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Thursday January 24th 2019

From selling burgers to saving rainforests (Sunday Times 26 Oct)

Dorjee Sun

Mr Sun has been named by Time magazine as one of its Heroes of the Environment. The Australian had his first taste of entrepreneurship at 18, earning $13,000 on his first day selling vegetarian burgers and noodles at a rock concert. — ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

From selling burgers to saving rainforests
Self-made millionaire brokers carbon credit deals between farmers and big corporations

By Tan Dawn We

When Australian Dorjee Sun was just 18, he had his first taste of entrepreneurship when he discovered a niche he could plug at rock concerts.

There was never any vegetarian food available, and vegetarians are rock fans too, like his friends.

So he borrowed kitchen equipment from his parents, who ran a catering business, hired five of his prettiest friends to man a stall, and dished out vegetarian burgers and noodles.

On his first day, he made A$10,000 (S$13,000) – a far better deal than the A$11 an hour he was making as a waiter at DKNY in his hometown of Sydney.

Today, the 33-year-old is plugging a different kind of niche, although still vegetable-related in a way: He is the chief executive officer of Carbon Conservation, a company that brokers multimillion-dollar rainforest carbon credit deals between big-time corporations and small-town farmers.

It is a business – one that he incorporated in Singapore just a year ago – but Mr Sun sees a larger purpose to it than just raking in the big bucks.

After all, he is already a self-made millionaire from starting an Internet business for corporate recruitment, a remote-tutoring company and a creative agency doing animation and viral marketing.

His mission now is something money cannot buy: to save one rainforest at a time.

‘What I tell my investors is, we want to be the of the Amazon,’ the charming and infectiously spirited man, who is of

Tibetan-Chinese extraction, said with a cheeky wink.

What makes his start-up interesting is that, while carbon trading is fairly well established globally, having reached US$126 billion (S$176 billion) last year, Mr Sun is selling carbon from rainforests, a relatively new ‘currency’.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, 37 industrialised countries have committed to reducing the greenhouse gases they emit.

A market mechanism that has emerged to deal with the practical aspects of this mandatory reduction has been emissions trading, which allows for companies that pollute to buy credits from others with surpluses, so they meet the cap set by the authorities.

‘Scientifically and morally, everyone knows the rainforest is this big factory that produces oxygen and absorbs carbon dioxide, but no one has ever put a financial value on it,’ said the enthusiastic environmental entrepreneur.

‘Our job is to put financial value, or carbon credits, on protecting rainforests. Right now, you get a value only when you turn it into paper or chopsticks. But it should have an inherent value because we now value climate change.’

And how does he determine what goes on the price tag of these green acres? By painstakingly measuring the size of the trees, the number of trunks, the amount of soil and translating that into carbon credits.

‘One credit represents one ton of carbon dioxide that would have been released if the forest were razed or chopped down,’ he explained.

Shocked by an article he read on how 5,000 orang utans were being burnt alive each year in man-made forest fires in Indonesia, the animal lover decided to put his business skills to good use.

He bought over The Carbon Pool, a company that sold carbon credits in Australia, then ventured into the forests of Aceh, Papua and West Papua to sweet-talk their governors into giving him the exclusive right to broker carbon credits internationally based on their land.

His business model is simple: Corporations that either need to, or want to, fulfil their greenhouse gas emission reduction promise should pay farmers to stop lighting the fires. The second-largest source of carbon emission in the world is from forest fires, and Indonesia has the ignominy of being the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, thanks to its logging and burning. The United States and China are the world’s biggest culprits.

With the blessings of the governors, he set off for the US and Britain, knocking on the doors of banks, corporations and investment funds to sell his carbon credits.

Getting them to understand this seemingly complex concept is one thing. The Kyoto Protocol does not include carbon trading from forestry as a legally permissible credit.

He got roundly rejected 206 times, ‘more rejections than I get at Clarke Quay on a Saturday night’, said the bachelor in jest.

His unstinting efforts were captured in an award-winning documentary narrated by Hugh Jackson, The Burning Season.

It was not until 11/2 years later that Merrill Lynch was persuaded into sinking US$9 million to save 770,000ha of tropical forests in Aceh – a world’s first – with the promise that it could resell these credits for a profit.

‘I cried. I wept tears of joy, in a masculine way,’ recalled Mr Sun, named by Time magazine as one of its Heroes of the Environment this year.

His journey to Singapore

A good thing then that he did not heed his parents’ wishes to become a dentist or a lawyer after graduating with double degrees in business and law from the University of New South Wales.

The son of illegal immigrants from Darjeeling, India, Mr Sun picked up enough Mandarin from having spent two years in Beijing on a scholarship to converse with his grandparents.

None of his siblings became a dentist either: His younger sister has a boutique creative, design and coding company while his younger brother is a professional stand-up comedian.

Being a corporate suit was just not his style – something he found out quickly after stints as an intern in a law firm and as a management consultant at business consultancy Bain International.

In 2000, he started a Web-based recruitment platform which was later sold to Reuters Thomson for an amount he cannot reveal, due to a confidentiality agreement he inked.

‘Businesses are just about people. If you can’t manage and find the best people, then you won’t be able to build the business,’ he said.

That is one of the reasons he chose Singapore as his base, besides the fact that he had always loved his holidays here as a child, and still has vivid memories of Haw Par Villa’s gory displays and the old Hotel Equatorial’s banana split.

‘The quality of people in Singapore is great. People here are Western enough, well travelled and well educated, hard-working; we can do some really cool stuff here.’

He already has four Singaporean law graduates on his payroll and plans to hire more.

More than that, he feels Singapore can be an important centre for carbon transactions.

‘Everyone feels comfortable with Singapore: British-based law, real clarity of governance, global hub for arbitration.’

Since receiving his employment pass in April this year, he has wasted no time in getting himself settled in, including meeting representatives of government agencies like the Economic Development Board and speaking at the Nanyang Technological University.

But what he wants more than anything else is the opportunity to meet Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, whom he hopes to get on his haze initiative which he is launching on the sidelines of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum with the Asian Development Bank.

Next month, he is also moving his company into a 5,000 sq ft space at Orchard Boulevard which will house 10 staff members.

Besides putting in his own money, he has three Singapore-based investors, and has been doing additional investor rounds. For that reason, he declined to say how much has been pumped in.

The self-professed serial entrepreneur, who clocks 18-hour days, makes no apologies about his capitalistic approach to saving the environment.

Of the world’s 100 biggest economic entities, 51 are corporations while the rest are countries, he pointed out.

‘If you don’t involve a trillion dollars of capital market, you’re joking if you think you’re going to change the world.’

This is the second in a series on foreign-born entrepreneurs who have created successful businesses in Singapore.

Save the trees

‘What I tell my investors is, we want to be the of the Amazon.’

MR SUN, on making a impact

Men do cry

‘I cried. I wept tears of joy, in a masculine way.’

On getting a breakthrough deal

It’s all about people

‘Businesses are just about people. If you can’t manage and find the best people, then you won’t be able to build the business.’

On building a good business

Great quality

‘The quality of people in Singapore is great. People here are Western enough, well travelled and well educated, hard-working; we can do some really cool stuff here.’

On choosing Singapore as his base

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One Response to “From selling burgers to saving rainforests (Sunday Times 26 Oct)”

  1. H T Winn says:

    I am interested in knowing more about saving the rain forests and carbon credits.

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