This week Vivid Minds interviews Adam Blakester, Executive Director of Starfish Initiatives. Starfish Initiatives has won numerous awards including the 2017 Northern Inland Innovation Award for its global Biochar for Sustainable Soils initiative, and the 2011 NSW Government Green Globe Award for its Farming the Sun community solar energy projects.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
I represent the sixth generation to have lived and worked in the greater New England North West region. Returning here a little over 14 years ago was a significant milestone for me. I came for the country lifestyle, and the change in location was also to enable a shift in my work to focus on rural and regional sustainability.
… and Starfish Initiatives?
Starfish Initiatives was created around 12 years ago. At that time, about a dozen people were involved. Our mission is to support rural and regional sustainability. We are quite unique in this mission; we have yet to find any other organisation in the world that specialises in all that rural sustainability entails: environmental, social, economic and governance. We have worked extensively across all of these.
What type of projects do you work on?
The largest part of our work is renewable energy and we are particularly focused on community scale and community funded initiatives in this space.
Biochar for Sustainable Soils is our largest individual single project to date, worth US$3.5–4 million and spanning seven countries.
We do a lot of strategic work to build capacity with a range of organisations. For example, we helped Homes North secure a 20-year state government contract to provide housing in the New England worth nearly half a billion dollars.
We also do a lot of work in regenerative farming – for example, The Carbon Farm in Bingara. Our work in reconciliation includes a long-term partnership with the Myall Creek Memorial, which is registered with the Australian and NSW heritage registers and is a significant project both domestically and internationally.
What has your biggest achievement been to date?
So far, our biggest achievement is securingfunding for the United Nations Environment biochar sustainable soils program. This was a four-year, seven country, 40 organisation collaboration focused on sustainable farming for small farmers in less developed countries. The scale of this project was huge, with significant benefits for the livelihoods of small farmers. The focus on biochar was world leading – at the leading edge of soil science and its interrelation with climate change. This was an exciting global project led from Australia.
What were the challenges in establishing Starfish Initiatives?
Our biggest challenge is that rural and regional areas generally are held back by the dominant metropolitan or city-centric view of the world. It is challenging to establish rural and regional areas as a good place to live, work and invest when in competition with that mindset. Rural and regional areas struggle to get attention, get population, or get relevance. At the same time, they are overwhelmingly essential to metropolitan areas.
Despite such a critical role in providing these essential needs, we don’t have a strong enough voice. This has been our biggest strategic challenge to date and is likely to continue to be so. It affects our regional communities’ ability to influence policy and secure funding.
What would you advise someone starting in your field?
Start as light and lean as you possibly can. You should aim to transition into full time operations over time, with your transition supported by having another independent income source. Your success is likely to be gradual rather than flipping the switch, although if you can secure startup funding, that process can be accelerated.
A good example of this is earthfunerals, an exciting concept with a lot of interest and a lot of great progress made. However, it’s been in development for three years. To give you an idea of the length of time you need to commit to work in this space, the key person, Kevin Hartley, had been working on natural funerals for 13 years prior to initiating earthfunerals.
You need a long term and deep commitment to this kind of work. For example, Myall Creek is coming up to its 20th anniversary, but it will be many more years of work before we achieve a year-round presence. It is still likely to be the world’s first memorial in response to a massacre of indigenous people.
Finally, don’t get too attached to successes; they will be hard won, and few and far between. You need to maintain energy and optimism and focus on your long-term goals. I call it a ‘leap of commitment’, a commitment we take when we don’t quite know what we are committing to, but we are excited about where it might take us.
What inspires you?
There are two things. Firstly, I find living rurally incredibly inspiring. As we talk, I am sitting at my desk, looking out the window, surrounded by a beautiful woodland environment. The communities around me, Invergowrie, Uralla, and Armidale are inspiring and energising.
Secondly, the projects I’m involved in, particularly when they are successful – it would be nice if they always were!
What’s next for Starfish Initiatives?
Starfish sees its role as being a changemaker, focused on strengthening rural sustainability. One of the is supporting otherer professionals to come into this space. Our goal is to share the knowledge, networks, tools, and resources we have obtained over many years and make it easier for others coming into that space.
Our dream is to provide financial support as well, for them and their projects. It’s not purely aspiration. We have established the Rural Sustainability Foundation for this purpose, and have raised $550k towards this objective to date.