Raise your hands if you’re not entirely convinced that non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are about to take the world by storm.
There is no doubt that the NFT concept has made its presence felt. Digital artists have welcomed a technology that allows them to create single or limited edition artworks that can be bought and sold, with their provenance validated on the blockchain. Huge sums have been exchanged and headlines duly grabbed. In the less-rare world of marketing, brands use so-called utility NFTs to sell tokens and logos that also provide buyers with special benefits, such as loyalty program memberships or access to events.
The question, of course, is why customers don’t just join good old-fashioned membership programs. Is there any real use for the less-than-modest NFT? Or to put it another way, is there anything uniquely useful about this kind of technology? Ben Whately thinks so. He even wanted to show that NFTs can have a positive impact.
Whately cut his entrepreneurial teeth as co-founder of Memrise, a language app launched in 2010. While still serving as Chief Strategy Officer for that company, he is also a co-founder of Angry teens, a startup founded in November last year with the aim of doing something to alleviate the problem of soil degradation. NFTs are at the heart of his company’s modus operandi.
The result of frustration
As Whately says, the new company owes its existence, at least in part, to a frustration on the part of his teenage daughter. “She came back from a climate march and said fine, but what can we do to really make a difference,” he recalled.
The comment tied in nicely with Whately’s own approach to technology-driven entrepreneurship. He sees technology as a means to convert intentions into actions. “When waves of change happen, entrepreneurs create products that unleash that change,” he says.
But what does that mean in practice? In some industries there is a relatively simple line between demand – and the desire to do something different – and the product. Whately cites Memrise as an example. Like other language apps, its job was to turn the desire to learn a language into positive action.
But can the same principle be applied to climate and environment? Whately sees a desire in a growing number of people to do something practical to alleviate environmental problems, but he also senses a sense of helplessness. “What can you do?” he asks rhetorically. “You can eat less or fly less, but what positive action can you take?”
Well, you could say eating less and flying less is kind of a positive action, but what Ely was thinking about was something more practical. And that brings us to NFTs. Whately’s solution was to create Angry Teenager NFTs, which can be bought and sold on the eco-friendly Tevos blockchain. The money raised when an NFT is purchased is used to plant trees in Ghana in a district that has suffered significant environmental degradation.
The nuts and bolts
So what are the nuts and bolts of it? Well, you buy one Angry teens token and in addition to the visual artwork, your money pays for planting trees on a geolocated piece of land. As the trees grow, you can monitor the impact. Ultimately, the trees generate money through carbon offsets, and part of that money is reinvested in forestry projects. A certain amount is also returned to the buyer’s wallet, although this is also intended for reinvestment.
The token can also be sold and access to the impact information will pass to the new owner. But is there an incentive for secondary buyers? After all, the investment has already been made by the original owner. Whately says a certain amount of money is released and invested when a token changes hands – so new owners also help make a difference.
All well and good. But given the increasing pressure on land – and the population is increasing in Africa – will this be a sustainable solution or will the trees simply be cut down when commercial pressures kick in and someone else wants to do something else with the land? Whately says there are economic incentives for the community. “Included in the planting areas are a percentage of fruit trees and beehives,” he says. “We need to make sure there’s an economic benefit to the community.” In addition, the land is protected by a 50-year agreement.
So will this work? That should become apparent soon. The fundamental work of identifying and securing the land has been done, and Whately hopes the project will raise $100,000 for tree planting by Christmas and snowball over time.
But perhaps the question of NFT’s usefulness remains. It should be just as possible to take donations for planting trees and provide transparent impact reports, without the benefit of NFTs and the blockchain. That said, it can’t be a bad thing to leverage the lure of a trending technology to raise awareness and fund a startup that combines monetization with purpose. New Low Carbon Blockchain Platforms – Tezos one of them – are on the rise, which may add to the appeal.