Case Studies

Social entrepreneurs behind the enterprises: Sean Kerr and Stephen McQueen, Sustainable Thinking Scotland

In this series we focus our attention on the social entrepreneurs behind the enterprise. Each year we work with hundreds of inspirational individuals to turn their ideas into amazing social enterprises. This blog series celebrates their determination and drive to make a difference in their communities.

STS was set up in 2016 by Sean Kerr and Stephen McQueen, both life-long Falkirk residents. After working with groups tackling food poverty, they decided to put their efforts into a venture that allows them to give back to the environment, their community and beyond. 

It’s been a journey full of passion, research and determination for Sean and Steve to get their enterprise to the stage it is at today. The duo has taken advantage of the opportunities that have come their way; consistently learning and challenging themselves, whilst staying true to their passion for making positive change in their local community.  

We caught up with Sean to learn more about STS’s journey and hear first-hand how their mission to end food poverty has created one of the most innovative environmental social enterprises in Scotland. 

How it started:  

STS’s journey began when Sean and Steve decided they needed to stop talking about how society should change for the better and start working to make local change happen.  

…we talked a big game about how society needed to do this, or people needed to do that, first thing anyone ever said to us was well what are you doing? And we were like uh nothing. So, when I got made redundant, me and Steve took about 6 months…just trying to research what the bigger social problems in our area were which led to…us starting the CIC.

Sean and Steve noticed the substantial number of people in food poverty across Falkirk and started out by picking up donated food from supermarkets and delivering it to the local foodbanks. It was not long, however, until they began to see flaws in the system, and decided to do something about it. 

…You’re taking things, which is essentially food waste from supermarkets, and giving it into food poverty programs and whilst you get a lot of the things like the tins or the bread or the hygiene products, … they’re all fantastic because they’ve got a longer shelf life, things like fresh vegetables don’t. So, by the time we were picking them up, they were already a day out of date and then by the time that we got them out to the food bank… they had to go in a five-day food parcel! So, they’re not fit for purpose. Well, we thought there has to be a much simpler way to do that better, where you can get fresh fruit and vegetables to the poorest people and the sort of state that they want them in.

Their answer? Grow fresh fruit and vegetables themselves and harvest them to donate the same day!  

We found a little bit of land in Bo’ness and we started growing food for the foodbanks there. But then we realised the overheads of all the things we needed to do.

Social Impact to business: 

It was at this point that Sean and Steve began to think about their project as a business. They had regular outgoings, they now had to find an income to match them. As an answer to this, STS began running funded workshops with the local community and local primary schools.  

We then started to do workshops, so we started off with a couple of public ones, where it was just us in Bo’ness. And people were coming to see what we were doing and maybe paying a little bit towards it. Then we started to get funded workshops, which allowed us to do things like our schools programme called Grow’ness…. It did slightly pull away from the stuff that we wanted to do at the start, but you have to cut your cloth accordingly because you have to do something to bring the money in. 

With a steady income, STS began to develop their community hub, not only to grow food for the food banks, but to offer growing experience to those without access to greenspaces. Alongside these projects they began to explore ways that they could increase their crop yield, and gradually increased their donations across the area.  

It started off with us and one foodbank, us donating to one foodbank which was the Bo’ness storehouse foodbank just up the road at Links Court. That’s grown significantly, to the point where this year at the height during the summer holidays we were donating to four foodbanks and we were donating about 80kg of food a week. So that’s 4 harvests a week for the vast majority of the year. 

For the duo, it is not just about providing food for those most in need, it is also about ensuring that those people can access foodbanks and still feel dignified.  

There’s a big question around how you manage to keep peoples’ dignity… For us, we say the only way you can treat people with dignity is if you give them the best of the stuff. If we took our vegetables, freshly harvested to Marks and Spencer’s they’d get trampled by [folks] trying to buy the food off you. So rather than giving that to them, you give that to the people who are at the bottom. Then they’ve got more dignity because it’s not shite they’re getting, it’s actual food that you’d buy at the supermarket.

Scaling the business, in order to scale their impact 

With clear social impact and income streams established, the next big question for Sean and Steve was how to scale and grow. At this stage they had already began to research how to restore nutrients in the soil and stumbled across the use of Biochar.  

Biochar is a coal-like substance that works, in many ways, as a fertiliser. It is a highly porous form of carbon obtained from baking wood within an oxygen-depleted environment and has the unique ability to draw and lock in nutrients and toxins from its surroundings. Not only can you manipulate the biochar to withdraw toxins from the environment, but you can also manipulate the nutrient balance in the biochar, making it a great substance to use in fertilising your crops. 

image shows Sean holding biochar, a black coal like substance, in a blue bag

Sean and Steve spent years researching biochar’s capabilities, and from this work they have identified an income stream which not only could sustain their social ambitions of ending food poverty but could also help build a greener planet.  

In order to scale and grow this part of the business, STS required academic assistance to validate the science behind their own research and trials. The pair applied to our LaunchMe programme to help them access academic resources.  

 When we started using the biochar in the food stuff we were doing, we had an idea of what benefits it could bring… so we just guinea-pigged it… for like a year, where we had it in two beds and we had a control bed without any of the stuff [biochar].  

The amount you can grow is 4 or 5 times more than in a control bed, …you don’t have to water it as much as it holds the water 5x the amount that soil does… One thing we weren’t expecting though was the vast reduction of pests! We had the control pest that got attacked… but the biochar stuff wasn’t touched… There’s loads of potential for doing lots of different stuff with it. This is where the universities come in, because whilst it’s nice to take pictures and point to folks and say here’s the visual data you can see. You need the hard science there.” 

Having seen the potential of Biochar in food production, STS began to research how else the biochar could be used. With the help of academics, the science that STS had predicted was proven allowing STS to develop five new potential income streams from the lifecycle of biochar. Including water remediation to help remove polluting nutrients from lakes and lochs, as well as prevent water pollution at its source – Agriculture. 

With 96% of Scotland being a ‘nitrogen vulnerable zone’, meaning that the soil already contains a high level of nitrogen, it significantly impacts the efficiency of fertilisers. Fertilisers used across the agricultural sector usually contain nitrogen and phosphorous. Each time the land is fertilised a percentage of those nutrients are washed off into the water table. In small quantities the knock on effects of this are small. In soil where nitrogen levels are already high, this increases the nutrient run off.  

In Scotland, this means that on average 15-20% of fertiliser added to soil is washed off and enters the water system – rivers, streams and lochs. This is not only inefficient for farmers, but also causes significant problems for water quality across Scotland. Excess nitrogen and phosphorous in the water table is polluting lochs with toxic blue-green algae blooms which has huge knock-on environmental effects. 

…We want to optimise it [biochar] so that it collects the nutrients that we want from water… blue-green algae is one of the main big problems that comes from …[having] too much of certain nutrients in the water.

The science behind how biochar works in water is complex. Put simply, the biochar and the chemicals in the water work like magnets, positively charged chemicals attract the negatively charged ones, and vice versa. Sean and Steve, with the help of academics, were able to understand the chemical composure of the biochar, when in water, and from that manipulate its chemical balance to attract the chemicals that you need it to. Working with the University of the Highlands and Islands, STS has developed a biochar that is able to absorb 200 times more phosphorous than it does in its natural state.  

So that allows us to take the problematic nutrients that are going into other problems, and take them and put them back into agricultural use… So, for us there are five different points where we can make money in the biochar’s life cycle. 

1. Taking in wood waste 
2. Charging private companies to offset their carbon emissions 

For every tonne of wood we convert into biochar, it’s the equivalent of taking 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent out of the atmosphere Private companies looking to …remove their historical carbon… or offset the carbon they’re going to be producing next, they will pay through the nose for the tonnes of CO2 they want. 

3. Water remediation work.
Linlithgow loch, which we’re right next to is currently closed, and the reason it’s closed is it’s had it’s 6th blue green algae bloom in the past 9 years… So we could go out to them and use biochar to remediate that…

4. Agricultural nutrient run-off prevention work  
…We would go to the farmers, or the people who own the land around about the loch, where you start to build barriers with the biochar to stop it [the nutrients] before it gets there [the loch]. 

5. Re-using the nutrient filled biochar as fertiliser 

STS recently received a loan from our Catalyst Fund, which will enable them to develop these income streams, and start to reduce the level of carbon in the atmosphere, whilst continuing to alleviate food poverty in their local area. They have big hopes for the future and considering how far they have come in their first five years; we are excited to see the amazing work they have planned for the next five!  

 In the next five years I want to leapfrog from being a funded body that does social enterprise work to being a social enterprise funder in Falkirk. To be making enough money… to fund people, sign post them to the places that we’ve been because we know how hard it was to get any kind of traction in this place, until you started to deal with people like Firstport.  

For us it’s a social enterprise, you’re a social first. But if we get the enterprise part right then we can unlock that for everyone. Because if I do one or two of those jobs of the water remediation or sell those carbon credits for a year, I can run that food production in Falkirk for the next 10 or 15 years. I can start opening satellite sites and deal with everybody in Falkirk. That is what drives us being able to see those sorts of things, and the potential of like, we could feed a full district here if you manage to get all these parts to fit together, and it seems to be going that way. It seems to be fitting in the way that we’re hoping… so, fingers crossed, but long may it continue. 

STS have been determined and driven from the start, and their journey maps a clear system of support for social enterprises, in particular those with high-growth potential. STS began their journey by speaking to Just Enterprise. They then applied for our Build It award, joined a LaunchMe cohort and began accessing support from Interface. Following that they won a space on the Unlocking Ambition programme, and most recently received a Catalyst Fund loan of £190,000!