The Fight for Funding for a Humanitarian Business

By Arpana Gandhi, CEO, Disarmco.

In 2011, Arpana Gandhi founded Disarmco, a humanitarian business that has developed a safe way to dispose of landmines and other explosive weapons in places of conflict and former conflict. Overcoming a number of challenges to bring the firm’s Dragon Torch product to market, Arpana faced widespread fear among the investment community and a lack of willingness to put their money where their mouth was. She turned to Crowdcube in 2014 where she found “like minded individuals, who genuinely cared about our project, its aims and objectives” and raised £150,000 to help develop the technology. Disarmco has recently received its first order from the United Nations.


My passion is humanitarian projects. Fundraising for victims of landmine incidents has always been something close to my heart. Before starting the business, I was actively involved in fundraising activities to ensure that children and adults with limb loss or limb deformities in developing countries have access to high-quality orthopedic and physical rehabilitation services, so that they can enjoy lifelong mobility. Wars have devastated thousands of lives in many developing countries – it’s estimated that more than 110 million landmines have been laid in conflicts affecting 70 nations and there are 15,000 to 20,000 victims of mines and other munitions each year, 30% of which are women and children.


My business partner and co-founder, John Reid, had been involved with the Ministry of Defence and was asked to provide a solution for the disposal of unexploded bombs and other munitions in a safe and non-hazardous way. In wartime upwards of 20% of munitions fired or dropped can be expected not to have exploded. In the case of exploding ammunition dumps, we’ve learned that ammunition is thrown everywhere and an even higher percentage may not explode, and in a lot of instances these ‘stray’ munitions are too dangerous to handle and need to be destroyed individually.


John had a lot of ideas, but they only existed on paper, so we needed to turn his designs into workable products. Disarmco was established in 2011 to provide products and solutions for the safe and controlled disposal of unwanted munitions.


Call me naïve, but I thought that when it came to raising money, the City and potential investors would be welcoming of a project like Disarmco, given that we had mitigated so many of the potential risks by investing in trials to determine the efficacy of the product. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case.


It seems that the investment community has become much more risk averse and unwilling to invest in what they perceive as commercially unproven technology or business. I feel that the ‘venture’ has gone out of Venture Capital in the UK. Even Corporate Social Responsibility funds found excuses not to invest. There also seems to be a certain amount of paranoia surrounding defence-related projects, even if they are designed to reduce the impact of conflict and are environmentally advantageous.


But my previous experience has taught me to keep fighting for what I really believe in. Failure to convince other people to believe in the project does not translate to failure. It is all about timing and finding like-minded people to share your passion.


So after failing to attract the mainstream investors, I decided to invest £150,000 of my own money in order to continue the important development of the Dragon Torch and our other products. But at the same time, we looked at alternative investment opportunities, and decided to offer the project to the general public and garner their support to help fund the business through crowdfunding.


When we decided to raise money on crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube it was so refreshing to find like-minded individuals who genuinely cared about the project, its aims and objectives. We set a target of £120,000, but raised just short of £150,000 from 124 investors. We have used the funds to upgrade our product ranges and provide demonstrations to prospective clients. Crowdfunding has effectively provided DisarmCo with an essential lifeline to continue the development programme so that we can provide much-needed products and services for the disposal of obsolete munitions in an environmentally friendly manner.


Since then, the turning point has been a big contract with the United Nations for our Thermit products. This has been an incredibly pivotal moment for us, as it has effectively endorsed our products as ‘fit for purpose’. We are also working with a range of other clients to get our products used in places where they are most needed and will make the most difference.


My advice as a business owner is to make sure you have an overview across the entire business to help meet any challenges. This means from the technical side right through to how the warehouse operates, as it is key to ensuring the business remains successful. This all-round knowledge helps the team when they are facing difficulties as well.


For example, I understand the complexities in terms of logistics and whether our technical ambitions for our products become prohibitive. Our products need to be classified by Health & Safety UK (HSE), to ensure they meet the correct transport regulations when travelling on commercial airlines. Insurgent activity has meant that transport of our goods into post conflict areas has become increasingly difficult and, as a result, we are continually upgrading our products to meet the necessary compliance and regulatory requirements. Each upgrade requires HSE to accept the changes and this process can take up to six months. It has been an extremely frustrating time as on several occasions DisarmCo has not been able to commercialise its product ranges.


But for me, each experience is a learning curve, and I truly believe that if you have a passion for something, don’t give up on it. Know that at some point someone somewhere will help you.