What is the name of your solution?
Provide a one-line summary of your solution.
Unleashing carbon financing for communities restoring lands on the front lines of climate change.
Film your elevator pitch.
What specific problem are you solving?
MIT Solve and our partners already know that “thriving ecosystems are essential to protect biodiversity and natural watersheds, manage climate risks, reduce socio-environmental conflicts, and provide income and wealth for local communities”. We know that there are contextually and culturally appropriate nature-based solutions that reverse desertification, increase resilience to flooding and drought, and increase food security, all while removing CO2 from the atmosphere.
We also know that there is an unmet demand for trusted and transparent CO2 removals from voluntary carbon markets. McKinsey’s 2021 report estimated that there is already a shortfall of around 1 gigatonne of supply to demand of CO2 removals to 2025. But this new form of financing is not funding regeneration. There is an explicit demand from large CO2 removal buyers such as Microsoft for climate equity and to support projects in the global south, but it is not happening. At current publicly available prices, there are 10s of billions of dollars of potential funding for CO2 removals that are not being put to use.
According to the buyers, market makers, project designers and journalists, there are two main bottle necks. The first is a justified lack of confidence in the validity of CO2 removal claims. Methodologies are open to manipulation, double accounting has occurred and correlation rather than causation is accepted by some certifications.
The second bottle neck is the high costs of monitoring, reporting and verification, so high that they can absorb all of the revenue of a small scale project, limiting projects to the global north and areas and communities with high capital.
Combined, these bottlenecks have resulted in potentially 100s of thousands of square kilometres of land regeneration projects missing out on a new source of funding. Thousands of communities in the Least Developed Countries missing out on a potential additional source of income for activities with massive SDG co-benefits. The Great Green Wall across the Sahel is just the most famous example where agro-forestry, Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration, Forestry, regenerative agriculture and rotational grazing offer solutions to degrading land while removing CO2, but lack funding opportunities.
What is your solution?
We use open-source, high-resolution multi-temporal satellite imagery to monitor land degradation, land use change, biodiversity and biomass production at landscape level. We combine these with optimised field sampling locations and process models to estimate CO2 removals. Everything is based solely on published peer reviewed research and we publish on GitHub.
But what does this mean in practice?
It means that the costs of monitoring, reporting and verification are dramatically cut while the scientific rigour is maintained. In fact, the use of process models and methodologies to demonstrate causation mean that it is the only solution that meets the highest level (Tier 3) of the current draft European Union regulation on carbon farming.
Lower cost, greater scientific rigour, fully transparent. Designed from the ground up to directly meet the issues and bottlenecks reported to be holding back carbon financing. Technical: Land degradation can manifest itself in the form of soil erosion, which is the loss of soil organic carbon and other soil compounds, and biodiversity loss which can be induced by unsustainable land management practices. Carbon can be sequestered back into the soil if land is managed sustainably. Using machine learning and the petabytes of open satellite imagery archives available, we enable that this is effectively done by taking the following steps:
1. Scoping areas of landscape restoration/conservation potential by tracing back the land degradation trends of the past decades to understand severity of land degradation,
2. Support design and planning of (carbon-financed) environmental projects in suitable areas.
3. Estimate a soil organic carbon stock baseline and changes over-time through an optimized field soil sampling design the use of process models. Use established open peer-reviewed methodologies for above ground biomass. 4. Remotely monitor in near real-time land management practices, biomass production, land use and feed process models in an ongoing basis so that we can advise projects on the impacts of their activities so that they can make informed choices to maximise to maximise CO2 removal.
Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?
Our focus are communities in East-Africa and the Sahel where we have direct on the ground experience and networks from over a decade of working in humanitarian emergencies and development. These are small scale farmers and pastoralist communities in Kenya, Mali, Niger and Sudan who lack non-destructive opportunities for jobs and income, even when traditional practices or repurposing degraded land might support both people and nature in the long term.
However, the bottlenecks outlined above mean that they are currently underserved despite the massive potential funding from carbon markets.
In rangeland restoration, regenerative and Farmer-Managed Natural Regeneration projects, 90% of the revenues are projected to go to the local communities and organisations carrying out the activities. Over a projected 30 year project lifecycle, this means an additional source of income in regions traditionally experiencing socio-economic neglect and deprivation.
Carbon sequestration will crucially increase the water retention and food security in the area, which has faced multiple and severe humanitarian crises, induced by severe droughts and floods, originating from land degradation and loss of soil carbon. Our solution is the missing verification tool for areas that have an enormous potential for land restoration and the greatest impact concerning the lives of the local people living in uncertainty and fear of the next drought, flood, or conflict.
How are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
Our team has experience in working in emergency humanitarian contexts and has networks that span the drylands of the Sahel and East Africa regions allowing our service to expand to meet communities precisely where this service is needed most.
The lack of capital in the region we focus means that being a paid service provider alone is out of the question if we truly want to work with the most vulnerable groups. For that reason, we partner with local communities and organisations and provide assistance in the design and implementation of projects. To be successful, maximise impact and prevent reversals, activities must first and foremost be owned by communities. This is not just an ethical imperative, but there is also a solid business case for this and it is backed by experience. As such, this is not a top down exercise but a community led one. By providing project design support and ongoing monitoring, we enable communities to make informed decisions on how to maximise CO2 removal and thereby income, but that decision is in the end there’s to make.
We are a remote first organisation with the team currently working from Europe and South America, as well as the Sahel and East Africa. By being able to hire talent independent of location and being remote first, we are able to remain in proximity to potential partners and projects and maintain face to face contact which is essential in the context in which we work.
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?
Provide scalable, high-quality monitoring of carbon stocks in soil, peat, and marine environments, including at depth.
Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Brussels, Belgium
Our solution's stage of development:Prototype
How many people does your solution currently serve?
Why are you applying to Solve?
Solve offers the supports that we have identified as needed to overcome the barriers we face. The opportunities presented by being part of the Solve cohort are of great importance to us. Our mission is to improve confidence in carbon removal credits so that the communities we have worked with in the Sahel and East Africa can benefit from increasing soil health. This relies on the sharing of ideas and critiques from peers. The exposure provided by Solve will also benefit this methodology of openness, enabling us to lead by example and set a new standard in transparency in a marketplace that is dominated by closed systems. We hope that the exposure will draw attention to community based nature-based solutions as part of the solution to climate change at a time when still to be developed technological solutions are getting a great deal of attention.
The mentoring and strategic advice are invaluable to us as a new company. We have the field contacts, expertise and technical knowledge, but we are certain there are unknown unknowns that we could be guided through with this support. In kind resources, especially legal, have been identified also as extremely valuable as we do not have the resources to take on legal counsel. On finance, we face a lag in funding for the type of projects that we work on as cashflow comes some time later. So to begin with, the award would enable us to hire another data scientist and immediately accelerate our scaling to cover more projects. Grants would also enable us to carry out more baseline creation and projections that would in turn enable projects to access carbon market funding.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Technology (e.g. software or hardware, web development/design, data analysis, etc.)
Who is the Team Lead for your solution?
What makes your solution innovative?
Current methods for carbon credit verification are using expensive and laborious recurring soil sampling or closed systems that lack scientific rigour. Although recurring sampling gives rigorous verification for the soil carbon stock, the method is unsuitable for areas of the Sahel and East Africa and other large scale and difficult to access carbon sequestration project areas. Latest developments in satellite monitoring and machine learning technologies and accumulated knowledge of the ecological carbon circulation model have enabled the development of an inexpensive remote monitoring and verification system. We are combining the most advanced satellite data with process carbon models and machine learning to achieve an improved quality carbon credit verification than the old and expensive method can provide. In addition, we are doing so in an open, transparent, replicable way which will increase confidence. Satellite and machine learning based monitoring and verification systems are scalable, meanwhile the conventional method is hardly scalable for large scale projects. Large-scale carbon sequestration enabling methods, such as ours, will increasingly attract investors to fund African rangelands restorations and build the Great Green Wall. By leading by example with openness, other organisations will adopt our methodology leading to increased confidence in the market overall and thereby increased funding for activities that benefit communities where need is greatest.
What are your impact goals for the next year and the next five years, and how will you achieve them?
We measure impact by the number of people affected, number of hectares being restored and tonnes of CO2 removed. In the first year, these figures will be projections however five years will give figures for CO2 removal that have high confidence.
Our goal for the next year is to expand the pilot agro-forestry project with our partners in Kenya, commence a wetland regeneration project with our partner in Niger, and post-conflict peace-building regenerative pastoralism in Darfur. Conservative estimates for year one will be around 60 000 people impacted if we receive funding to carry out additional baselines and projections beyond what is currently planned in Kenya and Darfur.
By 2027, the goal for SoilWatch's restoration projects is to have directly improved the livelihoods and resilience of over 800 000 pastoralists and farmers living in the areas that are the most impacted by climate change by linking them to carbon market financing for restoration activities that also improve their livelihoods in other ways in addition to the income.
How are you measuring your progress toward your impact goals?
We are monitoring and verifying carbon sequestration, and are constantly tracking multiple natural events on the project areas. These events include for example: erosion, bare soil time, soil organic carbon, carbon sequestration by the vegetation, vegetation type, biodiversity, and more. These methods are based on peer-reviewed studies and our expertise, and are under continuous development. Our team has many years of providing third party MRV on social impacts on UN agency and NGO activities based on SDG indicators which we will use once projects commence.
What is your theory of change?
Soil erosion is primarily caused by unsustainable land use practicesAgriculture:
Extractive farming practices and lack of investment in soil health
Clearing and exhausting vulnerable pieces of land
Increasingly sedentary lifestyles
Growing size of herds
The transition to more browsing (sheep and goats) rather than grazing (cattle) livestock
Large-scale charcoal production, including by armed actors
Inefficient household food preparation and water treatment
As outlined above, it leads to a variety of negative outcomes and has a feedback mechanism. But it can be reversed.
Nature-based solutions offer a way to improve livelihoods while restoring ecosystems
•The vast majority of the population relies on land for their livelihood: poverty cannot be addressed in conditions of degrading soils – ecosystem restoration is the solution to poverty
•Land-based livelihoods can work with and for the environment for mutual benefit
Revisioning livelihoods and practisng:
•Efficient charcoal and firewood use
Profitable and sustainable livelihoods
•Better resilience against shocks
•Environmental and financial sustainability
Positive local and global effects
•Alleviated pressure on resources
•Reduced conflict pressure
SoilWatch seeks to enable systematic and scalable ecosystem restorationMission Statement:
To mobilise and channel funding for evidenced and measurable activities that work with vulnerable rural communities to restore ecosystems at the local level, alleviating issues with food security and conflict, and combating climate change at the global level
Identify and fill key gaps in existing funding and implementation systems to unlock their potential for ecosystem restoration in Sahel and East Africa and other environmentally vulnerable and conflict-affected regions
Voluntary carbon markets (VCMs) are a growing source of funding opportunities
VCMs refer to mechanisms through which emitting entities (countries, companies, individuals) can purchase credits to voluntarily offset their emissions
Restoring soil quality and sequestering carbon go hand in hand
The price of a carbon credit has grown dramatically over the past years from around $5 per tonne to over $30 (anecdotally, in some cases of high quality credits, up to around $100)
Growing momentum with major corporations making monetary pledges and seeking climate equity
Projected to be a $100 billion per year industry by 2030
Complemented by regulatory and mandatory carbon markets
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
High resolution, high temporal frequency open satellite data, machine learning, process models, distributed ledgers and nature. We use very high tech to reduce the cost of monitoring reporting and verification and to ensure transparency and no double accounting. We then combine it with the very low tech, tried and tested nature-based solutions. Some are new such as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration, and some are centuries or more old like rotational grazing.
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?
A new application of an existing technology
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
What type of organization is your solution team?
For-profit, including B-Corp or similar models
How many people work on your solution team?
6 Full time currently
How long have you been working on your solution?
What is your approach to incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusivity into your work?
Our multinational, multicultural team is working remotely, which enables us to hire the best candidates regardless of the location and disabilities. The team has a history of activism in gender diversity, migrant rights, LGBTQI+ activism, and has committed to EU social policies such as increasing representation on boards, which will soon become a legal requirement for receiving certain funding (a founder was active in the campaign for this prior to SoilWatch). We are volunteers with the Brussels Binder (increasing diversity on panels) and RANA (Refugees Are Not Alone) and have a dedicated advisor offering consulting on gender, ethnic and social inclusiveness. We have flexitime and the 4 day week as founding principles and are working to be Certified B (when legislation allows).
What is your business model?
SoilWatch facilitates ecosystem restoration, carbon sequestration, and empowerment of low-income rural communities in countries affected by climate change by connecting local level climate action with carbon markets by providing implementer networks with state-of-the art and scalable soil carbon flux monitoring, verification, and reporting (MRV) solutions and project design support.
SoilWatch’s business model is designed with the aim of combining quality with scalability. SoilWatch is designed to be lean and to make use of existing project implementation networks, either communities or non-governmental organisations, in our priority countries. We aim to provide only services that are bottlenecks and that prevent tapping into the huge potential capacity of organisations to reorient towards integrating environmental restoration in their activities.
From the perspective of potential carbon offset buyers, one of the main current limiting factor is the lack of supply of large-scale soil carbon-based projects. All buyers that SoilWatch have interviewed such as Numerco, South Pole, Compensate, Native Energy and Climate Care struggle to source the amount of SOC capturing projects that they are looking for.
The main obstacles that potential project-implementing organisations have in making use of the carbon markets for project implementation are: 1) the lack of a scalable MRV mechanism to reliably measure actual carbon sequestration; 2) the lack of project design capacity due to the relatively new frameworks guiding soil carbon; and 3) the lack of linkages of carbon market buyers and potential implementer networks.
- SoilWatch will provide context appropriate and scalable MRV solutions that will be a constant requirement for the carbon market buyers and sellers alike. The MRV system makes maximal use of remote sensing technologies as well as machine learning to reach scalability. Although at the early stages, some in-situ samples are required, the number of samples is greatly reduced compared to traditional methods and the need for this is greatly reduced through iterations, thus making the system not only able to scale but to benefit from it;
- In the early stages, SoilWatch will also have to provide more involved project development support to potential implementer networks. However, as the organisations develop further capacity, we will move to providing only project optimisation advice based on the information created by the MRV system and modelling. This can be used for more informed decisions on what project activities are likely to work best in different areas as well as for making more accurate estimates of carbon sequestration that determines the project’s budgetary parameters, leading to higher likelihoods of positive impacts and fewer risks of project breakdowns;
- Through market research and engagement in the carbon markets in many different fora, SoilWatch has created good linkages with potential buyers as well as an understanding regarding their priorities. This puts us in a position to facilitate the necessary linkages between buyers and implementers in the short term.
- Through market research and engagement with carbon market actors SoilWatch has identified sources of ex ante financing for projects capable of generating 30 000 tonnes of carbon credits. However, this figure effectively excludes smaller organisations working with at risk communities where the greatest positive impact can occur. For such projects SoilWatch targets specific corporations who have made climate pledges and who wish to be involved with the projects that they fund.
The generation of revenue depends by project and client. MRV and project design support can be sold either as services by set fee or provided as part of a consortium/partnership where SoilWatch receives a share of the generated carbon credits.
Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, to other organizations, or to the government?Organizations (B2B)
What is your plan for becoming financially sustainable?
The primary bottleneck we face is the cost of carrying our baseline creation and then projections of CO2 removal. Once these are complete, we can enable a project to access financing. Initially, we finance this activity through grants. At a later stage, we reinvest SoilWatch shares of profits from projects into carrying out baseline and projection creation for new projects.
In parallel, we offer Monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) as a service and provide software as a service in the form of graphical ongoing MRV products to carbon market makers. Profits from these activities can also fund future projects.
David Morrison SoilWatch