Origin Story Interview W/ Wolfgang Baum, Fairventures Worldwide gGmbH

Origin Story Interview W/ Wolfgang Baum, Fairventures Worldwide gGmbH

Brighter Future

 / 

Jun 21, 2023

#BrighterFuture #Reforestation #Sustainability #entrepreneurship #climateaction #agroforestry #seekthechange #FairventuresWorldwide #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries

Brighter Future

We’re pleased to share some of the journey of Wolfgang Baum, Co-CEO of Fairventures Worldwide gGmbH.

Thank you so much for being with us, Wolfgang. Do you think you could introduce yourself and your work?

Hello, my name is Wolfgang Baum. I am 38 years old and originally from Germany, near Stuttgart, where I grew up and attended university. After completing my studies, I joined Fairventures Worldwide as an intern. I have remained loyal to this organization for the past 11 years and am now one of the two CEOs. It has been quite a journey, with many positions between intern and boss.

Congratulations on making it so far. Could you tell us a little about what you’re trying to achieve with Fairventures Worldwide?

Fairventures is a non-profit organisation headquartered in Germany, but we have country offices in Indonesia and Uganda. Our vision is to create forests serving multiple purposes, both locally and abroad, which function as solutions to the climate crisis. This means that we want to create forests that not only provide solutions for climate change by reducing CO2 in the atmosphere and adaptation problems, but also provide livelihoods and incomes for many people.

It is estimated that 1.6 billion people live with forests or from the things they produce. That includes indigenous communities, farmers who depend on the forest for firewood and other plants, and people who produce timber and non-timber forest goods like bamboo and cocoa. Aside from that, of course, forests are home to incredible biodiversity across the plant and animal kingdoms.

By protecting forests and managing them in a non-exploitative way, everyone benefits. This sets us apart from other organizations that may prioritise conservation over human development. Most of our staff members come from this development background rather than a conservation background. We believe that humans are not destroying forests out of malice or enjoyment but rather due to economic pressures. Our approach is to provide more sustainable livelihoods to alleviate this pressure. We want to promote forest conservation and, hopefully, improve lives.

To achieve this goal, we primarily focus on planting degraded forest areas with a mixture of fast-growing timber trees, fruit trees, and intercropping these with crops such as cocoa, vegetables, and nuts. This approach provides short-term sustenance and income for the farmers, and over time, the trees can be harvested for timber and new trees planted in their place. We have been implementing this approach in Indonesia since 2014 and in Uganda since 2018, and we have been working with thousands of farmers in both countries. As our organisation grows, we have access to more funds and can bring in more people to help us achieve our vision.

To whom are you speaking directly as an organisation? Are these communities your primary target group?

Yes, I believe they are. Not because they are the biggest perpetrators of deforestation but because they are the ones most affected by forest loss.

Every individual can contribute to try and reverse these trends. If farmers have access to land, whether it be their own or state-owned, they can start implementing what we offer, and we can support them along the way. Of course, we are also in discussion with the companies that process timber or non-timber forest products, as we are interested in the value chain that begins with the farmer and continues to end-users. The farmer will only see an income if they can sell their products at an attractive price, so there must be a reliable company that can purchase their goods. We negotiate the relationship and connect the two sides of the business.

Regarding timber, we are also working with companies through our projects to find new and innovative ways to use timber, such as in construction, to create a greater incentive to plant more. If there is always a good market, and timber can be sold at a good price, then there is an incentive to keep planting and expanding the planting areas. This is in our interest and serves all of us through the climate impact and the impact on biodiversity.

How do you regulate the planting of trees for timber consumption? In addition, how do you maintain and sustain the forest you are building?

First, there is a significant demand for timber unrelated to our efforts. This demand can be met through unsustainable means: this includes, for example, cutting down virgin forest without regard for its preservation. But it can also be satisfied through the use of plantation timber or faster-growing species. For instance, if you require plywood for cabinet doors, old-growth tropical hardwood has been used in the past, particularly in countries with little regulation in the forestry sector. But it’s possible to use the planted trees we’re cultivating, which has less of an impact on the forest and generates income for farmers.

Our objective is not solely to protect forests— but also to promote alternatives to exploitative practices in the forest, which indirectly contributes to the preservation of the forests. Of course, as well, there’s value in identifying conservation zones, developing management strategies, engaging in tourism, researching, and collaborating with preservation areas like national parks. These are not our zones of expertise, though, and we can add most value by focusing on our strengths.

So you’re protecting native forests by indirectly keeping people away from exploiting them, while also providing a sustainable resource?

This is a question we have to ask ourselves in every value chain. Can we sustainably produce this resource? If so, what steps do we need to take to achieve that?

If the answer is no, then we should sharply reduce the consumption of the resource. Sometimes, it might not be possible to stop entirely, but we should still try to phase it out. Timber makes a good example: it’s got great material properties, is used in a rainbow of different applications, and people react positively to its aesthetics in furniture and homes. Clearly, we can’t just move away from it. And do we really want to? But the question then becomes: how can we produce wood sustainably, and maybe even deliver some additional benefits along the way?

Sustainable production that might benefit the producers is a great thing to shoot for. What were the biggest challenges you faced in your journey?

Well, during the early years of Fairventures, we didn’t start from scratch; we were a branch office of a larger organisation before we became independent. Some projects provided initial funding, an office, and staff. But the early years still had a startup feel, with a fluctuation of staff members and uncertainty about funding and security. Over time, we’ve grown, bringing challenges such as restructuring and considering pricing.

This whole experience was a challenge for me because we had to figure things out on our own without the guidance of someone knowledgeable. Although our primary work involved planting trees and working with farmers, we also had to address important organisational tasks such as structuring the organisation and developing processes. It was easy to get distracted by the concrete work and lose track of these tasks. That could lead to chaos. It took us a while to overcome this and dedicate energy to building the organisation and making ourselves capable of handling tasks in a sustainable way.

Working in an international setup, cultural differences within the team could also be challenging. For example, the combination of Germans and Indonesians can be interesting due to differences in communication styles. Germans tend to be direct, while Indonesians prioritise creating harmony and may communicate negative messages subtly. This can potentially lead to clashes, but also enriches our team dynamics.

Operationally, we are certainly not the only tree-planting organisation in the world. There are many. But finding the knowledge on how to do it best, such as site species matching, can be challenging.

For example, recommendations on which species would flourish in a particular site are readily available in Europe, but for Borneo, there was hardly any information when we started. Because of this, we had to start documenting and monitoring for ourselves, which presented quite a challenge in the early years.

In some cases, we had incredibly high losses because we were experimenting with what worked and what didn't. However, after working with the organisation for 11 years, I appreciate that there is always a new challenge to overcome. If everything were figured out, work would be boring. My work may occasionally be stressful and annoying, but it’s never boring.

What do you find most fulfilling in what you do?

We’re only now beginning to make progress. It’s truly rewarding to see that people are starting to earn income from our systems, and that our efforts are bearing fruit— sometimes literally. We are growing a couple hundred thousand seedlings in our two operating countries yearly, although we still have many questions to answer. Despite that, generally, our machine is running smoothly. We may have some details to clarify, but our models and internal structures are functioning, and the feedback we're receiving is positive.

As an intermediary step, we are aiming to reach the point where we can harvest crops regularly in both countries and not just a test harvest from a few trees. Seeing the income and impact that this generates in communities will be the most fulfilling thing for me. While we are not 100% there yet, I find joy in each intermediary step that indicates progress. When something clicks, it’s truly satisfying.

What is your vision for the world?

My central vision is obvious enough: we have to get climate change under control and guarantee that our planet is going to be able to cope with the impact of human activity. We must stop harming our planet and find a way to coexist sustainably. This is the end game, and we either manage to achieve this or we perish. Some of the major milestones either in favour (or against) us will likely occur during my lifetime. So working toward alleviating climate change, as best as can be possible, is absolutely my highest goal.

Our work may be small in the grand scheme of things, but it is still vital in the global effort to combat climate change. When faced with an issue of such magnitude, I cannot simply sit by and do nothing. I have to do my part, and I’ve already taken some steps in that direction.

What inspires you on this path?

In small ways, I draw inspiration from a lot of places, but I don't like to idolise people— we're all human, and humans are very complicated. Everyone who has achieved something great has, probably, also done something terrible, so clinging to people as role models is a little dangerous. And picking yourself up again in your feelings about the world or a specific subject can be difficult once you learn something disappointing about a role model. With this said, the best inspiration for me comes from witnessing people in everyday scenarios who are kind to one another and do the right thing. Common decency inspires me most.

That is very sound and level-headed. Have you experienced any “Aha!” moments during your journey?

The things that have surprised me most were not always positive. For the past ten years, I’ve  thought every year that we were turning a corner on the climate conversation because of global events that generated headlines— you know, like the fact that Southeast Asia was completely on fire for a while, with huge plumes of smoke obscuring our satellite photos— or the increasingly incredibly hot, dry summers in Europe causing crops to fail and the normally quite green land to turn brown, with people even dying in their homes.

With the climate youth movement “Fridays for Future” bringing regular protests to the streets, I often felt that we’d finally landed on the one “thing” that would bring about change. But then I realised that these events only ever generated a little attention. It was never enough.

Our ability as a society to focus on long-term issues is really small, and it seems sometimes like we're more than happy to jump onto any distraction that life can bring us. While it's understandable on a personal level to distract oneself after having a bad day at work, this pattern of behaviour is concerning when addressing global issues.

I used to think that if you made a convincing argument with facts and truth on your side, you could win any argument and lead to action. But I think most of us have learned by now that appeals to emotion work better— and, even then, it rarely has the power to change people. My big realisation has been how hard it is to change people and how hard it is even for people to change.

The idea that people are too numbed to change in their everyday lives is interesting, and I think it’s important. We seem to have become detached from what happens around us, even with something as serious as the climate crisis.

It's not the smaller challenges, but the more immediate ones that have a greater impact. Regardless of their size, a challenge like the survival of our species beats everything else we might face in our lives. But I don't want to downplay the issues faced by those fighting wars or people who are affected by climate change, or trying to feed a family, or experiencing other traumas.

Doing this kind of work helps me deal with the emergency we are currently facing. Knowing I am not avoiding a big challenge by distracting myself is a source of comfort.

It sounds like you’re approaching this as head-on as you possibly can, which is certainly inspiring. Would you mind telling us your background?

My background is actually in Middle Eastern studies and history. Even during my undergraduate degree, I knew I wanted to do development work. With these specialties, I assumed I’d probably end up in some Middle Eastern country— preferably Egypt, I thought, because I had a lot of sympathy for the place and had once done a semester abroad there.

But the Arab Spring happened a few months before I graduated, and work in the Middle East became almost impossible. None of the regional organisations were looking to hire new people from abroad— they were just trying to evacuate the people they already had there. So in a sense the decision was made for me.

I’d always had this idea of what I wanted to do, but the door was closing. Fortunately, I met the now-founder of our organisation, Fairventures, during an internship, and I contacted him once I’d finished my studies. I expressed my interest in doing this kind of work, and Indonesia seemed like an interesting option, as my girlfriend had a job offer there. The founder had spent almost a decade in Indonesia early in his career and was a good contact. We discussed some ideas, and that's when everything started to take shape.

I was willing to go to Indonesia with very few assurances: I had neither prior knowledge about the country or a big salary. Nonetheless, I stayed on for about five years, then returned to Germany for the following five. We moved to Kenya two years ago, and my partner now works with the UN. Fairventures was gracious enough to allow me to work from here for now.

What were the biggest compromises you made on this journey?

The most difficult time was in the early years when my girlfriend and I were in Indonesia but on different islands. While I was working in Borneo, she was working with the UN in Jakarta. Although we celebrated finding jobs in another country at the other end of the world, we realised that it meant we would not be together most of the time. This was okay for a while, and we both worked hard and focused on our jobs for those five years. But this was not something I would do again. As a result, I am here in Nairobi rather than in Stuttgart or one of our project countries.

Fortunately, I can continue with my work, and I'm very happy that I didn't have to choose in that regard. Other than that, I don't think I have sacrificed too much: I have fulfilling work, and I work with interesting and wonderful people from different contexts and countries. Most of the time, I'm quite content.

What lessons do you hope others will take from your journey?

If you truly want to pursue a journey like mine, you shouldn't be afraid to take a bit of a leap. My original plan was to go to the Middle East, but something happened that stopped me, and I went to Indonesia instead. This was a country I knew very little about, and for which I possessed no language skills or previous experience. Despite the initial challenges, I persevered, and it worked out. It's important to embrace discomfort and take risks to pursue your unique path rather than just following in someone else's footsteps.

Persistence is also crucial. Sometimes things were very difficult, and we weren't sure if our organisation would survive another year. But over time, we found more supporters, and our team consolidated. So it's important to keep the faith, even when things are hard.

I've noticed that younger people today are more vocal about their working conditions and are less willing to tolerate abusive or exploitative situations, which is great. That said, I also believe that having grit and sticking with something through difficult times is important as long as it doesn’t involve tolerating abuse.

Overall, I hope that others can learn from my journey: pursuing your own unique path may be challenging, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. Don't be afraid to take risks, and be persistent in the face of adversity.

If there were one lasting message you could share with the world, what would it be?

I have to speak about climate change again, because of course it’s the biggest thing. We are at the beginning of the end, and we only have a few more years to make changes. We need to change how we interact with our environment dramatically, which will also require sacrifices. This means we cannot continue to do things as we have been doing them. I hope that more people will understand this and that we have a more honest conversation about it.

Of course, there are wonderful things we can do, like switching from gas to electric cars, but we are at a point where we need more. According to all the models, even if we were to implement all of these changes, we would still face catastrophic climate failure. So we must consider what we can do individually alongside these broad political measures. We have to ask ourselves, what can I change?

We could approach this more positively, not just about giving up what we enjoy but about all of us coming together and making sacrifices for the greater good. That's a noble sentiment that people can get behind. Unfortunately, the conversation often sounds like someone is trying to take away our cars, meat, or vacations. As long as we're stuck in that kind of narrative, we don't have a good chance of solving this.

We also need to reflect on who is responsible for initiating change. In a situation like this, both are equally important. If we choose to do nothing, we must accept the consequences.

Thankfully, we are now faced with balancing the realities we see and not succumbing to sadness but instead channelling our anger into actionable change. Anger may have many outlets, but transforming it into action is the most productive.

Thank you so much, Wolfgang, for such interesting insights into your company, your life, and your worldview. Your positive, let’s-get-our-hands-dirty attitude about the climate crisis is inspiring. We wish you the greatest of all possible success in your efforts to reforest degraded land and build better, more sustainable livelihoods for people around the world.

To learn more about Fairventures Worldwide, visit www.fairventures.org.

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