Circular Around the World

Last year two young French guys, Raphaël Masvigner and Jules Cogniard, decided to do a trip around the world. Their aim was to dedicate this trip to a special topic: they were going to do a circular economy tour. In other words, they decided that they wanted to travel around our planet finding local circular economy entrepreneurs and projects. They called it Circul’R.

Circular Economy refers to the economic system wherein instead of doing business as usual – based on a linear economy (one takes and then throws away) – one considers a closed loop system. So to say, resources would be used for as long as possible and then, once they cannot be used anymore, the products and materials would be regenerated.

After traveling for one year and a half and checking out diverse projects worldwide, Raphaël and Jules are now back in France, ready for their next challenge. A couple of months ago, while they were still traveling, I had the chance to talk with Raphaël about their trip.

Jules and Raphaël in the Himalayas

You are doing a world tour to find circular economy projects. How did this idea start?

It started in Mexico. Both of us were working for Airbus there. We wanted to do a project that has value, that creates a positive impact and is related to sustainable development. We realized that we didn’t have much information about what was going on in developing countries in the circular economy field: We started our journey in London to attend an international summit on circular economy and we quickly realised that all the speakers were from Europe and the United States. We then decided that we wanted to show that emerging countries also have innovative circular economy projects. We quit our jobs in Mexico and went back to France to prepare this project. It took us six months to be ready.

Traveling is expensive. Are you being sponsored by diverse entreprises?

We got companies interested in circular economy. They are sponsoring us for several reasons: to get a better understanding of how circular economy can preserve the environment while mitigating costs, to discover the latest innovations in this field and to be able to connect with circular economy start-ups worldwide. More than 20 partners (companies and NGOs) enabled us to launch this project.

You chose several countries from different regions and you’ve been staying in them for several weeks. What is the procedure?

We are spending more or less one month in each country to be able to check and identify  the maximum number of projects and to have time to understand their solutions and the problems that they are facing. Our aim is also to find out how they can inspire other people and other projects.

Before going to each country we asked our partners for contacts. So once it is time to go there we have not only two or three projects in mind, but also the contacts of some entrepreneurs. At the end of the trip it became easier as Circul’R got to be known in the circular economy field. Some start-ups are now contacting us on their own which facilitates the identification process.

At Mbeubeuss, Dakar, one of Africa’s biggest landfills

Hydroponics in Bejing

Visiting Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) in India, a project that provides clean energy to 4 million people

What was a “normal” day like during your tour?

Each day is different and full of surprise. We have to contact and meet with local start-ups, to

plan our next destination and where we will sleep at night… We were also regularly giving some talks in universities to share our experience with students, something we actually really like doing. We started in Europe and then moved to Africa, Asia and Latin America. And then, North America: Mexico, California and Canada.

What were your findings?

First of all, the good news is that we do have the solutions today to live in harmony with nature. In each country we met inspiring circular economy entrepreneurs that have created innovations that could solve the global environmental crisis. Though in some countries it is not called circular economy but simply common sense: how to do better with few resources and without damaging the environment.

Then we realized that especially in emerging countries, successful circular economy entrepreneurs were always creating social impact by empowering local population. Reducing poverty and answering basic needs are key in these countries. Therefore circular economy has to be social and inclusive. That’s why we like to call it “social circular economy” as a friend told us in South Africa.

Any project in particular?

All of them were interesting and inspiring. 
In Japan for instance, we visited a small village called Kamikatsu. They used to do waste incineration but in 2003, they decided to take action to become the first zero waste village in Japan by 2020. They managed to go from 0 to 80% of waste recycling in a couple of years. We were impressed because most of the population in that village is quite old. And they did manage to change their minds! Right now, they are segregating waste into 34 categories. They also have put in place innovative solutions to exchange materials, to run upcycling workshops for grannies… It was one of the most inspiring initiatives we discovered in Asia.

New use for old windows in Kamikatsu, Japan

In Colombia we visited a project called Mundo Nuevo (New World). The initiative is led by a Belgian entrepreneur who is trying to create a 100% self-sufficient community in terms of food, water and energy management. They also work with local indigenous communities in order to share knowledge about the local ecosystems. It works under the principles of a circular and shared economy and by creating closed loop systems they are quickly moving towards self-sufficiency.

The recycling centre of Mundo Nuevo farm, Colombia

In California, we discovered a fantastic project that has managed to convert greenhouse gas emissions into bio-plastic that is 100% recyclable and biodegradable. And it is cheaper than plastic coming from fossil fuels which is excellent news!

Could you explain some of the challenges that those projects are facing?

What we realised during our journey is that many entrepreneurs often face similar challenges. And most of the time an entrepreneur working in a different country has already found a solution to tackle this challenge. Therefore, if people were more connected and more aware of what is being done elsewhere, it would help a lot. That’s why one of our main missions during the journey was to identify the challenges of these entrepreneurs and connect them with the right person that could help by sharing best practices. Another main challenge is access to funds to take the project to a next level and to increase its impact. Some entrepreneurs do not need that much to be honest to bring their solution to the next level. However investors do not want to take risks in investing in projects that are not big enough. There is a great need for seed investing (investments that do not exceed 100K Euros) to help small start-ups to scale up.

Isla Urbana in Mexico works on harvesting rainwater

Is that your new project? To connect people?

Once we are back in France we want to start a social business that will raise awareness on the solutions we have today to live in harmony with the environment, and that will build a global network for circular economy actors. We want to help circular start-ups growing their impact, to address their challenges and to help them finding the investment they need. We also want to convince big companies to move from a linear (take-make-dispose) to a circular economy model and show them that this is a win-win model for them, the people and the planet.

Raphaël and Jules have traveled over 100.000 km in 17 months, during which they visited 22 different countries and got to know 150 circular economy projects. Now, after meeting so many people who work on changing our current system for the better and after giving numerous speeches about the importance of circular economy, Raphaël and Jules are back home and back to business – but the circular one, of course. We wish them the best of luck!

March 21, 2017 by Ana Galan