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Angeli Mehta profiles Land Life, TerViva, and Komaza, three startups that are finding growth opportunities in planting the trees scientists say are urgently needed to combat climate change
Over 4000 years ago, farmers in North Africa worked out that they could irrigate their seedlings by burying clay pots filled with water – wasting not a drop and directing the water to where it was needed.
Amsterdam-based Land Life Company has adapted this solution for the modern era to boost the survival chances of young trees as it harnesses climate and soil data, together with plant science, to work on the reforestation our planet so urgently needs. This autumn alone, it will plant 300,000 trees in Texas and in Spain – surprisingly, Europe’s fastest growing desert.
Land Life is one of 14 companies that feature in a report by World Resources Institute (WRI) and The Nature Conservancy, The Business of Planting Trees, on the private sector’s response to demand for land restoration solutions by initiatives such as the African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative. (See, Fightback against deforestation in Africa focuses on small farmers)
Land Life’s commercial director, Rebekah Braswell, explains that its Cocoon technology is made from recycled paper pulp, made watertight by a wax coating, and is light and stackable.
“The Cocoon is how we started: we needed a tree incubator,” she says. “Then you realise you’re part of a broader value chain, so we started tinkering a bit with the seedlings, then got more rigorous with the analysis of planting.”
Chief technology officer Arnout Asjes adds: “We’re in this to plant as many trees as possible, but not blindly.”
The company has built a huge knowledge base – to which it can apply machine learning and artificial intelligence
Satellite data enables Land Life to see what grew in years past, which alongside soil analysis, looking at what kinds of animals there are, and talking to local farmers, helps inform planting decisions. By meticulously logging the location of every tree planted and following up its growth, and overlaying this with climate and soil data, the company has built a huge knowledge base – to which it can apply machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) with the eventual aim of getting a good feel for the planting design – all from the office, says Asjes.
It’s also spun out its wireless soil moisture measurement technology to create another company, Sensoterra.
The Cocoon has come into its own in North Cameroon, where Land Life, in partnership with the UNHCR, has been working with refugees and locals since September 2017 to reforest over 100 acres of badly degraded land in and around the Minawao refugee camp, where an influx of over 60,000 people fleeing Boko Haram from neighbouring Nigeria has denuded the land of its forest.
As well as its positive environmental impact, the effort is providing jobs and food, and, importantly, a means to build bridges with the local host community.
On the other side of the globe, Land Life has embarked on a major project to help offset the emissions of fleet management firm LeasePlan, which wants to have zero net emissions from its serviced car fleet by 2030, and its own employees’ fleet by 2021.
As part of that effort, Land Life will be planting 40,000 trees this autumn in Texas: a mixture of 40 species in a balanced planting plan that will capture carbon dioxide and encourage biodiversity.
Another company featured in the WRI report is US-based TerViva, which is restoring degraded farmland in Florida and Hawaii by planting an orchard tree called Pongamia, which has a lifespan of at least 25 years, and can be grown with little or no irrigation.
In Florida, a greening disease is leading farmers to abandon citrus groves, while in Hawaii cost and competition are forcing growers to turn their backs on sugar cane, so they need another crop.
Pongamia is nitrogen-fixing, and has huge carbon sequestration potential. It can also be used as a biofuel
Naveen Sikka and his co-founders alighted on Pongamia almost 10 years ago. Since then, the company has invested $15m (£11.5m) to build its plant science team and a library of high-yielding cultivars, which have been tested in different soils and climates.
It has also developing molecular markers to identify important traits, such as oil yield and salt tolerance.
Pongamia is nitrogen-fixing, and has huge carbon sequestration potential. It can also be used as a biofuel and is 90% less greenhouse-gas emitting (well to wheel) than soy bean oil, says Sikka. The seeds produce 10 times as much oil per acre, and three to five times the protein content compared with soy.
Up until now, the oilseeds have been inedible. But, working with researchers at Texas A&M University, TerViva has identified the bioactive compounds that make them unpalatable and developed techniques to remove them. Once TerViva has extracted the oil for conversion into biodiesel, the residue, or “seed cake”, can be used to produce animal feed or fertiliser.
Sikka explains the economics: farmers get an upfront payment when they deliver the crop for processing by TerViva, and a share of the profits once the processed oil and protein are sold. It estimates farmers will make a profit of around $900 per acre. Over the next year or so it will plant 2000 acres: “That may not sound much but it’s a lot for a tree crop – and especially for a brand-new tree crop,” he adds.
Kenyan-based Komaza, meanwhile, has helped thousands of smallholder farmers plant 2.5 million trees over the past 10 years. Next year, it will significantly scale up, planting another 1.3 million in 2019 alone, to provide a sustainable timber supply that will tackle both rural poverty and deforestation. Without a sustained planting effort, dry woodlands in Kenya – and indeed across Africa – will be wiped out because of soaring demand for wood for fuel.
Komaza, a Swahili word that roughly translates as “to encourage growth”, provides farmers with all the physical inputs: seedlings, fertilizers, water barrels, as well as the training to help them prepare the land and plant on time. “We want to make it as easy as possible for smallholders,” founder Tevis Howard says. “There’s no downside risk – if the trees die because of drought, pests, or even if they [the farmers] are lazy – it’s us who lose.”
We pay farmers very significantly above the market price for the wood we harvest
The company harvests the whole tree, for now either eucalyptus or melia (a valuable mahogany-like wood), save for the leaves and the tops of the trees, which can be used for firewood.
“We pay farmers very significantly above the market price for the wood we harvest,” says Howard. Over time the trees increase the soil moisture to the benefit of other crops, while seasonal leaf litter helps to rebuild depleted topsoil. The firm plans to add more species to diversify against pests and disease. Over the next 10-15 years he hopes Komaza can scale across the drylands of Kenya and into more fertile regions of the African continent.
Some of Komaza's, and TerViva's initial funding came from private family foundations. One of TerViva’s backers is Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of Boston investment manager GMO, and whose family foundation set up climate research centres at Imperial College and the London School of Economics.
Earlier this year, Grantham berated corporates for their short-sightedness over the perils of climate change. But, as the 40 scientists who signed a statement on avoiding global warming above 1.5 degrees set out last month, protecting and restoring the world’s forests could realise 18% of the emissions reduction needed.
It was a clarion call to other would-be TerVivas, Komazas and Land Life companies, and to the businesses that could back them.
Angeli Mehta is a former BBC current affairs producer, with a research PhD. She now writes about science, and has a particular interest in the environment and sustainability. @AngeliMehta.
This article is part of the in-depth Deforestation briefing. See also: