Andreas Eke

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Germany
Fellow Since 2018
This description of Andreas Eke's work was prepared when Andreas Eke was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2018 .

Introduction

Facing the social, environmental and economic challenges tropical deforestation brings about, Andreas builds on his vast experience in impact forestry and introduces a new land usage concept for degraded tropical lands. It does not only allow for a new market for impact forestry investments to be built, but also sets new paths to environmental and societal conservation among land owners and users.

The New Idea

While tropical deforestation is a widely known and complex ecological and social challenge, existing approaches fail to turn the wheel. This is also true because natural tropical forests are not widely acknowledged to be a source of value creation but are often seen as a hurdle to it: There is no clear business case for the natural tropical forest. Also, the sustainable management of natural systems is widely detached from global market structures, which leads to a lack of investment and incentives for action.

Based on this insight, Andreas uses his experience in the field to offer a solution holding benefits for all stakeholders involved – from the private land owner to local indigenous people to international NGOs and investors. To do that he pulls levers on two levels: He offers an economically viable yet sustainable land usage concept for degraded tropical soil – the Generation Forest. At the same time, he is working on a cultural change within investor groups, who traditionally tend to invest in profitable yet unsustainable projects. By providing investment solutions, he can deliver a proof of concept for different investment strategies and portfolios, which can then be the basis for a larger investment and land usage change movement. In parallel, he works with land owners and multipliers to change their approach to land usage. His vision: to create a new “forest culture” among landowners seeing it not as an obstacle to development but as an enabler.

Andreas bridges the gap between the tropical forest and people in the western world, who are usually far away and thus its challenges remain unseen in everyday life. With the concept of the Generation Forest, an attached cooperative “Waldmenschen” (“humans of the woods”), and through targeted work with international institutions and companies he allows everyone to see the relevance of tropical forests and how one can become active as a forest saver.

The Problem

In the past 50 years, ten out of 17 million square kilometers of tropical forests have been lost globally. Deforestation of tropical forests is a long known global problem with many negative effects: Habitat and biodiversity loss, soil degradation, water quality and access (a problem even in the humid tropics), over 20% of all carbon emissions come from deforestation, unsustainable usages and rural poverty. While natural systems like intact forests are incredibly important to humans, they are undervalued in people’s minds and in today’s market structures: There is a lack of a “forest culture” among landowners and users of seeing forest as an enabler for development, not as a hurdle to it. Following a shortsighted economic orientation (and also the lack of knowledge of alternatives) tropical forests are easily taken down by (local) land owners and users for other concepts of usage such as monoculture plantations or cattle and agriculture. This is a vicious cycle leading to an ever faster degrading of land – and loss of economic as well as ecologic and social opportunity.

At the same time, there has been a lack of proof of concept for economically viable yet truly sustainable forest investments. A cultural barrier in the investment market keeps investors to turn away from return on investment based on a long-term balance of profits and sustainability. While there is a market for forest investments based on plantations and monocultures estimated to a total of 300 to 470 billion USD, sustainable forest investments have accounted for a couple of million USD only. The Global Impact Investing Network, i.e. has not even created a category for forest and biodiversity yet. This leaves the growing field of “forest investments” largely focused on monoculture plantations, which are meant to be completely taken down after an intended investment time – an unsustainable practice. In addition, it is common practice that goods such as natural systems are seen to be laying in the responsibility of public institutions (supported by subsidies, grants, etc.), while being detached from market structures and individual responsibility.

Last, but certainly not least, forests and reforestation of tropical forests too often remain underneath the public radar, especially in the western world. This fosters a lack of attention from public institutions and private stakeholders leading to a lack of sense of urgency and action. “Imagine these trees provided wifi”, a recent ad of a German NGO read “we would think twice about taking them down. Too bad they only produce the oxygen we breathe.”

The Strategy

A guiding question for Andreas’ actions is how a truly sustainable land usage concept for degraded soils (former tropical forests) can be spread as a viable economic alternative and how a new forest culture can be built among all stakeholders involved that perceives forest as a value. This is the basis for him to build Futuro Forestal as a company (which is a certified B Corp and Social Business), the Community and Forest Foundation and the cooperative Waldmenschen (Humans of the Woods) as platforms for research, implementation and marketing of concepts built on the Generation Forest.

Three strains of strategy can be differentiated: (a) Introducing and spreading a viable land usage concept among private and public land owners, the Generation Forest, (b) working towards cultural shifts in investment and (c) working with land users and multipliers to create alliances as a basis for a change in practices.

Andreas and his team invested in research with Yale Universities’ Forestry School, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and other scientific institutions to map and understand local tree species and which species’ synergies are most profitable in the short and long term. This research is the basis for the Generation Forest (GF), which in its principles is not a new concept, but rather applies the concept known in Europe as permanent forest (Dauerwald) to tropical species. The GF is a mix of natural forest biodiversity and a higher number of valuable timber trees per hectare of forest. Key is that it is planted to last: The process starts with the plantation of up to 20 local tree species some of which are harvested for the first time in year 12 and replaced through new trees planted. Furthermore, elements of agricultural products can be added if needed in order to enhance the short-term efficiency. One advantage is that the GF works on soil that cannot be used solely for agriculture and is rather degraded, i.e. after a cycle or two of plantations.

Based on this ecological solution, Andreas is working to create a cultural shift in the investment field. Having operated as a forest asset manager for many years his long-standing experience and expertise helps him to get reputable investors on board and open doors. For the first five plantings of GF with a total of 1,000 hectare he has already mobilized investors who take the lead on the new paradigm, presenting to them a 100-year cash flow concept. His goal is to mobilize 5-10 mio € by the end of 2018 and 200 Mio until 2020. For the past two years, Andreas has invested in dialogues with investors of all sizes, working on closing the existing lack of knowledge about and investment in sustainable reforestation (as opposed to monocultures).

Mobilizing new resources through a shift in investment practices alone will not do the trick, though. Andreas therefore works with land users and multipliers such as international organizations and governments to create alliances to trigger far-reaching changes in practice and the status quo. One of these initiatives has been to build and lead a stakeholder alliance consulting the government in Panama on an updated forest stimulation concept. The result was, among others, a first time ever national budget on reforestation by the ministry of the environment. He has also built a network of landowners in Panama and beyond - through which he fosters exchange and distribution of the GF concept. These landowners often face both the economic as well as ecological and social detriments of later stage plantations this is where Futuro Forestal can support with solutions and create significant value. Acknowledging this value, former teak investors have given Futuro Forestal the mandate to convert their plantations into GF and the state considers putting the GF into its new forest strategy. As the usual plantation has a size of three hectare, working with land users (and / or associations) is key for the shift Andreas wants to see.

These examples show what is key to his pragmatic yet strategic approach: To start asking “what the world needs”, while simultaneously taking into account what people on the ground need in order to buy into the idea of sustainable reforestation. But it is more than that: With the GF and associated investment possibilities Futuro Forestal can offer a constructive solution to all stakeholders involved in and needed for the process. Newer initiatives include working with Conservation International, a leading international NGO in the field, and UNEP, with the aim to transfer the GF concept into their projects and approaches.

Futuro Forestal acts as an empowering force and advertises and trains others to copy their approach. Andreas wants to build enough sites of GF as a proof of concept and further work with investors to mobilize resources and establish a market for GF (-like) products. Also land users, owners and multipliers of different kinds are a medium to pass on the concept.

Futuro Forestal has come a long way, experiencing many learning loops starting in 1994 with the goal to change tropical reforestation and to stop deforestation through “better practice plantations”, the sustainable management of teak plantations (1995-2007). With what Andreas calls Futuro Forestal 2.0, they faced an extreme growth phase due to a credible US-institutional investor, who contracted Futuro Forestal to establish several thousand hectares of teak and native species plantations in Panama and Nicaragua. They soon encountered, though, that the best risk return ratio did not fit to sustainable forestry (2008-2011). A phase of reorientation and downsizing followed, in which they invested in further developing the initial ideas and dreams of the GF. So far, Futuro Forestal has reforested 8.000 ha in better practice plantations and about 1,000 ha of GF.

What differentiated Futuro Forestal early on was the clear commitment to holistic sustainability including social/community components – following the insight that the best concept does not work if one does not invest in ownership and empowerment of the local communities. I.e. since 2009, in cooperation with the German government’s DEG, several agro forestry and small business initiatives have been initiated. These projects directly contribute to poverty alleviation and change local economic structures for the better. In cooperation with other initiatives, women empowerment projects have been run in which women were educated to be beekeepers, teachers were educated in forestry.

In 2015, Futuro Forestal reorganized as a Social Business following Social Business principles with any profits generated going into the Community & Forest foundation. Since 2016, Futuro Forestal is a certified – and awarded – B Corporation with roughly one million core budget and 24 million € under management. Andreas’ aim is to run an organization large enough to be a stakeholder taken seriously, but as small and flexible as possible. The foundation (a) promotes the GF concept and engages in (b) creating a “forest culture” i.e. through projects with indigenous people, (c) research and (d) training. The relatively new cooperative Waldmenschen eG (“Humans of the woods cooperative”) was founded to bridge the gap between reforestation sites and the general public. Today it has 100 members and raised 500,000 Euros. In the future, Andreas would like to prepare a multi sector IPO of an Impact Holding in order to broaden the impact potential of his work. Also, a project to build and ecological corridor along the “Panamericana verde” is in preparation with a broad group of stakeholders involved.

The Person

“I don’t believe in negative incentives” is a sentence that sticks when talking to Andreas, whose entrepreneurial spirit and passion for commons sticks out according to references. Andreas speaks of himself as an optimist who likes to engage in creating opportunities. The early political influence shaped his slung path: He started young as a student representative, was politically engaged early on, learned to be a shipbuilder, joined the military – to know what it was like on the inside and not to judge from a distance – and advocated against inequalities of many sorts. A voluntary job led him to Nicaragua where he got to know and became disillusioned by the “third way” proposed as development work at the time. After going back to Germany and studying Geography, Latin America Studies and Global Forest Economy, he – who in the meantime met his partner Iliana Amien – went back to Panama to found Futuro Forestal with the vision of creating a truly sustainable forestry. It took them 20 years and different phases of development to develop and sharpen the model Futuro Forestal today successfully operates with – a true reflection of the complex undertaking they took upon following their vision. Today, the father of three children lives between Panama and Hamburg representing his work towards building bridges between the sites of reforestation and (European) financial and consumer markets.