Searching for Growth: An Interview with Ecosia

Ecosia are a search engine that plant trees with ad revenue (https://www.ecosia.org/) . Recently, you may have seen them advertising on Facebook, and other social media sites. I was fascinated by their unique form of reforestation, as well as the challenges that face a prospective search engine in the looming shadow of the tech giant, Google. I spoke to Nikki Maksimovic, Country Manager for UK communications, about the origins of the company, the challenges, the future and the important societal issues that reforestation can be a part of. This interview was transcribed from a recorded conversation between myself and Nikki, and edited for brevity and clarity.

AM: Ecosia launched in 2009, and it seems to have progressed very quickly in recent months. What happened in those first few years?

NM: It started tiny, it was Christian’s idea [Christian Kroll, founder and CEO], and it was between three to five people for years. Christian wanted to grow the company sustainably. Because we were investing in tree planting, it’s very dangerous to have these business models of fast growth in order to get the next round of investment, so that you can grow more to get the next round of investment and so on. That model puts a lot of pressure on you, and if you fail you’re not only affecting your company, you’re affecting the projects that you’re starting to support. Ecosia has always grown sustainably: we haven’t sold our shares, and the company has remained exclusively owned by Christian and Tim [Schumacher, co-owner and advisor]. And that’s what makes it very different to other start-ups in Berlin. Berlin has a huge start-up scene, there’s a lot of investment and a lot of start-ups growing and most of them don’t really make it past the first or second year despite thousand if not millions of euros being invested in them. The decision was made not to go that route, and I think it’s paid off as over the years we’ve set up a really strong foundation time with the planting partners and the projects we’ve worked on. We’ve also taken the time to grow the team carefully, making sure that we’ve got the right people who can push us forward. It’s always been a steady-on approach, and I think that’s shown in the growth and the slow progress.

It seems a lot of the current progress is spurred on by Facebook, with sponsored posts regularly appearing on my news feed: is that a primary focus for the company?

That’s certainly been a big part of what we’ve been doing in the last couple of months in particular. Facebook is a great tool for us because as a search engine we’re an online product, so if you see an ad for Ecosia on Facebook, or you see one of our posts, maybe someone’s shared one of our blog posts, and you can instantly just try it, and you could potentially make a decision there and then if you wanted to use it every day. Facebook does work well for us, it’s not the only thing we do: we try to reach out to the press, and share our project stories. That’s really important to us. With Ecosia, we have so much to talk about in terms of our projects because each one is different, we’re working in different parts of the world and it’s an area of expertise that maybe isn’t so mainstream. Reforestation and tree-planting movements have a bit of a stereotype of the 80s hippies hugging trees but actually the science behind it is significant: the benefits of reforestation, what reforestation can do in terms of agriculture, in terms of agroforestry, farming, water cycles, soil regeneration. It’s amazing, and there’s so much to talk about, and that’s information that we have at our disposal, so the more we grow, the more we’ll be able to disseminate all the information we have. I think that alone will attract new users, and people will start to see that actually a search engine can not only be a way to do some good for the environment but can also be a daily reminder of the non-urban world, what’s possible and what can be achieved.

People may even see Ecosia as this fun tool for learning and information, so there’s so many avenues for us to possibly work with, and right now Facebook is a good way of getting the information out there, but it’s not the only one.

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Some people on Facebook have responded to some of the ads with some cynicism, with some even going as far as to label it a “scam”. How do you combat that side of things?

It’s tricky. There was one article that was written a few years ago, and the writer didn’t get in touch with us or do any research, he just wrote this article that was almost like a smear campaign, and a lot of people ask about it. We just have to explain to them that this article isn’t researched, it’s not factual or true, and we’ll show them the genuine facts and the proof. Some people will simply choose to believe the articles and not us, and in those situations, there’s really not so much we can do apart from continuing to show what we are doing. The most effective way to do that is just to show the projects, show the impact, show the trees, the people, the community, show that we’re actually there. Give as much detail as possible, and make that as readily available as possible. On the one hand the scepticism is somewhat understandable because there is so much greenwashing happening; a lot of companies exaggerate or market themselves on steps they take, such as planting one seed for every shoe or something.

One example is Costa cup carriers that currently advertise with the slogan “It’s called a black coffee, but it’s surprisingly green”, before listing some of the ways they’re moving towards renewable energy.

Sure. Bearing in mind that our communications team is tiny, with 5 members of staff in total, one for the German market, one for the French market, myself with the English-speaking market and then 2 content creators bridging between our projects, it’s really just me working with the English-speaking market and communications. It’s one person having to continually explain, answer these questions, answer these concerns, and you do the best that you can do, keep updating the financial reports, explain when there’s a delay, show the pictures and do what you can. I think it’s because it is quite unbelievable that a company would possibly consider giving 80% of their profits towards something that is nothing to do with itself, or its own products. Google invests billions of dollars into various projects, but at the end of the day most of those projects come back to help Google, and while the investments that they make are fantastic and important, what we do is not something that necessarily benefits the internet, or searches or advertising. It’s tree-planting, it’s very different and that’s what I love about Ecosia; people often ask “what’s the connection between a search engine and reforestation?”, and on the surface, the answer is nothing.

It’s more an initiative that helps the planet.

Exactly. The other side of the scepticism comes from a lack of knowledge about the search engine industry and market. Before I started working here, I didn’t know how much the search engine industry is worth, and it is a lot. Think of a figure and then probably multiply it by a thousand (laughs), it’s a LOT. That means that there’s a huge revenue stream out there that is floating around in circles and being reinvested into these same companies and in the end is going to shareholders.

And most of it to Google, when we’re talking search engines.

So Ecosia is just trying to squeeze in there and I see it as a kind of funnel, we just divert money that would be circulating anyway. Each person is worth an amount a year to a search engine, and imagine if you could be worth that amount but for the planet, or a project, or a part of the Amazon. But this money side is where some of the scepticism comes from, people saying “Well I don’t click on ads, you can’t be making any money”. Part of our job is trying to explain where the money is coming from, how it works, and to be transparent about it, which I think is fair enough. I also think sometimes it’s quite good to have scepticism and people asking questions, because it gives us a chance to answer and to set an example. When we do connect directly with users, usually in comments sections on Facebook, or when they email us, if you take the time to really explain, the response will often be “Oh wow, great, thanks for explaining!”

It’s a disarming thing isn’t it, especially when they come from an emotive angle not based on facts. They’re just saying “There’s no way you could be doing this, it must be lies” and then you can show them clearly: this is the effect, this is what we do, this is how we do it. You can’t argue at that point without effectively refusing to listen on principle.

And when you start growing as much as we are, the same questions echo around a lot, with still only one person from Ecosia able to respond, The wonderful thing about our users is that often they will respond to it themselves and answer the questions, and direct people to where they can find the information. When I see that happening, it’s just great.

And in the videos on the Ecosia website featuring some of your tree-planters, one man explains that he never personally used to care about trees and reforestation until he started doing it, and he spoke of the pride in planting a tree, caring for it and seeing it grow. It’s nice to see because it adds that extra sense of reality and indeed personality.

Exactly, I think that’s true. I think it’s really good to get the conversation started, because we have users who are very aware of conservation efforts and reforestation projects, who might ask us specific questions like “what species are you planting, how are you planting, which methods are you using”, and for users who maybe don’t know about tree-planting, they may not have thought of that question. That opens up a debate and an education stream because we can respond and say that we only plant native species, we can explain why and provide some links, and in that way everyone becomes slightly more informed together. I think that’s a really good part of opening up debate with people asking questions, digging deeper. That’s what we need in general, especially in this age of corporations and conglomerates. I think companies like Ecosia, fostering an environment where you can ask a question and expect a response or can find the answer on the website, is something that we need and perhaps something that people should be demanding more and more from big companies. As consumers, we should be demanding transparency and authenticity from all companies.

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Google obviously have such a stranglehold over the search engine market and when I first saw Ecosia, I thought it was a great idea but then I didn’t really do anything about it, I just moved on and carried on with Google. It took me a moment to stop and consider why I wouldn’t change over to a search engine that benefits the planet, and then I switched. How do you go about getting people into that mindset though, where they’re willing to change what they’re comfortable with for the sake of the planet? I think it’s a challenge that’s quite symbolic of conservation as a whole.

Absolutely. I think what’s important to make clear is that we are a search engine as a means of achieving our goal, which is to finance scalable grass-roots reforestation projects around the world: we’re not a search engine in order to be a search engine, if that makes sense. We differ very greatly from Google in that, while the search experience for our users is crucial for us, it’s not our number one priority, which will always be our impact on the environment. I think that’s the difference: you can use the best search engine in the world, or you can plant trees with your searches and still have a really good search experience. We are competing with Google in the sense that we are a search engine that we would like you to use, but we’re not a search engine in the same way that Google is, and we can’t offer you all the things Google has. We can offer most of them, and we can do almost all the things the average person would need to do on a daily basis, and for millions of people, clearly it’s working and it’s enough. Some people have emailed in and have said they’ve had to stop using us because they couldn’t find something or it took more time to find certain results. We didn’t used to have filters on images, we do know but we didn’t before, but some people couldn’t use us because they needed to have those filters, which is fair enough. On the other hand, just using Ecosia 50% of the time, 70% of the time, it’s not an all-or-nothing situation. Sometimes you need to switch to Google if you need something particularly specific, or if you need to use Google Scholar which is a service we don’t provide yet. Google Scholar’s an incredible product, and I’ve often used it, but it doesn’t mean I have to stop using Ecosia, or that we won’t develop it ourselves one day. We are competing with Google in a way, but it’s not so black-and-white, they offer a product that is in some ways very different to ours but what they don’t offer is the ability for you to plant trees, or the transparency that we do, and the level of proof that shows the impact of the projects. I think that’s really the key.

The fact that you’re not actually trying to displace Google is why sharing a space with them is not a huge issue.

To give you the most succinct answer, we’re offering you an alternative to Google which allows you to plant trees with your searches. And that’s the baseline, nothing more, nothing less, and the proof is in the pudding: we have been growing, and that’s only because users are using us.

And I think as well, there’s more reason for someone who uses Ecosia to then share it and talk about it: there is an actual importance to using Ecosia, based on such a small personal change. Since I’ve been using Ecosia I would say 90% of my searches have been with Ecosia and I’ve found what I wanted, and then for the small percentage of times I’m not getting the results I want, it takes seconds to search it through Google.

Yeah, and I do think it is pretty good for the most part!

Exactly, and regarding what most people are searching for, we’re talking a name, a show, a website or something and Ecosia can find it. But the people who use Ecosia, and the people Ecosia can connect with, are more likely to want to then spread the message and share it because there’s a tangible benefit to it.

Exactly, and that’s really how we’ve grown, you said earlier that you’ve seen us in the sponsored posts on Facebook; that’s really only started in the last couple of months. Everything before that is organic growth, slow and steady through word of mouth.

This may be a bit speculative but earlier when you were talking about the tree-planting initiatives, it came to mind that it’s interesting that in the past few years we’ve seen national governments getting behind mass tree-planting initiatives like India’s record-breaking tree-planting day, and I wonder if Ecosia could potentially get involved with those at a later date.

That was amazing. I think that anything is possible. This is a very fortuitously-timed interview because we’ve just hit the 7-million search mark, which is really exciting. We’ve taken on quite a few projects this year that we haven’t announced yet, because the ink is yet to dry on the contracts. We’re really excited about this and we’ll be talking more about it in the next few months, but what’s wonderful about all of our projects is that they are all initiatives run by people, projects, organisations who have a lot of experience all over the world, and then equally they’re founded on connections with the local communities. They’ve been working not only in terms of expertise, such as the local geography, requirements of the land and what needs to be done from an ecological perspective, but also in terms of getting to know the social structures of the country and the areas they’re working with, which is incredibly important because it’s not just about, as you said, planting a million trees and then walking away. It’s about changing mindsets, it’s about providing alternatives for communities which are mainly farming communities, they’re often very poor and reliant on chemicals and fast-paced, high production quality and yield, which leads to soil degradation and deforestation. In order for them to make a living they need to be productive, and one way to be productive is to plant trees and use agroforestry methods: shade trees, border trees and so on. Some of the projects we work on really focus on that, particularly in Peru for example, we work with a lot of cooperatives, and what that results in is improving the livelihood of smallholder farmers. And that’s amazing, because you’re supporting something that isn’t just having an environmental impact but it’s also helping ordinary people, and I think that’s what’s really great and it’s something we really look for in our projects. We get approached often by wonderful organisations and projects, but often in countries whose governments have the capacity to do that themselves. We focus on the one hand on the biodiversity hotspots of the world, and some of the most urgent areas of reforestation where species are most critically endangered, and secondly in countries that don’t have the capacity to orchestrate and run these projects themselves, or to scale them. Those are the 2 important factors that we look for when we’re searching for projects to support, and I think that’s what makes Ecosia quite different to government initiatives and perhaps UN initiatives; we have this ability to support lots of smaller projects, and we work with them on an initial year-or-two basis. We do a first-round harvest of trees and then we work together to see if we can scale it up. The beauty of working in places like Indonesia and Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Peru and increasingly in several other countries, is working with lots of different organisations with lots of different experience, and we’re gathering that knowledge, and we can share it between different projects. Let’s say we have a particularly strong drought in Burkina Faso, and some of the trees are struggling, but we’ve heard that some of the other projects we have in South Africa have this method they’ve been using to deal with the same problem. We can use that knowledge and apply it in Burkina Faso. It’s something that’s quite new I think, because we can do it very fast; we’ve taken on 3 new projects in the past 6 months or so, and we’ll be taking on many more than that this year, so this visibility for us to scale as well as our projects to scale is something that’s quite unique and really exciting. I think the next 5 years will be so exciting to see what’s happening on the ground, what the results are and what we learn, and I think you’re right, eventually I hope that this will permeate to higher powers that be.

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I suppose in terms of changing landscapes, a lot of information has come out about the effects of deforestation and its contributions to climate change, especially the figures highlighted in Cowspiracy. Following the release, NASA came out with a similar report stating that deforestation is the leading cause of climate change, and this information has come to light in the time that you’ve been up-and-running. It must be good to see that information getting out there, so that people have a clearer idea of exactly how overwhelming the impact of deforestation is.

I think so, and I think it ties in nicely with what I said at the beginning about this general image of trees and tree-huggers; people are realising not only the many negative effects of deforestation, but also the positive effects, and the significance in the kind of tree-planting that you do. I think a very important debate that has come to light in the last year or two is concerning the palm oil industry, and I think this is something that is so important because this is another aspect of deforestation. Sometimes planting trees like that is not helping, it’s making it worse, and what’s wonderful about our project in Indonesia is that we’re planting lots of different species. It’s a really biodiverse project and we’re cultivating the sugar palm, not to be confused with palm, which actually needs a biodiverse environment to flourish. It doesn’t flourish in a monoculture by itself, which is why it’s so wonderful: it’s one of these plants that forces you to behave (laughs). It’s wonderful because it provides lots of different oils that the villagers can then process and sell at the local market and make a living from it, and it means that they can actually have a livelihood from the forest.

It’s a humanitarian aspect.

But not only is it humanitarian, it’s basic business sense: it means that they then don’t have to sell their land to the plantations, because they don’t need to. They can make more money from planting trees and sustainably harvesting them, and keeping them away from unsustainable methods. So on the one hand it’s education, and financing it, but also being there to support the communities. It’s like saying to them “I’d like you to switch your computer’s operating system, and I won’t talk you through it or give you any technical support”. You’re not just going to say “Oh yes, I’ll do that then”. So in regards to the projects, it’s kind of the same thing, it requires education and support and training, and that’s a big part of our projects, it’s not just the tree-planting. It’s a lot of what the cost goes into as well, and that’s actually a really important part of the project and something we’d like to talk about more in the coming months, explaining how the projects work. I think it’s a really interesting and important side of it.

It calls to mind, for me, an interesting debate that took place in Bristol in 2005 called The Selfish Green, between David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall and Richard Leakey. Richard Leakey was willing to almost play the pantomime villain and divert the conversation away from the wonders of animal intelligence, explaining that villages in Kenya aren’t burning down forests and allowing for the poaching of animals because they hate the forests or the animals, but because their situations are too desperate to even consider the animals and the sake of the forests. Their mindset is “If I don’t chop down that tree, how do I fuel my home”, and I think that’s why something like Ecosia is so important. It’s not about showing how glorious nature is and asking people to think of the elephants, it’s about saying “This is how you stop the deforestation, this is how you support the people”.

This is exactly it, and that’s the challenge. In Madagascar for example, the poverty levels are incredibly high, and they chop down the trees for wood and cook with these inefficient coal burners which can lead to a lot of fires, and you can’t turn to them and say “Please stop eating and cooking food”.

And the idea of legislation, of making it illegal to cut down trees, just can’t really work.

Exactly, and this is why it’s so important because it’s all about alternatives: you have to provide an alternative system that works, and that’s what we’re trying to do. The point is, there are alternatives, they’re just not immediately obvious or available, and they need to be carefully explored and invested in. As with all things, I think with a lot of the problems in the world, the solution is there, it just needs the right kind of approach and it needs to have the right kind of mindset behind it.

An article by Aaron Mills

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