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Working Trees: How a startup helps farmers get paid for carbon stored in their trees

Now that the Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2022 winners have been officially announced, you’ll want to learn more about each winning team and the story behind each innovation. The Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge is an online competition that awards cash prizes to early-stage tech entrepreneurs solving the world’s toughest problems. Since 2017, the competition has awarded $3.25 million USD to 78 startups from 25 countries.

We are excited for you to learn more about the 2022 winning teams addressing some of the biggest challenges we face through technology-based solutions.

In response to the growing urgency to reverse climate change, we introduced five new Climate Impact and Regeneration prizes totaling $300,000 USD. These prizes recognize solutions that can reduce or remove greenhouse gas (GHG) from the environment or regenerate depleted ecosystems.

I had the opportunity to meet with John Foye, CEO and Aakash Ahamed, CTO of Working Trees, which was awarded $50,000 USD as a Runner-Up for the Climate Impact & Regeneration Prize. Working Trees provides a technology-based solution for farmers and ranchers to measure the carbon stored in silvopasture systems using a smartphone, making it possible for landowners of all sizes to access carbon markets and get paid for the carbon stored in their trees.

Silvopasture is the intentional planting of trees on the same land where animals are being grazed to create conditions that are more desirable for livestock. The agricultural benefits of silvopasture include increased shade which provides drought tolerance for the pastures and heat resistance for the animals. It also offers forage for the animals in the form of foliage and fodder from the trees, in addition to absorbing and storing carbon.

Working Trees launched the first agroforestry (tree planting in agricultural systems) carbon project in the U.S. in March 2022, with oak and pine seedlings planted at Lick Skillet Farm in Tennessee.

What problem is your technology solution trying to solve?

John: At Working Trees, we recognize that tree planting gets a ton of press, but it doesn’t happen at any real scale. Farmers and ranchers manage most of the land here on earth. If trees don’t provide benefits for those who manage the land, trees aren’t going to be planted. Working Trees makes it possible to grow trees in places where the interest of farmers and the climate overlap. We’re focusing on livestock producers by offering them a way to generate income for the carbon stored in trees that they incorporate into new silvopasture systems.

Aakash: Farmers and ranchers often face barriers that make it challenging for them to participate in carbon markets and receive payments for carbon stored on their land. These barriers are essentially related to cost. If a landowner manages a small acreage, they can’t gain access to carbon markets due to high cost of monitoring and verification. Our technology is built to simplify monitoring and reporting and facilitate access to carbon markets for landowners of all sizes.

Can you explain how the solution works?

Aakash: The technology is a simple application that can be downloaded on a smartphone. It enables a user, typically a farmer or rancher, to measure the properties needed—diameter, height, and species—to estimate the amount of carbon stored in a tree. The farmer then collects a representative sample for their entire area of planting. They continue to collect these measurements over time to catalog the amount of carbon stored over time. They also collect photos of all the measurements, so we have a very high quality and auditable dataset of the tree properties which influence the amount of carbon being stored. This enables customers purchasing the carbon credits to be confident that they are contributing to a net negative carbon removal outcome.

John: These seemingly simple measurements are all you need to run a carbon project. There’s a ton of math that goes into how you pick your sampling and how you aggregate it appropriately to estimate the total carbon credits. Our sampling approach is currently being validated by carbon registries, which provide additional safeguards that the quantification approach is robust. An important part of establishing silvopasture is related to the upfront cost – it costs money now to put trees into the ground and the benefits materialize years in the future. To bridge this gap, we can pre-sell carbon credits to customers who are looking to lock in a long-term supply, allowing us to offer financing options to the farmer. Our measurement technology facilitates credit verification and generation, and we can use innovations in the carbon markets to provide financing for the farmer.

From Left to Right: CTO of Working Trees Aakash Ahamed and CEO of Working Trees John Foye.

What is innovative about the way you are solving the issue? What sets your solution apart?  

John: We’re the only entity focused on running agroforestry carbon projects. The reason we were able to launch the first agroforestry carbon project in America earlier this year is because of our unique approach in developing a technology-based solution. It allows us to generate high-quality, fully auditable ground truth data, whereas so much of the market is focused on using remote sensing which can be less accurate than on-the-ground sampling.

Aakash: Typically, carbon projects are verified by teams of people taking measurements by hand with tools such as tape measures and range finders to determine the necessary tree properties to estimate carbon content. This is a manual process that can be cumbersome and costly. One of the advantages of using Working Trees’ technology is that it provides a simple and auditable method to record these properties, and the farmer can complete these actions on a smartphone, eliminating the need to hire a third-party.

What inspired you to develop this solution?

John: I am motivated to get out of bed when I’m working on the long-term impact of climate and the shorter-term impact on humans, particularly rural economic development. My background is in rural solar project development. Most of the people I was working with were farmers, and I knew that I wanted to work within natural climate solutions and explore this area. This includes addressing how we store carbon in our agricultural systems, our forests, our soils, and our oceans that are managed by farmers, ranchers, and fishermen who don’t have high incomes. This led me down a rabbit hole to figure out where I could potentially add value, and I was inspired by the prospect of incorporating trees into working agricultural systems due to the meaningful benefits.

Aakash: Silvopasture practices have an impressive array of co-benefits such as reducing heat stress in livestock, increasing the water retention capacity and nutrient content of the soil, improving biodiversity, and limiting erosion. Coupled with the economic benefits to farmers of alternative revenue streams and more fodder for cattle and the huge carbon sequestration potential of agricultural lands, advancing silvopasture development, monitoring, and verification became our guiding north star.

What advice do you have for other social entrepreneurs?

Aakash: There are two refrains that John and I find ourselves coming back to. The first is focusing on what we can control and taking shots on goals—even if they don’t pan out. The second is being patient with the long-term vision but being impatient with our short-term tasks. Striking this balance helps us stay motivated by our ambitious goals, while still incrementally making progress each day.

John: Take the advice others give you with a huge grain of salt because every situation is different, every person is different, every company is different. Find a mission that you care a lot about—if you have a reason to hop out of bed, that’s what matters way more than anything else.

Stay tuned for more articles in our blog series, featuring interviews with every Cisco Global Problem Solver Challenge 2022 winning team!

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