repeated the world over as more and more people live in conditions that are more like ‘dryland’ and less like the ‘green forests’ of Northern NSW, the Pacific North-West of the USA. I think we have an amazing asset created by someone who saw the emerging challenge coming decades earlier, and have spent every day since learning what the rest of us will need to know in order to thrive in a drier, more local, lower-carbon age.
For your interest, some other centres that have similar elements to DPRI:
Quail Springs – non-profit learning oasis and permaculture farm in California
Klein Karoo Sustianable Drylands Permaculture Project – non-profit education and training in South Africa
CERES – massive, diverse, famous, and influential sustainable living centre in Melbourne, Australia
Permaforest Trust – Centre for Sustainability Education in New South Wales, Australia