Origin Story Interview W/ Walid Al Saqqaf, Rebalance Earth

Origin Story Interview W/ Walid Al Saqqaf, Rebalance Earth

Brighter Future

 / 

Feb 22, 2023

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #RainforestProtection #ClimateTech #ConservationInnovation #EnvironmentalActivism #NaturePreservation DeforestationPrevention #GlobalConservation

Brighter Future

We’re here this week with Walid Al Saqqaf, founder of Rebalance Earth, a startup dedicated to assigning value to living nature and the good it does for natural systems endangered by human activity.

Thank you so much for joining us, Walid. Do you think you could tell us about your background and Rebalance Earth?

My name is Walid Al Saqqaf. I am a father of two 11- and 10-year-old daughters. That is always the first thing I start with because some fathers prioritise that before anything else. I am half French and half Yemeni. I’ve lived all over the world.

I’ve always been passionate about nature and creating student societies around these topics. I’ve also always been curious; if something was wrong or I saw an opportunity, I would try to fix it. Build something, and see what happens.

My seventh startup, Rebalance Earth, came from reading an article by the Assistant Director of the IMF, Ralph Chami, stating that an African forest elephant is worth $40,000 dead but $1.75 million alive. He did the same analysis for “great” whales, or an average giant whale similar to a Baleen or Sperm whale— $50,000 dead for their meat and $2 million alive for their carbon sequestration services while living in the ocean.

I read this article thinking three things: first, we only value nature when it's dead, not when it's alive. Second, I refuse to accept that my daughters will grow up in a world with such poor values. Third, how might it be possible to build a solution that would value living nature that was not based on philanthropy or charity but instead built on market forces? How might we protect nature when it is in people's best financial interest? That was how Rebalance Earth was born.

That’s a great idea. The calculated values of living elephants or whales compared to dead ones are shocking. On your path to entering entrepreneurship, do you think you’ve collected the appropriate battle-scars?

I think so. I used to create student societies wherever I studied, and I adopted skills from that habit in the founding of my first startup, City Tonic. It had an excellent beginning but turned out to be a complete failure.

But it was okay, because every failure leads to the next experience, and that's what you discover as you start doing multiple startups. With hindsight, the failures of the first, second, or whatever startup that didn't work out will give you the skills or thicker skin to face the challenges of your current startup. It just depends on how you want to handle that failure.

One important thing during a failure is, were any entrepreneurs listening to it? A huge lesson I learnt about startup failure is not that it is not a personal failure. Your startup is a separate entity; it's not an extension of you, like an arm or a leg. It's an independent entity with its own character, and legally, it's a separate entity. It failed; that's it, so move on.

How did you found Rebalance Earth?

I was on a call with Ralph Chami and Ian Redmonds discussing the idea of Rebalance Earth, and at the end of the call, I told them, “Ralph, you're an economist with a paradigm view on how market forces can be used to value nature and protect it. Ian, you're like David Attenborough and Indiana Jones all in one— you've got a passion for conservation and have been doing it for over 40 years. I'm the wacky one who builds startups, and I have an idea how we can do it,” and they were like, “Okay, let's do it!”

Afterward, I contacted a few colleagues and started putting out some posts on LinkedIn. I found myself surrounded by an army of professional volunteers from Vancouver to Hong Kong. I felt these people were saying the same thing: they were frustrated. We all understood the threat posed by climate change, and mitigating climate change through personal acts such as recycling, solar panels, veganism, and driving electric cars felt so insignificant. I thought I could use my skills and knowledge with those other like-minded individuals, and we could collectively make an impact.

Rebalance Earth has given all these individuals the opportunity to join a collection of other diverse individuals and impact climate change. I'm truly blessed because these people come from all different kinds of cultures; we have a 50/50 gender split, all age groups, and people who are students up to those who are past retirement age.

The thing is that we need to understand this existential threat cannot be solved by only technology or only through law, politics, or science. Instead, you need a multidisciplinary set of skills and views on how to face these challenges. And that is one of the unique aspects of Rebalance Earth; its richness of people, cultures, and skill sets all combined to resolve this challenge.

That’s pretty powerful. What do you think you would like to achieve with Rebalance Earth? Why do you believe it matters to other people?

Explaining why Rebalance Earth matters to people and what we are trying to achieve changes depending on who our audience is. We need to make sure our points are communicated in a clear, concise and inspirational way.

If we think about climate change, most of the time, it’s attached to complicated scientific words. If you want to understand it yourself, you may need a PhD in science to understand all the scientific terms and contexts.

When you hear about climate change on the news and see scientists with tears in their eyes saying, “People, wake up! We're scared shitless,” you want to understand why this is the case. Thankfully, different people like David Attenborough explain climate change in a clear and straightforward way with a grandfather's voice, which is reassuring. But he is telling you that we’re in danger.

What is the human reaction when we’re in danger? Fear. We block it off, get into our cocoons, and ignore it. This is a problem because what we need is collective action. On one side, it's hard to understand the problem; on the other, you get terrified when you start understanding it.

It's hard to drive action because fear is not the right driver of positive action.

Unfortunately, that is only part of the problem. I use the words “climate change” and associate it with loss of biodiversity. Here I am speaking about species— whether those are forest elephants, great whales, cheetahs, or rhinos who are going extinct and might eventually disappear. On a human level, this is horrible. On an economic level, it is also a disaster.

What do I mean by economic loss? For example, the African forest elephant thins out the forest it lives in. They ensure that the strong core trees have thicker trunks and grow taller so they don't have to compete with other smaller plants for natural resources. Tall trees absorb carbon, which is of course the key driver of climate change. The less carbon there is, the better off we are, but industrial activity causes us to produce a huge amount of carbon.

So we need more of those big trees, but those trees need their gardeners— the African forest elephants. These elephants eat a great deal of fruit from the trees and spread the seeds by producing one metric tonne of dung every week, which spreads both seeds and nutrients for other plants.

One of the biggest challenges is explaining to people that valuing nature is okay. For example, when I explained to people that the African forest elephant has living value, some people reacted negatively, saying, “you can't put a monetary value on an elephant.” My answer was always the same: “Why not?”

The elephant's value is close to $2 million during its six-year lifespan because the areas where it lives capture 7% more carbon than those who had lost their elephants. But capturing carbon isn't the only benefit: the elephant “gardening” in the forest produces a high humidity level, creating rainwater that can feed the Ethiopian hills and the Nile River to benefit Egyptian farmers. The humidity on the western side of the forest also goes into rainwater, providing water to all of North Africa.

If the elephant goes extinct in 10 years, the forest loses its gardener, which means there will be more bushes between the trees, creating a higher risk of forest fires. Additionally, the tree's seeds aren't spread by the elephants resulting in the forest shrinking and over 120 million people facing water insecurity due to the lack of humidity and rainwater. Huge social unrest would play out, and migration problems would rise. What price tag would you put on avoiding this situation?

Rebalance Earth is here to help us understand the value flow between species such as forest elephants, great whales, and giraffes and their ecosystems.

If people could understand the value of these animals being alive rather than dead, you could start monetising it. For example, if you want to prevent climate change, or some other ecological catastrophe like an extinction, buy X now. By buying this X, you will also get a carbon credit and a biodiversity credit. This is very useful for companies in the race to achieve net-zero targets. These credits help them show customers and shareholders that their products are not negatively affecting the environment.

Yet, many companies are investing their money in carbon credits by paying for things like a carbon-capture machine in Iceland. The big thing about this machine is it’s manmade. I don't like the idea of my daughters growing up in a world full of machines, where grabbing carbon out of the air was the option we went with while nature was dying. Nature is the number one “machine” to use. It has absorbed carbon and sustained life since its beginning.

Instead of investing in tech startups to drop carbon, let's invest in tech and nature to preserve what we have and regenerate nature. That is the promise of Rebalance Earth: to build a platform that values living nature effectively, funds it and starts regenerating it, thus building a new economic paradigm.

It’s a beautiful idea, and we hope you can inspire people to think differently about nature. Thank you for going into such detail. The work sounds inherently fulfilling, but is there anything that stands out to you as particularly satisfying?

Knowing you're building something that has real meaning. My worldwide team is willing to get outside their comfort zone to learn and improve Rebalance Earth to create real change. That's why they work that extra hour when they've clocked off from their regular work and have their kids and other things calling for their attention. They're like, “I need another hour; this is for something that has meaning for us all.” But it's fundamentally about knowing I'm building something better for my kids' future.

What gave you the confidence and the perspective you needed to come up with and push forward on the idea for Rebalance Earth?

It was a series of successes and failures that led to my confidence. If you only have successes, it can blind you to potential weak spots. So as an entrepreneur, while it's important to move quickly, it's also important to stay alert. If you have too many successes and only successes, you risk having a too-narrow vision. Because you become cocky and think, “I'm the wonder boy or girl.” But with failures, you're more mindful: you're like, “Okay, now I need to watch out a little bit because I remember I tripped on this pothole last time; I don't want to do it again.”

What were the biggest challenges with Rebalance Earth?

The challenge is that we're running out of time. We’re looking at possible major extinctions in or within ten years. Explaining this, and selling our mission to buyers, whether in the corporate, household or capital markets— and being able to explain it concisely, clearly, and inspirationally— is difficult.

Another challenge is using the blockchain in our startup, which causes some people to raise an eyebrow. They think we’re using the same blockchain that Bitcoin or Ethereum uses, which is infamous for spending gargantuan amounts of energy for simple transactions— infamous for using, worldwide, as much energy as a small country.

But our blockchain is private, while Bitcoin's is public, which ultimately means we use drastically less energy to run our transactions. It takes 125 million joules of electricity to send a single transaction in Bitcoin, but ours takes only 24.7 joules— we use less energy than sending an email. The most popular Blockchains are terrible for the environment, but there is very little waste on a private one like ours.

We certainly hope that the public can be adequately informed of these risks before it is too late. On the path to where you are today, were there any big “Aha!” moments or epiphanies?

Apart from Ralph Chami's article and my work with Bosnians, which were important “Aha!” moments, I have had a lot of moments through interviewing my guests for my podcast. I always like to ask them what the source of inspiration was in building their own solutions.

One of my guests mentioned that he was inspired by Dee Hock, the founder of Visa. What was most interesting about Hock was his attitude to power and wealth. After he became extremely successful, he found himself on a path toward greed and power-hunger and resigned. He became a recluse, focusing on his family and using the skills he had developed to create Visa as a force for good.

Most entrepreneurs build because they want to solve a problem and get rich. Let's be honest: people like making money. Hearing about Dee Hock's use of power for good inspired me to structure Rebalance Earth in a way that means we can't sell it off. The company could easily become a multi-billion pound “unicorn”; our target market will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars. We’ve registered the startup as a Community Interest Company, which means we can never be acquired or listed on the stock market. In effect, we pass on the baton to the next generation of leaders to grow Rebalance Earth further. That is very powerful. And we will ensure that our mission is always achieved contractually: safeguarding a regenerative nature for future generations.

Your forward-thinking here is admirable. It’s great that you’re setting limits and boundaries like this.

We have a large team of volunteers, and a portion of the team built us an ethics charter. The way our system works is that every day if we can detect a living forest elephant, we produce a credit of $40. 70% of the value of that credit goes to support local communities, so they could receive hundreds or thousands of dollars every day. The problem is that these elephants are migratory animals, so they move around, and local communities might be tempted to build a fence in the forest to stop them from moving. Our ethics charter is here to predict future problems and resolve them fairly and equitably.

I've often seen corporations with an ethics code that never act on their own rules. We wanted to ensure that our ethics code stays pertinent, so the shareholders (i.e., the staff) update it yearly. We have to base it on our articles of association which protect us from unethical behaviour.

Have you had to make any sacrifices or compromises to get where you are today?

There are some compromises I would prefer to make, but most of the time, it comes down to two things: time and money. Time is the cost of building a startup, when it could be spent with your loved ones or yourself. Before having kids, I was a workaholic— there's no doubt about that. We worked crazy hours, which came at a cost to health and relationships. Having children changed all of that. I work hard, but they take priority: I stop when they are awake, and go back to work once they’ve gone to sleep.

The other compromise is money because you make very little money at the beginning when you run your business. However, as it grows, you can eventually start paying yourself and make an excellent salary to compensate for your sacrifice.

It’s awe-inspiring that you start working once your children have gone to bed.

That’s another huge difference with Rebalance Earth: I don't see it as work. I love what I'm doing— I love it. It's like being Christopher Columbus at the front of Santa Maria and discovering new land, which no one has been to before. And that is amazing. It gives me a huge source of energy. But equally, I wouldn't say I like to work too much because I have not only my kids but also my wife, with whom I need to spend some quality time. Additionally, I need some sleep to be a good dad, partner, and co-founder.

What future do you want to help create with Rebalance Earth? Or how do you envision the future?

Much of our economic growth has been based on an extractive relationship with nature, essentially killing off nature to fuel it. I want to build a future that is converting extraction-based companies (i.e. using finite resources, which we will eventually run out of) and working with them with regenerative economic growth solutions. This is fundamentally what Rebalance is here to do: to change governments' relationship with natural capital by moving from a philosophy of extraction to one around regeneration. Because when that happens, then GDP growth is not based on an extractive habit of killing nature but around living in a regenerative one; it is much better for the future of this generation and all future generations.

After you’re gone, what would you like family, friends, and perhaps future generations to think about when they look back on you?

That I was a great Jedi Knight, because I'm a Star Wars freak (laughs). But more seriously, I hope they think I had a lot of fun along the way and that my actions helped to shift our relationship with nature.

May the Force be with you, sir. Do you have any advice for up-and-coming young entrepreneurs?

Just be simple: try. Just go for it. There's no “being a fool”; foolishness is a transient state. And if you're addicted to it like I am, you'll enjoy it. You must be very humble on your journey, because there will be many things to which you don't have the answers. Never pretend that you do.

As the founder, co-founder, and CEO, you are not expected to have all the answers. There is no need to act like you know everything. This is a lesson I had to learn for myself. Your capacity to sell a vision, rally people around it, and get the best people to help you achieve it is invaluable. Go for it!

When I finished university, I started working in corporate banking at Barclays. It was early 2000, and I was on a salary of £28k. I left to create my first startup, but it didn't work out very well, so after 18 months or two years, I returned to Barclays as a contractor. Suddenly, I went from a salary of £20k to being paid £500/day as a contractor.

Had I grown so much that I could demand such an amount? Unfortunately, no. But because I had taken the entrepreneurial route and gained so much more knowledge, it was perceived as though I had gained a lot.

Even if you fail, you will have gained some skills that can be very monetisable when you return to employment. So in every failure, there is a silver lining; you need to keep your eyes and ears open and spot it. Again: go for it!

Congratulations on that great success! If you had one message to share with the world in 2023, what would it be?

It has to be the message about Rebalance, which is to come and join the choir of voices here to begin this new era, a bit of an economic paradigm shift. The shift is not just economic; by its very nature, it integrates the costs of nature within the way we interact with it.

It's also a very philosophical one: we are all interdependent, from the leaf that falls off a tree to the worm that eats it and then the roots that absorb the nutrients from the worm. Everything is interdependent. We're just one act in an enormous stage play.

We need to realise that we play a part in this whole, if I may borrow from The Lion King's "circle of life" analogy. We're not unique, and we should stop pretending that we can escape to space or Mars— that’s a fantasy for billionaires. We already have the best planet: it’s beneath our feet. We must take care of it.

Of course, it's great if you want to give to charity and philanthropy. But we must step up our game by integrating nature into this new economic paradigm. I invite you all to be part of this new-frame-of-mind journey. Think about it: What does that mean, and how can you apply yourself?

Thank you so much for sharing these fascinating thoughts with us. We sincerely hope you will succeed in your ambitions of teaching markets how to value living nature.

Walid’s startup, Rebalance Earth, can be found at www.rebalance.earth.

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