Six things I learned about Naturetech

Satelligence data visualisation, mapping cocoa plantations & land use around a protected forest area in West Africa

How new tech is transforming our insight into the commodity value chain

First published on LinkedIn on 15 June 2021.

Last month I chaired a webinar for Satelligence on how the next generation of technology – Naturetech – is transforming the way we monitor and manage agricultural production and environmental protection.

My panellists included Niels Wielaard, Founder and CEO of Satelligence, Connie Magomu Masaba, Project Lead at Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, Andrew Brooks, Head of Cocoa Sustainability at Olam, Joseph Larrose, Group Director for Sustainability at Touton, and Peter Van der Werf, Engagement Specialist at Robeco.

We had a wide-ranging discussion, covering deforestation and biodiversity loss, case studies of Naturetech in action in Uganda’s palm oil and West Africa’s cocoa sectors, and how Naturetech is being deployed by the different members of the ecosystem, including farmer organisations, traders, governments and investors.

Here are my key takeaways from our rich discussion:

1)    Like other technologies in the current digital wave – including tradetech, regtech and agritech – Naturetech is not a single technology, but rather a combination of technologies to address specific problems. Naturetech is all about the user cases, and in the webinar we covered a broad range. These included helping companies identify risks and violations in their value chains, enabling farmers to be paid carbon credits for planting more trees, and supporting conservation of habitats (e.g. ensuring no logging or largescale fires are occurring). Blockchain is a natural part of the Naturetech ecosystem, but it is not essential; like all other technologies it will need to prove its worth if it is to play a significant role.

2)    Naturetech relies on good data to work, and this presents multiple challenges. Satellite data is now free, and every day we create Petabites of new data along the agricultural value chain. But very little of this data has yielded useful insights, and it is increasingly causing noise and data overload. This means you should only collect data for specific reasons, and not just collect for the sake of collecting. Data must be constantly reviewed to check that you are measuring the right things and we must deploy the full power of Machine-Learning and AI to get real value out of it. As Niels observed, if a large commodity trader gets 50,000 deforestation alerts a year, it can’t possibly follow up on all of them. But by using Naturetech, the highest risk areas can be identified and interventions targeted where the worst abuses are occurring.

3)    When it came to the benefits of Naturetech, one that stood out for me is the ability to hold companies and people accountable. Too many violations in the value chain, involving destruction of forests and biodiversity, go unrecorded and unpunished. With proper satellite data and analysis, we can see where deforestation, largescale burning or replanting in protected areas is occurring, and we can use these insights to focus our responses on the worst affected areas, identify the perpetrators and hold them to account.

4)    Peter emphasised the attractions that Naturetech brings for asset managers, who need reliable data to feed into their investment models. Naturetech is a powerful tool to screen investments and understand their exposure to risks, as well as to help align them with companies’ sustainability and Net Zero policies. The ESG requirements of investments are growing each year and Naturetech can help companies meet these commitments.

5)    The discussion with Connie Magomu, who leads the National Oil Palm Project (NOPP) at Uganda’s Ministry of Agriculture, underlined how Naturetech can be a powerful tool for engaging farmers and community groups in sustainability and conservation. When they can see the destruction for themselves and know exactly where it is occurring, they can rally round and use peer pressure to enforce compliance. Connie gave the recent example of a farmer who agreed to shift back his farm several hundred metres after he was shown that it had crossed into the protected forest area.

6)    As a final point, despite the bleak outlook for forests and biodiversity, I was struck by how much progress there has been in developing solutions to address this. Naturetech is tried and tested, and in the coming years it will play a crucial role in monitoring and reducing carbon emissions, deforestation and biodiversity loss, as well as making global supply chains more sustainable.

You can listen to a podcast I produced from the webinar, bringing together the key points of discussions, here:

You can see the full webinar here: