An interview with the creators of the up-and-coming fintech app

by Linda Amanya, UNEA-3 Delegate

The world seems to be keen on generating firsts. The latest addition to this list is ‘Ant Forest’ – a digital platform that has managed to marry ‘fin-tech’ to environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation. Under the umbrella initiative Green Digital Finance Alliance, the ‘Ant Forest’ app gamifies carbon footprint tracking, enabling users to become environmentally cautious as they go about their daily activities. As the sun sets on the third United Nations Environment Assembly, we manage to whisk a member of the ‘Ant Forest’ team away from their booth at the innovations expo and into a quiet corner to get the juice on this innovation: Going back to the very beginning, how was ‘Ant Forest’ birthed? What or who is the inspiration behind it? And why ‘Ant forest’ anyway?

Ant Forest was launched in August 2016, as a way to encourage people to reduce their carbon footprint voluntarily.

‘Ant Forest’ in itself is a program under GDFA and was inspired by the desire to actively engage citizens in addressing environmental challenges, specifically to encourage bottom-up approaches that engage citizens directly in green financing.

The Ant Financial Services Group (‘Ant’) formerly known as Alipay, is an affiliate company of the Chinese Alibaba Group and is the most valuable fintech company in the world. It’s also where the name ‘Ant Forest’ is derived.

And GDFA is?

(Laughs) GDFA or Green Digital Finance Alliance is an initiative launched by UN Environment and Ant Financial Services Group that seeks to realize the potential for digital finance to help deliver environmental sustainability: through deepening understanding of environmental issues, stimulating innovation and facilitating collaboration.

So tell us a bit about the program and the app. How does it work? And how can I get it?

Ant Forest is based on the calculation of emissions avoided by users in aspects of transport, entertainment, utility costs among other things. This is all done through the Ant Forest app available on the Ant mobile platform.

Individual users are awarded ‘green energy’ points for any emissions avoided, which in turn form the basis of ‘virtual trees’ grown on the platform. Once an individual has accumulated enough green energy to grow an entire virtual tree, Ant commits to working with its ecological partners to plant a real tree in the desert; particularly Haloxylon species which are suited to life in the desert and have environmental benefits such as reducing the intensity of sandstorms. The company plants a real tree for every 17.9 kg of carbon saved.

Also, social media is an active part of the user experience and includes moving green energy between user accounts and being able to compare performance in ‘growing trees’ across one’s virtual community.

This three-part approach provides users with individualized carbon savings data directly to their smartphones; connects their virtual identity and status to their earnings of ‘green energy’ for reduced carbon emissions and provides carbon offset rewards through a physical tree planting program.

Currently, Ant Forest is operational in China but has begun the process of going global, and is expanding through strategic partnerships, such as one with Paytm in India.

From August 2016 through to September 2017, Ant’s users signing up to the Ant Forest app rose to over 230 million (that’s about 20% of China’s total adult population).  We are curious to know, how has ‘Ant forest’ managed to make environmental sustainability ‘so attractive’ to millennials? This is a voluntary program after all, right?

(Laughs) It is voluntary! The greatest attraction, I would say, is the virtual identity and status to their earnings of ‘green energy’ for reduced carbon emissions.

Wow! Millions of users….and with no advertising?

With almost 60% of users being 28 years old or younger, I think the game-like activities also play a role in encouraging virtual participation. This app allows users to take on environmental protection in a ‘playful’ but effective manner and to make use of their social networks for green purposes.

Ant Forest brings together two domains surrounded by many myths. Some believe that modernity cannot be achieved without sacrificing the environment. How have you managed to make the combination of environmental sustainability and technological modernity work?

An increasing share of the population, especially in China, is becoming aware of the impacts of human activities on the environment and the need to be conscious of individual environmental footprints. Over 90% of active users opened an account out of personal interest and without the need for promotion.

Certain groups of citizens are becoming more active in social and political engagement aimed at addressing environmental issues and so Ant Forest provides that opportunity to consciously integrate climate and environmental issues into consumer preferences, including when making investment and lifestyle decisions. For example, if one commutes by walking instead of driving, the avoided carbon emission will be recorded as saved energy on the Ant Forest app.

This app manages to cut greenhouse gas emissions on an individual level and at the same time demonstrate how digital technology can foster sustainable development, which is something many people are looking for.

Well, a large scale venture such as this cannot be without strain. What are some of the challenges you have had to deal with? And how have you managed to stay on top of things?

Carbon gains are made by combining the use of mobile payments with big data analysis linked to effective communications by individuals, but this is based on the limited range of purchases being tracked and counted and the partial view of users’ overall consumption patterns since only some of any single person’s purchases take place using the Ant payments services. And what this gives is only a glimpse of the whole picture…

Also, despite the available data, including the user survey, understanding fully why people are engaging and what it would take to sustain and further grow such engagement remains weak. It is equally unclear as to whether the same approach could be successful if advanced, for example, in other countries or in seeking to influence other environmental outcomes such as water use, food waste or biodiversity management. All this requires research, active experimentation, learning and collaboration to maximize positive impact.

And what would you say has been the number one benefit of this program, so far?

Well, being only about a year into the pilot, it is too early to assess its overall impact. However, the avoided carbon emissions and the potential carbon sink effect of Ant Forest can be calculated based on commitments to date. Cumulative avoided carbon emissions are estimated at 150,000 tons to the end of January 2017, that is, over the period since August 2016.

Ant Forest has made it possible to measure green behavior, services, and products at the micro consumption level, more so in a fun and interactive way.

Finally, ‘Ant forest’ as a program has managed to plant over a million trees in China. What next for the program? Where do you see ‘Ant Forest’ in 5 years?  

Deepening and extending Ant Forest, the Alliance is working with Ant to improve the Ant Forest’s underlying methodology, and to draw together other actors including mobile payment platform operators with an interest in extending the application of the approach.

Working with the China Beijing Environmental Exchange and others, Ant will continue to improve the accounting methodology for translating behavioral data into carbon footprint data.

Also working with UN Environment, Ant is committed to turning this method into a generally agreed protocol or standard.

Beyond an open platform for collaboration, Ant proposes to use its big data and other capabilities to build and operationalize voluntary emission reduction methodologies, including to help SMEs, in particular, enter the carbon trading market and reward their carbon reduction activities.

Thank you so much for your time and we hope to see you scale this initiative even further, across the globe….

Thank you!

Linda Amanya]]>