Ben Henneke: CEO of TIST / Clean Air Action Corporation
Note: THE TORCH is an interview series from Entrepreneurs for Impact. We profile CEOs mitigating climate change. Our goal is to highlight their work and inspire others. As we deal with multiple crisis, from COVID and racial injustice to climate change and economic recession, we need some of this positive light in what seem like dark times. Onward and upward.
Why did you create TIST, The International Small Group and Tree Planting Program? In the early 1990s, I founded Clean Air Action Corporation, the eventual creator of TIST, as a way to help companies meet the goals of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s amendments to the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990 through more flexible mechanisms, instead of pure “command and control” pathways. We ended up developing the first emission trading program that had accurate results, not just those based on permits or allowances.
Some years later, my wife Vannesa and I traveled to central Tanzania on an Anglican mission trip. During that life-changing experience we saw the impact of drought, deforested and degraded land, and generational poverty in the lives of the farmers there. We fell in love with those farmers, and wanted to find a way to help them help themselves, while also promoting better environmental stewardship.
Putting two and two together, we realized that there might be a way to use an emissions trading approach -- i.e., for greenhouse gas emissions -- to improve their farms, provide new revenue opportunities, and address global climate change goals. Big picture, trees create an astonishingly virtuous cycle with shade, lower temperatures, more moisture, more grass for livestock and better soil.
Who does your company serve?
Poor farmers – We give them better livelihoods.
Customers – We help them with their corporate sustainability goals, especially those related to climate change.
Regulators – They’re trying to do the right thing, but they need action from the private sector to achieve substantial change.
What problems do you solve for your customers? There used to be no venue for talking about things like better farming and forestry practices. And it turns out that farmers are hard to convince when it comes to new practices. They need to see a pilot working first. Recognizing this, they began setting up networks and clusters of farmers to socialize the new forestry programs they were putting in place.
In addition, these are very cash-starved economies. While there, we heard a story of a farmer who could not find 11 cents to get malaria medicine for his daughter, so she ended up dying. Cash is also needed for things like school uniforms, school fees and tools.
We also observed that most of the farmers felt voiceless. As such, we’ve made leadership development a big part of TIST.
How does your work contribute to mitigating climate change? On a personal level, Vannesa and I are not perfect. We burn wood and oil to heat our home and power our cars. However, our farmers have gone from being greenhouse gas contributors to solution providers for the climate change problem. In doing so, we and they have sequestered 5.5 million tons of carbon, with 19 million live trees, after planting some 60 million trees. (This loss is due to natural mortality, farmers’ needs to cook food, feed cattle, build new roofs, etc.) In doing so, we’ve created about $160 million in additional value to the farmers.
What makes your company different than its competitors? No one else was stupid enough to try this for twenty years. They were told it could never be done, or could only be done by PhD experts, not by community members. Others who were trying included governments and NGOs, but often they didn’t like admitting how few trees actually survived. They didn’t want the transparency. Now we’re getting frequent phone calls from these groups, and private companies, that want to partner, too.
How are you rethinking your business strategy to get through the COVID crisis? How do you play both offense and defense? For a long time, we wanted to do a digital reinvention of TIST. Lots of our costs go into training, traveling to see the farms, managing the carbon accounting, etc. It ends up being like the telephone game – with more confusion created the further things get from the established areas. So COVID forced us to expedite the virtual learning process.
As for playing defense, we were very lucky. We had money in the bank. If this had happened a year earlier, then we might have gone belly up. The carbon market has been just lousy in terms of pricing and predictability.
What are 2-3 things that your industry needs most to succeed, but is currently missing? Industry needs to demand real carbon reduction of all kinds. In our sector of forestry, both governments and private sector players must understand that people around forests and farmers need ways to make a living, find fuel to cook, food to eat, etc. If we want to preserve forests for their carbon and biodiversity benefits, we need to create markets that transfer funds to these populations to protect these forest assets.
How are you finding growth capital this year? We’re not looking for it right now, but we will answer our phone if they call. Mostly buyers are now paying us based on milestones for the tree planting we do to offset their carbon emissions. We might be their best strategy to address climate change in the next ten years.
When it comes to addressing climate change, how do you remain optimistic? I’m an optimist by nature, I’m told. Maybe that helps. There’s also a saying I like: “Humans are an amazing group. We will do the right thing after we’ve tried all the alternatives.”
One thing that would help is this: The U.S. government should at least get rid of incentives for oil and gas, even if a carbon tax is impossible for now.
We are burning the candle. I remember reading about the United Nations Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992. I thought we would have addressed many of these issues by now. We’ve lost so many years. We can’t afford to do that again.
What kinds of apps, databases, or software help you and your team excel? In the early days, we had to develop our own. We were early adopters of PalmPilots. Luckily, now with cheaper and more powerful mobile phones and data, we and our farmers can carry most of the needed equipment in our pockets -- e.g., GPS, camera, email, etc. -- for just $50-$100. It’s astounding.
What kinds of personal habits, mindset, exercise, meditation, or scheduling help boost your productivity and increase your resilience to “fight the good fight”? I hope we are not too serious about all of this! I like to describe my wife and myself as joyful Christians. We walk in the Maine woods for an hour every day. I know we should hire an executive assistant to help with scheduling and sorting through email, too. When I was at Harvard, I thought by the time I was age 40, I’d have this person to keep me organized, prioritized, etc. Instead, I’m somehow running all this off of a screen. It’s disastrous, for now. Fortunately, the farmers we work with don’t have these organization skills either.
What are 1-2 quotations that keep you focused and motivated? “Trust in the LORD with all your heart; and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” - Proverbs 3, Verses 5 to 6.
We started TIST out of love for people who did not have the same luck regarding where they were born. We have white privilege. And that creates an obligation to make the world a better place for more people.
What are you excited about now? I’m enthusiastic about the idea of DIY TIST. That is, how can we activate 500 to 750 million farmers around the world to plant trees, build leadership skills, and get them started on carbon markets, with less bespoke planning and oversight?
Who is inspiring you now? Who can other climate change entrepreneurs learn from? Greta Thunberg. Her ability to speak truth to power and stay on message is incredible. She doesn’t like emission trading or planting trees, but I still appreciate what she does to catalyze change. I’m also inspired by recovering technogeeks like Bill Gates who are now focused on climate change, and get that it is caused by people and can only be solved by people. This is a people problem and requires a people solution.
What question did we forget to ask, but that deserves an answer? How would you recreate the benefits of our TIST small group structure for the climate CEOs in your Mastermind, or for the people who read this?
How do you facilitate the things that cause the TIST farms to achieve much more than what we would have imagined? And how much more could well-educated, wealthier, Type A professionals like your readers accomplish in the US or EU?
How can we start more pilot projects and accept lots of C+ results, so that we create more rapid learning systems about what works on climate change?
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