The Road to El Dorado | The Future of RS technologies

Kyle Nielsen, our innovation consultant, has written several blogs about his experiences with smallholder farmers and data collection. This time, he looks forward to what the future might hold for these fields.

Truthing and testing

We’ve spoken about the model inputs in previous blogs and elaborated on the ground truth process. In this blog, I would like to mention a few technologies we’ve been testing over the past year and speculate about technological possibilities in the distant future.

According to BCG, buyers are primarily concerned with measurement, reporting, verification (MRV) and transparency when it comes to carbon credit purchasing. Acorn has always been on the forefront of the carbon market by leading the industry in the creation and certification of scalable remote sensing-based carbon measurements. The aim is to reliably measure the increase in biomass of our trees, make sure there was no deforestation before those trees were planted, and continuously monitor them after issuance.

This isn't new information, but how can this be reliably done at scale whilst being transparent to the buyers? Xi Zhu, our remote sensing data scientist, has elaborated on what emerging tech is coming up from above that will improve our models, but transparency to me also means trying to bring the buyers onto the farm. It means showing them and letting them experience what they’re purchasing, as it's much more than just a credit: it's someone's livelihood.

In the past year we’ve been trying just that: how can buyers see the farm? This was the main goal but also had some unintended benefits along the way.

Augmented and virtual reality

The first place people go (and I’m afraid I fell into the same trap) is usually virtual reality. We mapped some farms, exported the files, and created a dummy farm in the virtual universe. I can send a link to anyone with an Oculus, and you can then walk around the virtual farm to see the trees that have sequestered the carbon, all the way down to the coffee cherries still on the tree. I intended it to be more interactive, that you could walk around the plot, hear the birds, see the sunset, maybe even meet the farmer themselves or find tree-specific data. The major downside of virtual reality is the device. Whilst one person is immersed and enjoying the experience, three other people are waiting in the room for their turn with the Oculus.

As there was only so much small talk I could endure whilst waiting for the device, we swiftly moved on to augmented reality. Augmented reality uses the built-in technology of your iPhone to overlay data (i.e. trees in our case) onto your physical environment. I could then send you a link to our website and as long as you have a smartphone, you could walk around a piece of the farm.

Enumerators walking through coffee agroforestry in Embu, Kenya

Certification site visits

Whilst virtually walking around the plots that have been mapped locally, I thought we had another larger use case for the technology. If I can walk around and see the trees, so could the certifier, surely.

Currently, certifiers do field visits to make sure the project is implementing the claims — this will (and of course should) continue! But what if you need to quickly check the spacing of the trees? Or remember the species planted?

Imagine if every project had a few demo plots that were randomly chosen and then mapped every year to create a virtual environment. Certifiers could check these plots and see if anything is out of the ordinary. Or, since this is just data, you could create a program to check the virtual farms and see if the agroforestry design is implemented. This might sound like a stretch, but if the carbon market continues to grow, you could end up with thousands of projects to validate.

Now, imagine we have started mapping hundreds of the same species all around Kenya at different tree ages and revisiting those same trees a year later. We’ve then created a digital version of the real world, or at least a digital twin. If we’ve collected these samples and know the ages, we could start accurately simulating the growth of the tree. It means that we could start simulating how a tree would grow in that environment to not only help carbon predictions but to also use in the future for suitability assessments.

Imagine an open forum where everyone shares their collected data to allow simulations of multiple species from around the world. Now the answer to the question if a mango could grow better than an avocado in coastal Kenya could be simulated to help answer it.

Footage below courtesy of Agerpoint

3D macadamia tree utilizing Agerpoint technology (Embu region, Kenya)

Acceptability and accessibility

The voluntary carbon credit market is still immature. The strategies discussed here are only for illustrative purposes, but the benefit of a young market is that you have the possibility of defining the future possibilities of said market. However, I feel that it's still too early for buyers and certifiers to take this to the next level. And trying to get localised data has limitations of its own.

In order to collect the data, we need users and devices. Average smartphone usage in Africa is on the rise but unfortunately, this is an average for the entire population of a country. Probably a biased opinion, but based on my own observations, this is mainly concentrated around the cities, and not necessarily spreading to the rural areas as quickly.

If we want full transparency at the farmer level, smartphone usage, usability, and mobile coverage would have to increase. Initiatives such as Starlink are a step in the right direction but as an interim solution, giving the extension officers the tools and education is the best way forward to collect data.

About Acorn

We help support smallholder farmers in developing countries transition to agroforestry. Together with local partners, we facilitate the funding and training needed by farmers to start their agroforestry transition. Transforming the sequestered CO2 through agroforestry into Carbon Removal Units (CRUs), we offer carbon credits to responsible corporates to help them reach their climate goals. The growth of the trees is measured with satellite imagery, AI and LiDAR, and certified by ICROA-accredited Plan Vivo.

With 80% of the sales revenue going directly to the farmers, it creates an additional income stream and helps them adopt a more climate-resilient way of farming that improves food security, biodiversity, and financial independence.

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Kyle NielsenInnovation ConsultantLinkedIn
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