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Triple bottom line and Yolngu knowledge for indigenous business development

Script of presentation given at:

This Article presents a synthesis of some western economic and yolngu concepts to provide insight into how indigenous families can successfully implement business development.


The phrase ‘bottom line’ was applied to the accountant’s profit/loss statement and clearly a business constantly making a loss is not sustainable. The triple bottom line also assesses the environmental and social sustainability. In 2005 70% of the top 250 companies in the USA used the triple bottom line in their reporting (Pava, 2008). By definition unsustainable activities cannot continue in the long term and will eventually fail without some external support.


The chart of accounts leading to the economic bottom line is quantified but this is not the case for the environmental or social bottom lines. Some elements, like carbon footprint, can be measured but many factors, such as impact of social inequity are near impossible to quantify for a specific business activity. Some triple bottom line business reporting is more about brand development than a genuine effort to assess sustainability. In the Northern Territory we might say triple bottom line reporting can be a bit gammon but let us not throw out the baby with the bath water.


When looking at what is required for a successful business start up explicitly considering the social and environmental development along with the economic development is critical. Assumptions of ‘business as usual’ for development models that may have been successful in different social and environmental context can lead to fatal blind spots. Cultivate NT uses all three elements of the triple bottom line to plot a development strategy. The basic approach is to assess what we already have and what development is required to achieve a sustainable business.


This article will now focus on the social element to provide some insights. The social indicators, such as health disparities and high incarceration rates of indigenous people in Australia make it clear that the current general situation is not socially sustainable, but like all data set there are variations within and we need to go past the headlines.


The guiding question through this lens is “what social development needs to happen so that Yolngu people of East Arnhem Land can run their own sustainable businesses?” I recently heard it said that your character is the sum of your daily habits. It is the daily habits of business operators that will determine their success or failure. Character and identity are closely related and they need to be open for discussion to enable sustainable businesses to develop. The required changes for Yolngu individuals and families run deep.


This article will use one family as a case study and give a brief version of their recent history to provide the social context. A few of the Ngurruwutthun family members I will speak about are now deceased I will not use their names. I was adopted into this family and I will refer to them by my relationship to them.


This bark painting from the Salt Water Collection is by Dula Ngurruwutthun, my Ngathi or maternal grandfather.  He was born in 1936 the year after the mission was established in Yirrkala. His parents had become adults before any Europeans settled in the area. He died in 2001. The painting tells the story of Yarrinya and the knowledge held in the coastal waters there. The Ngurruwutthu family were central in what is sometimes referred to as the Caledon Bay Situation of the 1930’s, which revolved around a tribal leader, called Wongu and his sons killing Japanese trepan traders who, from the yolngu perspective, started turning up without negotiated agreement after the South Australian government stopped the Maccasan traders coming. Trade with the Macassans from Sulawesi stretched back many centuries before European arrival. One of Wongu’s daughters was eventually married to Ngathi.


Like his father Ngathi became what is known as djirrakay; a ceremonial specialist or what we might call a businessman, an academic, an artist and a politician. He died a few years before I first went to Yirrkala but in the stories I have heard and read of him he spent his young adulthood moving about Arnhem Land both learning ceremony and working on various European projects like airstrip building and peanut farming. He was an intelligent and empowered man who, along with his equally intelligent and perceptive wife, understood how power worked in their own culture and realised the importance of understanding how it works in this new culture that was influencing their lives. Ngathi charged his eldest and bright daughter, to at first become educated in the western system, and then to develop a bilingual education program so that empowered Yolngu children could grow up in both worlds.


His daughter, I call her Ngandi or mother, died last year after a 40 year career in education that saw her become the principal at Yirrkala school and significant driver for bilingual education. A number of other family members are also involved in education and, as my Ngandi once said, it is not so much teaching but learning that they believe in. To me it is a logical progression that the most intellectually capable members of this family now try and develop their own business to achieve economic self-sufficiency. They have land and natural resources they can use.


This family have been very proactive in teaching me the workings of their culture and knowledge and what is presented here is the result of a shared dialogue only made possible by the depth of their thought. Also I must say that the confidence of my insights are limited by my experience to the Yolngu culture of East Arnhem Land. Yes there will be many similarities with other indigenous language groups but try telling the French, British, Italians and Germans that they are all the same anyway.


A fundamental consideration of the social context for business development, to quote my Ngandi is, “it is all about the families”. The family is the economic unit of yolngu society. Development programs that do not align with this reality fail to be socially sustainable. Too large and disagreement between families and clans become major limiting factors to maintain a common purpose and the development fails. Alternatively too small and initiatives targeted at individuals that do not include their families results in conflicted family members disengaging from the source of stress. This is not such a radical idea. How many small business people in mainstream Australia depend on the support of their family unit?


The family unit I refer to is not just the parents and children of a nuclear family. It is the extended family including a generation of middle age siblings, those of the generation above still alive and then young parents and their children. In the case of east Arnhem Land who is living at the homeland contributes to what I think of as the family unit.


A number of years after beginning my relationship with the Ngurruwutthun family I married into a Patel family. The Patel’s are from the vaishyas caste of Gujarat, India, which makes them excellent business people. Spending time with my Indian family struck me as very similar to spending time with My Yolngu family except they, if you will excuse the expression, all had their economic shit together. So there is already a very good model for how the yolngu social structure can support family based economic self-sufficiency. We need to look no further than the South East Asian families running small horticultural enterprises and selling in our local Darwin markets.


The economic unit at the basis of our development strategy is the extended family.


I have been taught a number of yolngu metaphors that are used to conceptualise various aspects of existence. To learn a new concept in isolation is a lot more difficult than to learn one that relates to an existing conceptual framework. This is the essence of a good educational program, bilingual or otherwise. We often use metaphoric language without even realising it. When you hear over the PA system of a large store “can a team member go to aisle 6” you know the corporate metaphor being employed is that of a sports team working together towards a common goal. Almost everybody in this country can relate to the team sport metaphor, particularly those who played one at some stage. The use of familiar metaphor provides a context for new ideas and behaviours.

We all use metaphors to make sense of some things.


Yolngu knowledge is rich with sophisticated metaphors that support people’s shared understanding. The lipalipa or canoe can be deployed as a metaphor for business development. The Ngurruwutthun family has formed Rurrangala Bush Produce as a proprietary limited private company. The company is the canoe. The captain who sits at the back and navigates is the board of directors who need clear and farsighted vision and an acute awareness of the current situation. The paddlers are the workers who need to build their strength for long journeys. The person who is djambatj; focused on the waters with harpoon in hand is the manager who has an eye on the details of each task. The waters we travel through may be calm or rough, with or against the tide and the wind. Any leaks in the structure that prevent the business staying afloat must be identified and fixed. Our marketing strategy is our hunting strategy and our branding is our bait.


So each person’s role in the business is clear and contextualised by the lipalipa metaphor. The family has only the one lipalipa and outside of it individuals risk being drowned. How many passengers can we take? Do we leave some family behind until they are ready for the journey? The core of our crew, the board of directors and the workers are committed to developing the business based at Rurrangala and 170km separate them from those who choose to live in ‘town’.


The canoe or lipalipa metaphor helps conceptualise the family business


Show of hands who speaks more than one language. Before I go on I want to address the misconception single language speakers often have. Other languages are not simply different words for all the same concepts in their own language; some concepts are the same, others only similar at some levels and some concepts simply do not exist in both languages.


I will now elaborate another metaphor; water as knowledge. If you have heard of the Garma Festival its name refers to the mixing of fresh and salt water representing the mixing of Yolngu and Western knowledge. This point where the two waters, river and sea mix to become brackish waters. Currents can be treacherous and if this photo was not from Tasmania crocodiles would hunt here but it is also more fertile and abundant if you keep your wits about you. This is a metaphor that allows yolngu culture to undergo dynamic evolution in a changing world. It is also an old metaphor used to understand the mixing of clan knowledge. Marriage according to the kinship system is between but not within clans so mother and father come from different clans who speak different languages that have different concepts. As Yolngu grow up they should learn at least both parents’ language and probably both their grand mother’s languages too. This metaphor helps understand the mixing of knowledge including deconstructing and identifying where particular concepts come from.


Water is a powerful metaphor for knowledge


The clan structure fits within the kinship structure, which is the power structure. For the educated in yolngu society there is a clear understanding that knowledge comes from a particular part of the power structure and your mix of knowledge determines where you fit into that power structure.


Here are some classic representations of western and even Indian culture power structures. The merchants or Vaishyas are people who operate businesses and are in the middle of these structures. This raises the question of what is the difference in knowledge within these power structures. The Yirrkala mission was established in 1936 and most yolngu now identify themselves as Christians. I have no intention of undermining their faith but the first thing I say to explain some of the differences between the bottom and higher on this pyramid is that when those on the bottom pray they ask for their problems to be solved while those higher up ask for the strength to solve problems themselves. Without some family members taking leadership roles and initiating change there will be no transition to economic self-sufficiency for the family.



Different groups in societies’ power structures have different knowledge


We have to explicitly teach western business knowledge and I call this “economics 101 for yolngu”. I won’t go into the detail of this but will give you a few bare bones to chew on.


These concepts and how they relate to each other are some of the fundamentals. Djama is a yolngu word for labour but I am yet to come across words for Capital and Production so we explore them by example. A spear is capital increasing the productivity of our hunting. The large assets of a mine help move more dirt and increase productivity.


Capital + Labour => Production


We talk about either working more or accumulating capital, in the form of useful equipment, to increase productivity. Productivity is linked to income and wealth. To return to the lipalipa metaphor these concepts are our compass providing direction. Is what we do each day increasing or decreasing our capital, our production, our wealth and our empowerment?


Production <=> Consumption


Then we look at the relationship between production and consumption. With producers paying consumers and traders taking their cut in between. In addition to their traditional knowledge Yolngu have a western cultural identity and after going through this story it is clear that currently it is predominantly from being consumers.  This identity is from the bottom of the pyramid. The challenge for the Ngurruwutthun family, and many like them, is not just learn but embody what they call power knowledge. By shifting their identity from being consumers in western culture to producers they will be able to achieve family based economic self-sufficiency.


Ngurruwutthun means nose breaker. The bow of the boat breaking through into new waters. New knowledge. This identity has been expressed by family’s commitment to bilingual education and now it sets out on a journey of business development. The families are the economic units in East Arnhem Land and each has its stories and metaphors. It is from building on this intellectual richness that yolngu families have the best chance to develop economic self-sufficiency.


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