Global Observer

In Melbourne, changing the world with beer

Posting in Design

MELBOURNE -- Drink a beer, it's good for the world. That's the proposition being put forward by Australia's first non-profit bar.

MELBOURNE  -- Shebeen, Australia's first non-profit bar, is a motley conglomeration of reclaimed materials that has been cleverly repurposed. The bar itself is made out of recycled tin cladding (sourced from an old police station) and framed by a picket fence, while the furniture and walls are adorned with a mix of textiles. Eclectic found pieces and artifacts from all over the developing world are interwoven into the interior patchwork -- a mash-up of cultures converging into the one space.

The bar draws its design inspiration from the speakeasy bars of Zimbabwe and South Africa, a place where locals could go to an illegal homemade bar to drink. Shebeen, while totally legal, carries the same ideology of a low-fi, no frills space for people to meet and drink, except that in this case, they're also helping a charitable cause.

Melbourne's Shebeen, which officially opened to the public in late February, is the third beer-for-charity business in the world, joining Oregon Public House and Washington's Philanthropub, both located in the U.S. At this Melbourne watering hole, punters can buy their booze hailing from different parts of the developing world and feel good about their purchases. The profit made on that day is donated to a partner development organization that is represented by that product; consumer choice at the bar determines where all the money ends up going.

For example, buying an Ethiopian Dashen beer will provide agricultural equipment to a poor rural farmer via a charity called KickStart, while buying a South African Boschendal chardonnay will give a book to a child in South Africa via a literacy program called Room to Read.

Shebeen is operated by Melbourne entrepreneur Simon Griffiths, who co-directs the business with partners Vernon Chalker, owner of some of Melbourne's most high-profile bars, and Llawela Forrest, director of Run Forrest, a marketing and communications firm.

Last year, Griffiths made headlines for sitting on a toilet for two days straight to raise AUD$50,000 (USD$53,000) for Who Gives A Crap, a socially conscious startup which directs 50 percent of the money made on each roll of toilet paper toward sanitation for the development world. This led him to be shortlisted for the Young Australian of the Year award, and invited to speak at TEDx Melbourne, where his talk ended up being one of its most viewed.

Griffiths, who spent three months in South Africa in 2007 as an aid worker, explains that the bar is his response to a big world problem.

"This all started for me because I saw there’s a huge underfunding problem in the developing world," Griffiths says. "If you look at key poverty metrics and current rates of improvement, we’re not going to achieve global literacy until 2085, and global sanitation until about 2080. These are problems we know how to solve."

"If we're actually going to start achieving the level of social impact that I think we need in the near term both in terms of poverty but also in a lot of other areas, we need to rethink the way that society engages in philanthropy and the funding and creation of social impact," he says.

Griffiths, who has attended both the School of Social Entrepreneurs (Melbourne, Australia) and the Unreasonable Institute (Colorado, U.S.), says the solution is in changing the way we approach philanthropy. "This shift can be achieved by engaging in consumer-driven philanthropy: using the profit from everyday consumer purchases to support the best possible social impact organizations," he says.

The concept of a non-profit bar was conceived at an Australian Day barbecue in 2007 by Griffith's friend Zanna McCormish, now an MBA candidate. The first incarnation of Shebeen appeared in November 2010 when the concept was tested as a pop-up bar for four days.

Griffiths, who has a degree in economics and engineering, wanted to use the time to assess the business model's feasibility. He found the results, and profits generated, encouraging. The young entrepreneur discovered that people would actually buy Ethiopian beer instead of -- for example -- a European beer.

Currently there are 10 countries currently represented in the Shebeen bar range; Ethiopia, Namibia, Kenya, South Africa, Laos, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Mexico and Chile. There are seven beneficiary organizations that work within these countries. Griffiths acknowledges that Mexico is not a developing country but he wanted to include it because of the country's great wine and also the good development work that an organization was doing over there.

In selecting the best-in-class partner organizations, Griffith enlisted the help of development experts Jasmine Social Investment, The Mulago Foundation, Peery Foundation and Skoll Foundation. He used three key areas; innovation, impact and scalability, to ensure that they money would be going to projects that made measurable social impact.

As Griffiths puts it, "If we're not using our money to do something really good, then the whole concept falls apart. It's money that goes to waste. We wanted to make sure that we were supporting organizations that were doing good smart development work."

Now that Shebeen has opened its doors, the three directors will look at key growth corridors, namely; partnerships with existing venues to sell their unique products; geographic scaling; and product partnerships such as non-profit co-branded microbrew beers in the retail market. Their objective is to to invest an estimated AUD$800k (USD$830k) in their partner organizations over the next three years.

"That’s how you start to really shift the needle on poverty, because if you’re working with something that can only ever reach 1,000 people and you’re talking about billions of people in poverty then your long-term impact is relatively restricted," Griffiths says.

"We want things that have the capacity to impact on much, much larger numbers over time as they grow," Griffiths says, a man who makes no pretense that he is in it to make money. "At the end of the day we're a business, but the only difference is that we choose to give it all away."

Photos: Clever Deer.

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Lieu Thi Pham

Correspondent (Melbourne)

Lieu Thi Pham is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She has contributed to The Age, Associated Newspapers, Melbourne University Magazine, the Big Issue, Dazed and Confused, Indesign Group, Time Out, SOMA and Niche Media. She holds degrees from the University of Melbourne and RMIT University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure