Close the gap
In 2003 a young Commercial Engineer, Olivier Vanden Eynde, founded Close the Gap in his penultimate year at Solvay, as a socially responsible non-profit enterprise supplying computers to developing countries. Six years later Close the Gap is one of Europe’s most exciting social-profit organizations…

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HEADWAY caught up with Olivier (29) to find out what’s new…
‘Since early 2009 we’ve deployed a sub brand ‘PC Solidarity’ for ‘le quart monde’. In March HRH Prince Philippe of Belgium visited the launch of this programme in which 9,000 computers over 3 years will be divided among socioeducational projects focusing on the underprivileged here. that was the wish of many of our donors, particularly in this downturn. Like any other enterprise, we need to stay flexible and respond to the stakeholder environment.

generally operations in our in- and outbound streams are pretty smooth. Our biggest project so far has been the delivery and installation of 1,500 PCs at a university in South africa. But the average project is more like 50 to 200 PCs to a rural hospital or school. We charge a project fee or a contribution per computer to cover our cost. Because of simple economics, bigger projects are financially much more viable. ROI is not the key driver but social ROI is. My aim is to keep the organization personal, with a high level of attention for each project, rather than turning it to a machine by always going for very big numbers. that could have an impact on quality.

Our main drivers remain social entrepreneurship, sustainability, and access to information. that’s the starting point behind Close the gap and the digital divide…providing a gateway to information.’

Judging from your Annual Report and website, you have some excellent backing both from corporations and from an impressive line up of board and advisory board members.
‘Yes, we have many important strategic partners including Deloitte, Microsoft, kLM, Ricoh, Leo Burnett, and the domain name registration company DnS.be among others. and some big names on our advisory panel, including archbishop Desmond tutu, Baron Dr. Peter Piot and Viscount Etienne Davignon. I try to see them once a year for face to face discussions, for advice, and door openers. Desmond tutu is extremely active on our behalf. I saw him just a month ago.’

On a more controversial note, some critics could claim that you are making environmental problems worse in shipping computers to countries, where disposal might be through landfill rather than the sophisticated recycling that we know in the West. How would you answer them?
‘Firstly this is not just an issue for organizations like Close the gap. It applies to any organization using or supplying computers to third world countries. But you’re right, sustainability is an issue which concerns us immensely. that’s why at the end of last year we took the initiative to raise investment funds to make a plan to set up an e-waste dismantling and recycling facility in East africa. now we are moving to the implementation and financing of the plan which is a priority for 2010. that said, it’s a complex set up, uniting environmental, technical, and logistical issues. Just getting machinery there is a challenge in itself. also we need to raise awareness in remote communities that disposal should not be through landfill.’

So how are you going to do this?
‘Well, we are certainly too small to do it alone. We’re
only 5 employees in a coordination office with all logistics subcontracted. this is why we need a Federation of sister organizations like Close the gap to do it internationally.


KEY FACTS
40,000 computer assets distributed
436 projects supported over 40 countries (Africa, SE asia,  S.America)
Over 100,000 computer assets collected from donors
Data Wipe certification with Blancco. guaranteed 100% safe

There are already 5 or 6 big players in this arena. then we could talk to the Un in terms of half a million PCs rather than 100,000.

The market possibilities are unlimited so we are not in competition with our counterparts in other countries. as a matter of fact, in social-profit organizations, we should not speak of competitors, but instead of partners.there are billions of people unconnected. So the challenge is to work more closely together, create a more regional focus per organization. Of course, it would be great if this Federation would be driven out of Brussels….but it’s early days yet…’

You must be very proud of your achievements in the past 5 years, Olivier.
‘Yes I am. But there have been ups and downs, and it has not always been easy. We are reliant on key supportive partners who have helped us to make it happen. For  example, kLM was one of the first donors, giving more than 5,000 PCs. then they sent a video crew to make a short film of one of our projects, which was then broadcast on all intercontinental flights. that’s 1 million passengers a month who saw it! It was a very valuable endorsement. It instilled confidence and really got Close the gap off to a good start.’

Although you are a small organization, you seem to have an enlightened people focus…
‘Yes, having good people on board is really key. If we are successful today it’s because we are well respected by corporations and other non-profits. We need to behave in a business-like way even though we are not a money making business.
as for recruitment, aHEaD was recommended to me. as we are a small organization this is the first time I’ve been in touch with an executive search firm. So I appreciated the personal touch. We were well guided and appreciated your non-aggressive way of working.

The sort of people we hire need to be chameleons to liaise with two extremely different target groups, who will perform equally well towards both groups. today’s team, - and our new Operations Director – fits that brief very well. We have good retention because we look after people well, pay a decent salary and develop them. thankfully Ricoh have been kind enough to provide training courses for us through their academy.’

What advice would you give to someone considering a move out of a mainstream career into a charity or NGO?
‘Indeed mainstream commercial expertise is highly regarded in the non-profit sector, particularly with more and more co-funding on the cards. However, many people have the wrong impression of working in the sector. they expect to go home with a warm feeling every night. they expect less stress. But frankly you still have to hit targets, and it can be stressful here too. Some people become disillusioned; it doesn’t suit everyone.’

So how can HEADWAY readers help you take Close the Gap to another level?
‘Well, frankly we’re too small to be able to manage physical help from volunteers. and donations of fewer than 40 PC assets are just unviable for us. We need a critical mass or the logistical cost is just too expensive. We’re a B2B business. We also have certain minimum conditions of quality, so 3 years old ideally, flat screens only, Pentium 4 minimum, 2.0 g. Our organization is demand driven rather than supply driven. So what we would like most is to have a contact with a CEO, CIO or CSR director for ‘end of life’ discussions for their PCs, combined with Corporate Responsibility programs bringing this partnership to a win-win situation for both the corporate and us. We don’t charge companies to take their units away and guarantee high datawipe protection standards. So it’s win-win for everyone...’

If you would like more information on Close the Gap’s activities and how it could help your organization  dispose of a large quantity of PCs, please contact Oliver Vanden Eynde via olivier.vanden.eynde@close-the-gap. org or check out www.close-the-gap.org.

 
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