Fairtalks #2: Bas van Abel on founding a startup to disrupt an entire industry

Originally published at: https://www.fairphone.com/en/2020/01/30/fairtalks-podcast-bas/

It all began with Waag Society, part of Amsterdam’s innovation cluster. The Waag is a beautiful, turreted 15th-century building. Part of the original city wall, it has been a weighing house, a museum and a surgical theater where Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp in 1632.

Today, in keeping with its history, it is now home to Waag Society, a foundation that fosters innovation in technology, art and culture. Bas van Abel was the society’s creative director. He headed the Open Design Lab and launched Fablab, both of which help people to better understand and create products.

It was within this innovative environment that the first seeds of Fairphone were sown. “We started looking at conflict minerals, those related to the war in Congo. We felt that if we wanted to create awareness all the way to the consumer, then we have to be part of that system. So, we said, ‘Let’s make a phone,’” explains Bas. “We said, ‘If we sell 5,000 of these phones, we’d do it.’”

You can also follow the podcast on Spotify >>

Years later, Bas can look back on an unimaginable journey: Our podcast host Miquel sat down with Fairphone founder and all-round sustainable firestarter Bas to really dive deep into the origins of what started out as an awareness campaign, turned into a movement and eventually became a social enterprise. Bas shares his unique perspective from behind the scenes of a growing social enterprise, as they discuss how it went from its humble beginnings to the Fairphone 3.

“One of the first executive decisions I had to make, was to bribe the minister of communication of the DRC.”

There is too much in this podcast to unpack in a few sentences, but as I sat in our little recording studio in the office, listening in on two of the people that dreamt up this initiative and went against all odds to grow it into what Fairphone has become today – I couldn’t help but feel proud. We’ve come along way together and you, our community play a huge part in that. We really see a lot of potential for taking this podcast format further than our office. As we dig deeper, we’ll include you each step of the way. So now is your chance to let us know what your burning questions are and where you would like to see this podcast go in the next few episodes.

Let’s discuss in the comments below. And don’t hold back – Bas wouldn’t either.


Maybe there should be a transcription of the podcast published as well for the people with hearing disability.


I Covered many of the topics discussed in this show with Bas, Bibi and Michael back in the day (2011) on my podcast. Unfortunately content gets buried and forgotten as time goes on. If one were interested… here come links to each of those shows.


PS – Sound engineer: Boost the gain level of the show please.


Great suggestion BertG, I’ll get on that right away!


I’ll be sure to give the episode a listen - and you’re spot on: We wanted to take a moment at the beginning of the year and give Bas the space to retell the story for everyone who’s new to the community. I’m glad there are so many takes on unearthing this story and it would really be a shame, if podcasts like yours stay buried.

And of course, thanks again for the sound engineering tips - we’ll get on that as well and grow our skills from episode to episode. I hope you can hear, that we took your input from the first episode to heart?

Cheers for the great feedback.


I’m fully aware how much work that transcription work would be, but nevertheless I want to second Bert’s suggestion wholeheartedly. To not beat around the bush, the likelihood that I’ll read an interview transcription is several times higher than listening to an 80 minute audio recording in a language that I understand but still requires 100% permanent focus. Simply put: Reading is so much easier here than listening. But again, I know how tough a job transcribing is, so if it would happen I’d regard it as a little miracle. :wink:

P.S.: Oh, and I am not even hard of hearing.


Hi Urs, thanks for chiming in. That’s a surprising insight, I would have thought that most people prefer listening over reading - especially when it comes to more in-depth stories.
But point taken!

I will try and wrap my head around a way to make this miracle happen for the next one :slight_smile: Hard of hearing or not, I’ll do my best to make our content as accessible and inclusive as possible. Really appreciate the suggestions here!


I can second what Urs posted.
With a text, you can print it and read it everywhere, you can easily skip parts or read for gist.
To me that is harder done listening to an audio-tape.


Very interesting Podcast.
Especially for people who want to start a new business.
I would like to hear more about Problems you were facing, but would require a new Team/Company. For example I think Urban mining and Recycling is important to tackle but can’t be handled by Fairphone on a big scale.
Would be interesting which new companies are needed in circular economies. And how Recycling can be improved ( Third world "Recycling"of e-waste. You made a gold study in that.


@Blaffi I’d be intersted to listen to the podcast, but not on Spotify or Soundcloud. Would you have a good’ol RSS feed we could work with? :innocent:


I very much agree that a podcast should be available via RSS to deserve the name. Especially in times when Spotify is trying to change that norm.

Meanwhile, there are workarounds: https://feeds.soundcloud.com/users/soundcloud:users:722599552/sounds.rss :wink:


Thanks for jumping in here, @m4lvin.
Does the soundcloud rss feed work for you @glotzbach?

Thanks for the feedback @Michael97!
You’re tapping into interesting questions there. One of our next episodes will be with the founders of closing the loop, on the circular economy and (battery) recycling specifically.

I’ve included your questions in the draft for the script.
We’re aiming to get these out about once a month, but sometimes it takes a little longer, to align everyone’s schedules. Either way - look for some answers here soon :slight_smile:


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Even if it does, it would be much nicer if you would offer an RSS feed directly. As you are using WordPress anyway, this seems to be the best plugin for publishing podcasts: https://publisher.podlove.org/


You bribed the minister of communication? Un-fucking-believable! So, in order to create an “ethical” company, you participated in one of the most disgusting, unfair, unethical, unprofessional businesses practices imaginable! Naturally, you will argue that it was the “only way you could get things done” and “everybody does it” blah, blah, blah. And you, no doubt, will say that it was all for the greater good. But, the fact is you cheated. When I first heard about Fairphone, I silently wished that I may somebody work for the company. Now, I want absolutely nothing to do with you or your products!

Counterpoint: cheating is good when it helps people.

For anyone interested, it was $250 and the story starts at 22:19.


Hi @gwlnl, I understand that you find this to be morally wrong. Neither do I agree with it. But you have to understand that the DRC government is being massively bribed by non-fair tech companies to cover up human rights abuses, so in that regard it was a necessary evil.

The amount of money gained by the people of the DRC through fair wages for their mining work, is likely much more than $250.


Unfortunately the world is never black and white; it is and always will be all kinds of grey and other colors as well.
I sympathize with your principles, but one has to be able to afford sticking to principles.
If you are going to work for a company, you really will be challenged to find a company, that is working globally and without that kind of bribery.

Admittedly it is cheating. But the ones that are cheated, are the honest competitors. That would be all the other smartphone manufacturers. I can be wrong of course, but I really have my doubts, that there are honest ones in that market (regarding bribery that is).

I am not sure, if that is making it less condemnable, but I honestly do understand the decision by FP to pay the price that was needed.

If you are that strict regarding your morals and principles. you must have a long list of companies that are to be boycotted.
Or are you especially disappointed, because you had so many hopes and even wanted to join that company.


Nobody likes bribes. In the end, money makes the world go round, and bribes are like money and knives. They can be used for good, and for bad things. It is why police officers carry guns (and a plethora of other tools) to keep society safe. Or why soldiers in the military carry weapons. And it is perfectly possible to agree with all of that, even if you’re a pacifist or peaceful human being.

In this case, it is argued the end justifies the means. Because the alternative was far less ideal, while the amount of money was relatively low.

For me it is the other way around; with audio I feel like I don’t need to focus on it 100% of the time. I’ve become a fan of podcasts. Partly precisely because it is easier to not listen to some parts (cause boring) I combine it with multitasking of e.g. browsing. Because it is easy to listen to during commute (at moments I can’t read, but I can listen). Because it is easy to increase or decrease the speed. Combined with a noise cancelling headset I find it pure joy. Also, I personally like the feature of Spotify Podcast, but podcasts should not be bound to a proprietary platform.

Would it be possible to automate the transcribing? So that all you gotta do is edit out the produced transcription?

What is “help”?

When you participate in bribery you may be helping your own company and your own best interests but you are certainly not helping the people of the local country. You are helping to keep alive an unfair business practice and you are supporting the people in power… helping them get richer while the local community continues to suffer in poverty.

Additionally, when you position yourself as an ethical company, you have an obligation to work ethically in all areas… not just the areas that benefit you.