BY AAMERA JIWAJI
With just 0.02% of the country’s search engine market share (StatCounter, January 2021), Ecosia – the social business that plants one tree for every 45 online searches – is an unknown entity in Kenya.
But its relative anonymity among internet users in Kenya is not a concern for the company since Kenya was never intended to be a top source country for its users. The Berlin-based organization already has 15 million active users in Europe, the United States, and Canada who perform approximately 500 million searches a month.
And at the start of 2021, Ecosia positioned itself for its most significant rise in visibility when it became available as a default search engine setting on iOS, iPadOS, and macOS alongside Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo and Yahoo!
But talk to smallholder farmers in the watershed areas of Cherangani, Mount Elgon and Mau Complex who work with Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement or the Mount Kenya Environmental Conservation, and Ecosia has instant brand recognition because of the 1.8 million trees they have planted over the last 3 years.
The company channels 80% of its profits into tree-planting projects in low-income countries and has planted over 119 million trees across the world with a ticker counter on its homepage recording a new tree every 1.3 seconds.
“We focus our tree planting initiatives on where we think the trees are needed most so we predominantly work in biodiversity hot spots,” said Antonia Burchard-Levine, Ecosia’s account manager for tree planting projects.
Ecosia currently has active projects in 25 countries, which include working with women-led groups in Sudan to grow Gum Arabic trees, restoring former palm oil plantations in Indonesia, and a tree conservation project around Kenya’s water towers which feed into rivers that flow all the way to Egypt.
In 2020, for the first time, Ecosia invested in its user markets when it planted 25,000 trees in Canada’s Acadia Forest and began a project to plant trees on 10 NHS hospital grounds in the UK in the hope of creating a healthier working environment for its healthcare workers. These projects, however, are marketing-based and the company’s raison d’être continues to be about planting trees where they are needed the most, which are not the same countries that its users originate from.
“If you look at the way our business model works and you look at our core markets … it’s almost like the highest polluters are paying and indirectly we are shifting the money back to the countries where there isn’t a lot of money for climate action,” said Burchard-Levine, adding that this may not be Ecosia’s view but it is the way that she sees it.
“Some of the biggest impacts of climate change are felt in the areas that are least responsible for it and where there is not only very little funding available to tree planting projects or other ways to counteract deforestation but there are a myriad of other challenges,” she said.
According to the World Population Review 2020, the top 20 emitters of CO2 are responsible for 78% of total global emissions. Of the top ten on this list, three are source countries for Ecosia’s highest users: the United States, Germany and Canada.
It is fitting then that one of Ecosia’s largest projects is in Burkina Faso, a country that is acutely vulnerable to climate change and experiencing a famine. Burkina Faso is in the Sahel region that separates the Sudanian savannah in the south from the Saharan desert to the north. The United Nations had proposed restoring 100 million hectares of trees in the Sahel region by 2030 through the creation of a Great Green Wall that spans 8,000kms across the African Continent, but little progress has been made. Perhaps the recent plume of Sahara sand that blanketed parts of southern and Central Europe and turned their skies orange, may bring the issue back to the forefront of global discussions.
In low-income countries where Ecosia funds tree-planting projects, they rely heavily on local partnerships with contracts that are up to seven years in length to ensure the survival of a tree beyond the initial tree-planting activity since the highest sequestration of carbon doesn’t happen in the early years. However, a lesson they learnt quickly, as most donors involved in development projects do, was that a symbolic contribution from the local partner is necessary to safeguard the success of a project.
“It could be in-kind labour; it could be land. Sometimes we provide the seedlings, the nursery care, the labourers in the nurseries. But when the trees go in the ground, then the people who get the trees give the labour for the trees. And where people give in-kind labour in exchange for the trees, they really take ownership,” said Burchard-Levine.
Over the years, Ecosia has also recognized that tree-planting cannot always be the sole objective for the local communities they work with since the need for a daily income often overrides the desire to protect biodiversity and species loss, and so it allows a 10% margin for non-native species.
“The reason for this is to take into account the socioeconomic realities on the ground. If you are a farmer that has a very low income, you would want to prioritize eating every day, sending your kids to school, getting medicine. You would prefer the species that’ll bring you a quick income as opposed to one that is going to benefit nature over ten years,” said Burchard-Levine.
While managing 50 local partners across 25 countries may be challenging, one of the benefits is the opportunity for knowledge sharing, and Kenya’s move towards reusable tubes and away from single use plastics in its nurseries is something that Ecosia hopes to share with other countries where single use plastics have been banned more recently.
As the effects of climate change intensify across the world, Ecosia has taken a step beyond tree planting. In Brazil where deforestation has historically been driven by animal agriculture, Ecosia supports a group that plants trees by day and fights fires by night. It has also invested in solar plants in Germany and the Netherlands, which add enough clean energy to the grid to power all of Ecosia’s searches.
And so while Ecosia may not be concerned that it is an unknown entity among internet users in Kenya, at a time when climate-focused initiatives are increasingly needed, perhaps Kenya’s internet users need to be more discerning in their search engine choices. Especially if for every 45 searches on Ecosia, we may be helping to plant a tree in our own backyard.