B.C. startup helps small farmers and big food brands tackle climate change

Now running pilot projects in nine countries, B.C. startup Farm-Trace has developed technology that lets coffee, cacao and chocolate producers track reforestation projects.

Credit: Farm-Trace

Farm-Trace uses satellite imaging and other methods to monitor forest regrowth on smallhold farms

Now running pilot projects in nine countries, Farm-Trace has developed technology that lets coffee, cacao and chocolate producers track reforestation projects

As B.C. struggles to save its forests, a local startup is helping other countries to regrow theirs. Its reforestation efforts with farmers around the world have caught the eye of major food brands—and won support from Google.

In April, from among hundreds of applicants, Vancouver-based Farm-Trace became one of 11 North American tech businesses chosen to participate in the first Google for Startups Accelerator: Climate Change program.

Farm-Trace grew out of Taking Root, a nonprofit that aims to regenerate tropical ecosystems by improving farmers’ livelihoods. Co-founded in 2010 by forest economist Kahlil Baker, who serves as executive director, Taking Root started out doing reforestation projects with smallholder farmers in Latin America.

To finance its work, the nonprofit turned to the voluntary carbon market, where companies seeking to offset or reduce their climate footprint can buy credits. “Initially our focus was in Nicaragua, working with farmers to reforest parts of their farms, using those carbon payments to give them that incentive to grow trees on their farms and distributing that money over the course of 10 years,” says commercial director Will Sheldon.

Along the way, Taking Root would also offer support to ensure that the forests grew successfully and that farmers could make a living from them, by creating new income from products like shade-grown coffee.

But scaling those efforts proved tough. Smallholder supply chains for crops such as coffee and cacao are scattered over vast distances, Sheldon explains, and the typical farm is just one or two hectares. “When you’re doing a reforestation project like this, you’re working across hundreds of thousands of them, and they’re across a region, they’re fragmented, they’re very distributed in areas where there’s very little cellphone coverage.”

This created two challenges for Taking Root, Sheldon says. First, how could it manage its impact? “If we’re being basically paid to grow trees, how do we make sure the trees are being grown and ensure their impact over time, across all these different parcels of land?”

The second challenge: “You have these companies saying, We’ve offset our footprint, and we have a certified carbon credit,” Sheldon relates. “But that’s not enough. We need more proof that things are actually happening. Where are the trees? What carbon is being sequestered?”

Deciding to build its own solution, Taking Root began developing Farm-Trace about five years ago. Traditionally, organizations needing proof of their reforestation efforts in tropical areas would hire costly international consultants to produce a one-off report, Sheldon says. Other approaches don’t work because they were created for North American and European forests, not tropical landscapes with small supply chains.

For Taking Root, what began as a collaboration with UBC blossomed into a sophisticated system that connects mobile field data with satellite imagery and uses machine learning to automate forest and carbon reporting, Sheldon says.

The nonprofit started hearing that it had solved a problem for commodities supply chains—especially coffee, cacao and chocolate brands—that were making big commitments to reduce carbon emissions but lacked the right information.

“So we realized that Farm-Trace was this tool and this approach that would give brands the confidence to invest in natural climate solutions like reforestation in their own supply chains, and help them reduce their climate footprints,” Sheldon says, “while also being a mechanism for farmers to create a new source of income from growing trees on and around their farms, and to sequester carbon. 

Credit: Farm-Trace

Farm-Trace solved a problem for commodities supply chains—especially coffee, cacao and chocolate brands

Taking root with big brands

Now two years into commercialization, the Farm-Trace platform is getting traction, especially in the coffee and cacao industries, Sheldon says. Taking Root has commercial pilot projects in nine countries spanning Latin America, Africa and Asia, with several major coffee brands and big environmental NGOs like the Rainforest Alliance.

“We see that there’s this huge potential to scale following these initial pilots,” Sheldon says. “It’s bringing cutting-edge technology to this area and parts of the world where there has not been this innovation. And so it’s exciting to be accelerating that to help create a solution,” he adds of the Google startup program.

“Our programs are very much based on startups that are doing interesting things with data, infrastructure, machine learning and artificial intelligence,” explains Jason Scott, head Google’s startup developer ecosystem. “Given the opportunity to advance them technically, our team is really excited to have them,” he says of Farm-Trace.

The 10-week program, which involves some 200 Google employees, has five pillars: product best practices, infrastructure and data, growth, people and leadership, and fundraising. It ends with an external demo day for all participants. “One of the best things that Google can bring to a startup is visibility,” New York–based Scott says.

The climate change accelerator is one of six such Google programs that Canadian businesses can access, he notes. “It’s been a pleasant surprise to see the diversity of startups coming out of all over Canada, and the kind of quality.”

Because participants haven’t been required to attend in person, the pandemic has made Google’s accelerators more diverse and inclusive, Scott says. For many startups, COVID has also been a test of their operating and business models, he observes. “The ones that are able to survive the pandemic, I often joke, can survive almost anything.”

Startups have a big role to play in tackling the challenges facing society, Scott maintains. “From a climate-change perspective, I’m very excited about a lot of these startups and what they’re doing,” he says. “Many of them are taking chances and leaps that you don’t see the big corporations taking, with respect to the solutions they’re trying to build.”

Thanks to the Farm-Trace pilot projects, Taking Root has expanded rapidly during the pandemic. From four staff in early 2020, it’s grown to 17 and will probably reach 20 in the next few months. Along with Sheldon and his colleagues in business development, the team is a mix of reforestation and smallholder farm experts, forest scientists, robo-sensing specialists and software developers.

Besides investment by Taking Root and revenue from corporate clients, Farm-Trace sustains itself on institutional grant financing. For example, the Helsinki-based Nordic Climate Facility is supporting a large project in Nicaragua with Swedish coffee brand Arvid Nordquist and the Rainforest Alliance.

Noting that Taking Root is one of relatively few B.C. organizations devoted to the Global South, Sheldon says Farm-Trace has focused on Latin America because that’s where much of its experience lies. But looking ahead, the team is especially interested in Africa. “The goal is to expand through these supply chains around the world.”