It started one cold November evening in the late 1990s. Swedish entrepreneur Bengt Wahlqvist was watching the news when graphic images from the aftermath of an earthquake in Pakistan changed his life for good.
Sitting in the comfort of his warm living room, he saw families without a roof above their heads battling freezing temperatures and snow. "Around the same time, we were about to send annual Christmas gifts to clients of my company. I phoned my team and told them to buy big tents and heaters for the people affected by the earthquake instead," remembers Bengt and adds, "that became the Christmas gifts that year."
Or in any other year that followed as Bengt decided that the budget for gifts was better spent elsewhere. "From that moment on, I wanted to create change for people who couldn't create change for themselves," he says.
Bengt and his wife Eva met Nina Hoas from the UBS Philanthropy Advisory team seven years ago.
Nina introduced them to impact investing and Optimus Foundation philanthropic projects. "It hasn't always been easy to find impactful opportunities but the foundation let us pick and choose from a catalog. And they did all the work for us – it was easy," he said. For Bengt that was one of the secrets of good and effective philanthropy. "It has to be easy for people. The easier the better."
His relationship with Nina also gave him access to impact investing – allowing him to allocate not only donations, but also his investments, to good cause. "The timing was right. I was looking for meaningful management of my investment and UBS had just launched its first impact investing fund," Bengt said. He was one of the first to sign-up for the fund and now sits on the advisory board.
It has to be easy for people. The easier the better.
Since selling his company ten years ago, Bengt invests his time and assets mainly in climate projects, self-help and health.
"One of the first projects I picked from the Optimus program was fighting tuberculosis and the topic has stayed with us ever since. We got involved in other tuberculosis projects and although there are always setbacks, we will continue to support the fight against this cruel disease, which still kills 1.7 million people every year"
For Bengt, the approach of the Optimus Foundation to support projects that can be scaled up makes total sense.
Last Mile Health has the potential to become a model for regions in the developing world where no health care system is available
"When they introduced me to the project Last Mile Health, which brings healthcare to remote areas in Africa, I was convinced straight away. It was clear that there was potential to scale up the project and help a great amount of people." Since then, the project has been recognized by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation for its role in fighting the Ebola epidemic in 2015. “Last Mile Health has the potential to become a model for regions in the developing world where no health care system is available”.
Building a community
Last Mile Health is just one of many projects Bengt has been involved in over the past few years. One of his key focuses today is growing the philanthropist community.
In 2012, Bengt decided to launch a philanthropy forum in the Swiss city of Lugano, where he now lives. "The idea was born after my wife and I attended the UBS Philanthropy Forum in St Moritz. In Lugano, impact investing and philanthropy were not big topics at the time – not because people did not care but because they did not know a lot about it. I wanted to change that."
Together with the Swedish Chamber of Commerce and UBS, he has since brought together like-minded people and introduced them to impact investing and philanthropy. The forum is now in its sixth year and getting stronger as the years pass.
Bengt and Eva’s philanthropic journey is far from over. It has just started. Bengt is a member of UBS Impact Investing Fund advisory board and also regularly travels to Indonesia where he and a partner are the founders of one of his favorite impact investing projects – building a number of hydro power plants with a target of 200 MW.
Bengt explains: “We will not only generate a lot of clean energy and receive a financial return. We have also created a local foundation that will, together with us, act as a shareholder, receive income from the power plants and use it for the better of the local community". Impact investing is a topic that stays close to his heart. "The ultimate goal is to have all assets invested in a meaningful way, making change, doing good" he says.
"Things get better in this world. It's not all bad," he concludes. "In the last decades, a billion or more people were lifted out of the worst poverty, we often forget. If we can open the eyes to people to spread happiness and inspiration, then it is going to get better. It feels good to spread joy – it creates energy."
We will not only generate a lot of clean energy… We have also created a local foundation that will use the income for the better of the local community
Why it matters
In September 2015, the United Nations set out a plan for transforming our world by 2030. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are aimed at addressing the most pressing social and environmental challenges of our time. And we've committed to taking part in making them a reality.