Start-Ups, Sustainability, and the Reuse Movement in Indonesia: A conversation with Zero Waste Living Lab venture builder Tauhid Pandji

After a career spent in the oil and gas industry, Tauhid Pandji turned his business management skills to creating accessible solutions for Indonesians to skip single-use plastics and found his purpose in helping close the tap on plastic pollution in his beloved home country, Indonesia. He is a venture builder at Enviu’s Zero Waste Living Lab, leading projects for our farm-to-fork venture Kecipir and refill water filtration service Econesia. Against this backdrop, we interviewed him about building sustainable ventures, plastic pollution in Indonesia, and what is needed still for the epic shift for reuse becoming the norm.

You worked in the oil and gas industry before pursuing a career in sustainable business. What made you change your direction?

I think that for most people, most of my friends at the business school, this was the trajectory: Either build a business or enter into the corporate world, whether in banking or as a consultant for a large company. Which I also found interesting, of course, as it builds your skills and teaches you how to work in a professional and commercial setting with mostly older people. But I felt something was missing. There was not so much a sense of purpose.

After several years, I switched to working in a startup. I went to work at Uber when it was still here in Southeast Asia. It was a big difference, much more dynamic, much more mission-driven, and it felt closer to what I was looking for. But still, you know, as a start-up tends to grow bigger and bigger, I found they start to lose the feeling of purpose again, of being mission-driven. They become more pragmatic, searching for growth, market monopoly and financial benefit, and it really affected the culture.

At the time I was also involved in volunteering for nonprofit organizations, like the International Youth Organization and I volunteered at the environmental conference in Indonesia, which brought people together from several countries. I found it refreshing because you’re working for a cause, not for the money, and that’s where my passion lies. Of course, you cannot make a living off just volunteering right? So, I began to look for alternatives. And that’s when I found out about the Zero Waste Living Lab! It’s a perfect combination of using my professional skills in business and management, but also really mission-driven.

And what does a venture builder do exactly at the Zero Waste Living Lab?

From my perspective, a venture builder deals with building a business, a sustainable business, from scratch. Starting from problem identification, around single-use plastics, you then ideate the solutions to solve that problem. This solution, of course, not only has to be able to solve the problem but also be able to turn into a business opportunity to scale in the future by itself. You validate it in the market, test it with consumers, and look for funding.

Basically, it’s like being an entrepreneur, a serial entrepreneur. But then instead of finding out the wheel on your own, you’re doing it together with an entirely local and international team of experts—marketers, finance, other venture builders, etc.—and all with the learned experience and network of more than 15 years of Enviu.

How close to your heart is solving the problem of plastic pollution?

I think it’s very important because Indonesia is currently the second biggest leakage point of plastic waste into the ocean, globally. That’s a serious fact. We think about how Indonesia can become a developed country and how it can improve its role in the international arena, but how are we going to get there if we are still the second biggest leakage point for plastic waste? I think it’s very important to know not only how to grow economically and to develop as a country, but that sustainability should also be among the main metrics to measure progress. So that it’s not just economic progress but making sure that this progress is also sustainable.

A big part of reuse as an alternative to single-use plastic is the need to shift consumer behavior. What do you think are the challenges to achieving this in Indonesia?

I think in Indonesia we are still at the beginning stage, becoming more aware of the single-use plastic issue. I remember back when I was in college, this awareness was not there at all. There was no talk about straws being harmful. But now the younger generation is concerned and speaking up about it. They’re also building new startups, are involved in campaigns and NGOs that are supporting the reduction of single-use plastics. The awareness has grown over the years and I think in the future it will grow even further. But the key is that it’s not only the consumer’s role.

We can change consumer behavior, but we also need government support. Take, for example, our venture Econesia. In some areas in Indonesia, there is local regulation that bans the use of single-use water bottles in hotels. Local regulation really helped us to offer our solutions to hotels, to facilitate the switch from the use of plastic water bottles to reusable bottles. That’s just one example of how government regulation can really help to make that shift in behavior towards more reusable solutions.

On top of this as venture builders, our job is to provide a user-friendly alternative, one that makes it easier or more attractive for the consumer to reach for the reuse option.

What is the one change you would like to see every person in Indonesia make to reduce their plastic use?

I think it’s different for every person and their different role. People in the government can definitely help by bringing this issue to their meetings and pushing for change in regulations. People who are into building new startups should really consider sustainable businesses from the beginning, and pursue businesses that aren’t only good financially, but also have a positive impact on society and the environment. And for consumers, at least try to reduce their consumption of waste little by little starting with using stainless steel straws, using reusable cups. I think every person has a role to play to bring about this big shift.

The key is to realize that to actually achieve meaningful change all of us–governments, businesses, and consumers—need to be working together. Together we can close the tap on plastic waste!

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