The idea of creating a better world for the new generations motivates Vahid to make a positive impact on the planet through renewable energy and reforestation by giving awareness, taking environmental actions, and creating eco-warriors – starting with his children.
Vahid Fotuhi is the Founder and CEO of Blue Forest, a mangrove forest restoration and conservation development organization. He is also the Founder of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), the largest and most active solar trade organization in the Middle East.
Vahid has 25 years of experience in the sustainable and renewable energy industry. He also published a photography book in 2018, "African Perspectives," after traveling all over Africa.
His personal experience of challenging circumstances created his fascination with sustainable and renewable energy. As he decided to move closer to finding a solution to climate change, he discovered that mangrove trees were not just a "scrub," but a nature-based solution to enhance our climate adaptation.
The idea of creating a better world for the new generations motivates Vahid to make a positive impact on the planet through renewable energy and reforestation by giving awareness, taking environmental actions, and creating eco-warriors – starting with his children.
During this conversation, Cory and Vahid talk about the significance of mangrove trees in mitigating climate change and their importance to the ecosystem. Vahid highlights why mangroves are worth protecting and shares the roadmap of Blue Forest’s reforestation projects, the challenges, misconceptions, and viable solutions to the deforestation problems.
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Cory Ames 0:00
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Vahid Fotuhi 1:39
I think most people think of tree planting as a feel good experience, as a feel good thing to do. And corporates you know like to put it on the website: yes, we planted a million trees, we planted 5 million trees. But the reality is that it has nothing to do with planting. Planting is effectively not solution. Growing is a solution. How many trees have you grown to maturity and how can you prove it? It's like having a child. You know, so yeah, I produced 10 kids. Where are these kids? What are they doing? What kind of education are they getting? How are they playing a positive role in society? That's the fundamental question you should be asking. Same with tree planting. Like, what mechanism have you in place to ensure that this tree will be there in 10 years? 15 years? 20 years?
Cory Ames 2:24
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always, so grateful to have you listening in. Today we are talking about how and why to save the mangrove Forests. And to do so I'm joined by Vahid Fotuhi, the founder and CEO of Blue Forest. Blue Forest is restoring mangrove Forests by leveraging AI and carbon capture. And as of now, Blue Forest is responsible for the largest mangrove reforestation project in Africa. Vahid and I talk about the ins and outs of reforestation projects, where often there's limitations, challenges, and perhaps misconceptions that maybe you and I, not intimately involved in, in this space, what we might be missing. But as well we talk about how they can be done right? And what sort of approach Vahid and Blue Forest have taken to their various projects now throughout countries in Africa and hopefully soon to spread elsewhere in the world. We of course delve into as well the wonders of the mangrove tree and why they are so worth protecting and so critically important to so many coastal communities. A very informative conversation here. Vahid has a wonderful story and clearly a sense of adventure with his approach to work and life. As mentioned, we talk mangroves, we talk parenting, Vahid's travels throughout the African continent, and as well his published work as a photographer.
So before we dive into this conversation with Vahid, I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. It's a weekly newsletter that I write and publish myself - thoughts, musings, and reflections on all things building a better world. Join in on our discussion of what it means and what it looks like to build a better world together. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next Better World Weekly in your inbox. That's growensemble.com/newsletter. Alright y'all. Here is Vahid Fotuhi with Blue Forest.
Vahid Fotuhi 4:53
Thank you, Cory, for having me on your podcast. My name is Vahid Fotuhi. I'm the founder and CEO of Blue Forest, which is a mangrove forest restoration, and conservation development vehicle, which means we typically identify mangrove forests that require healing, and work with the communities that live alongside those forests, and to work together on putting in place solutions that address the short term risks and challenges that those forests are facing, and put in place programs to ensure their long term health and survival.
Cory Ames 5:36
Well, thank you for that. And then I'll be excited to get into more detail about specifically the reforestation projects themselves, as well as talking about the wonders of the mangrove trees. But first, Vahid, I'd love to know what brought you into this work with Blue Forest? From what I understand this is a relatively newer organization. But you have spent some considerable time in the space of sustainability and renewable energy specifically. But to chart the course a little bit for us, why does Blue Forest make sense for you, right now as what you're starting to dedicate your time, energy and capacities towards?
Vahid Fotuhi 6:14
Sure, indeed, it is a relatively new organization. And that kind of happened in an evolutionary fashion, you know. I started in the energy sector then realized that, you know, the world is warming up. And that, you know, we have to promote sustainable energy and shift it to renewables. And I got to experience a lot of cool projects in kind of emerging markets, in Asia, and particularly in Africa. And the work enabled me to spend a lot of quality time in rural communities, and remote environments in Africa. And I was able to see some of the challenges that those communities are facing. And also, you know, come face to face with a lot of, you know, deforestation that was happening by virtue of the fact that people just needed to feed their families and, you know, basically cut the trees to achieve that goal, and how it was ultimately unsustainable.
So I decided to kind of look into ways where we could address some of these needs for communities and families, to provide a livelihood for their children, and at the same time, do it in a way that is sustainable for the forests. And there's a lot of reforestation, activities and initiatives around the world that is kind of like a flavor of the day these days. But what I realized was that there was an there was fundamentally a flaw in the way reforestation is generally carried out around the world. And that ultimately - and this is not the case for all reforestation programs, there are certainly exceptions to the rule - but for the most part, the reforestation projects that we see are kind of a numbers game, where they basically try to plant as many trees as possible for as lowest cost as possible. And this ultimately ends up in a quality issue, in that the projects are not carried out sustainably. They're not methodically thought through. And certainly, there is no maintenance and kind of evaluation that's associated with these projects.
And what this means is that, you know, the survival rate of all these projects is quite low. A lot of these poor trees die, because there's no post planting care. And so I was thinking to myself, there must be a better way to do this, there must be a way where you could find sources of funding and financing for reforestation projects that are long term in nature, that do have the kind of the big picture in mind and the 30 year horizon that a tree really needs to blossom. And that's when I came to know about what's known as the Voluntary Carbon Credit markets, which effectively is a marketplace where those effectively who are polluting the world are looking for ways that offset the amount of emissions that they cannot retract from their natural, existing technologies, and that they just cannot cut down so they're looking to offset it by helping fund reforestation activities in other markets. And this market is in fact growing. And there are more and more players both on the demand side and the supply side. Taking part in this with the ultimate aim of effectively planting more trees and restoring more forests over the long term. And when I came across this marketplace, I thought to myself, this is fantastic. We now have an opportunity, a vehicle, to be able to fund the projects for the long term. And since there's no dedicated company looking after mangroves, I said, let me start one up. And that's when Blue Forest was founded. And it's been an amazing adventure ever since.
Cory Ames 10:13
Well, I'm looking forward to diving deeper into some of the initial projects. And as well, why the selection for mangrove trees and restoring mangrove forests. But Vahid, I'm curious how this all connects? One, it seems like most of your career was working in energy predominantly. Right? And solar specifically, or a large portion of your career with with solar. And then, too, you have a book of published photography from your travels around Africa - I think it was 25 or so countries you listed there? How are you developing all these these skill sets? How do you feel like there's overlap together? How did you have time to publish a book of your photographic work and spend so much time traveling around the continent?
Vahid Fotuhi 10:58
Yes, good question. Good question, Cory. I wish I could say I had like a master plan from the beginning, but I really didn't. I studied energy and geopolitics at university. And that's in part because I was born in Iran. And I had to leave the country under very harsh circumstances, very dramatic circumstances because of war. And I was in the middle of a war with my family, and there was a kind of conscription in place where young boys would be conscripted into the military. And most often they would not come back. We had to leave, we had to flee the country, kind of very abruptly, to escape that imminent death. And it was all induced effectively, you know, for struggle between Iran and Iraq, over oil resources. It was really oil induced. And that really kind of created a fascination for me, between the role of oil and geopolitics in conflict, and this is what I studied and became really fascinated. And it was fortunate, too, I eventually get hired by BP, which has its own roots in Iran. And so it seemed like a perfect combination.
I was really enjoying the oil sector and all the, you know, at the time, all the all the kind of the aura that went with it. But at the same time, I witnessed two kind of two major disasters: one, which was the Texas City refinery explosion, which I, you know, I'm not sure if you remember that. But that was a huge explosion on refinery in Texas that led to the loss of a lot of lives. And not long after that you had the Gulf of Mexico disaster, which resulted in even more loss of lives and a huge damage to the environment. And this combined with the fact that I just become a father, just brought to the world my first son, it was a kind of like a wake up moment for me, whereby I asked myself, "What is my contribution to this planet? What kind of world am I creating for my son?" And that's when I realized that, you know, I want to be part of the solution, I don't want to be part of the problem.
And so I shifted from oil and focus on solar, and to try to develop renewable sources of energy so that we can peel away from fossil fuels. And at the time, it was a nascent industry, particularly here in the Middle East, which is really a predominantly oil and gas driven. But I saw the potential, I could see the fundamentals shifting towards renewables. And so I started working solar, I started the Solar Association for the Middle East, and really created a kind of movement. And 10 years later, it had become the largest solar movement across Middle East and North Africa, something that I had not anticipated. But by bringing people together, we were able to create that kind of force for good. And as I started to develop these renewable projects, I was shifting further further away from home, increasingly to Africa, where there was huge, vast land where you can actually build these vast solar power plants and provide electricity, where there's currently no kind of power being provided.
And that got me into some fantastic countries such as Uganda, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and others, where I was able to kind of get into these communities and kind of work with them on finding a solution using solar power. And many of the times I was I'd be traveling by myself, in part because no one wanted to come with me to these really remote places. And because of this, they were afraid of malaria, they were afraid of like yellow fever, you know, all sorts of dangers, which is probably you know, they probably had good reason. But I was like, you know, let's go out there and see what we can find. And being by myself and kind of having a lot of idle time I started to kind of experiment taking photos of different things I saw.
And being in these really remote locations and exposed to the very unique environments, you got to see some amazing sights and witness amazing experiences, which I captured, and down the road, I actually compiled into a photography book. And Cory I'd be happy to give you a copy of that book. But effectively, it's kind of a journal of my adventures in Africa spanning across 23 countries, from north, south, east and west, in different communities with different people. And it was a wild, wile era. Something that you know, it's one of the highlights of my life. That's something that I hold very close to my heart. And yeah, after that, continued along with the sustainability space, with the kind of solar renewable market maturing, I decided to take on something that's more closely related to climate change, and that is using nature based solution to enhance our climate adaptation, particularly to reforestation. That's what's brought me to where I am today.
Cory Ames 16:05
What awareness-- I don't know the ages of of your kids and you have a few more than just that first one you mentioned there now. But what awareness do your kids have now, to the transition that you made professionally, where it seems like you made this big shift in purpose? And then, as well, to the extent of that very, very extensive adventure and exploration of all those different countries, do they have a big awareness of what sort of shifts you made?
Vahid Fotuhi 16:34
I hope. As you'll see, as a father, you do your best to have a positive impact on your children, and to really kind of lead the way by example. And that's really what I've tried to do, by kind of embracing solar energy renewables, teaching them about solar power. I got them involved as we installed solar panels on our roof - we were one of the first homes in Dubai to be solar powered. And something that, you know, they were themselves very proud of. I got them to understand about the importance of using like, energy efficient light bulbs, and to, you know, to embrace LED, to understand the harms of single use plastic, and how avoiding single use plastic is so important to really try to make them eco warriors. And, to some extent is certainly working, they're kind of more mindful about the environment by conservation, about recycling, reusing, embracing electric vehicles. And I think that this, to a large extent, I have been able to, you know, leave an impact on their lives, and to kind of shape their upbringing, and for that I'm really, really, really happy about.
Cory Ames 17:46
I can imagine. And is there any sort of explicit tactic or strategy in your communication, as a parent with them around that, you know, to make them as you mentioned there, eco warriors?
Vahid Fotuhi 17:57
I guess it's repetition, it's repetition. You basically have to, you know, be consistent in your practices, and in your behavior. You know, when it comes to recycling, you have to consistently recycle, you have to consistently use LED light bulbs, you have to consistently recognize and point out areas for improvement and their behavior, about using public transport, about cutting down on fossil fuels about identifying areas where they could be more sustainable. And it's not like a single solution, but it is more about a journey, and to continuously accompany them on the journey. And to always kind of point out elements of this journey, so that it's a holistic experience, and it becomes part of their lifestyle.
Cory Ames 18:45
What are their ages now?
Vahid Fotuhi 18:46
The eldest is now 16. He's the first one - I cannot believe it's already 16 years have passed and he's now adult. It does flash by, to be honest, it does flash by. They say it, and then you realize it, that sh*t they were right. - it does flash by. The middle one is almost 14, youngest one's 11. And the beauty of having more than one child is that inevitably, their personalities are different. Some will be more embracing of what you're teaching versus others. And so you get to see it from different perspectives. And you get to kind of, you know, identify, spot what drives them, and as much as possible to kind of, you know, fuel their passion, fuel their curiosity. Just like, you know, I was curious and I fueled my own curiosity, I'm trying to do the same for my kids. You know, I dabbled with the idea of kind of bringing them to remote communities in Africa - didn't work. They stop where the Wi Fi stops, effectively. There's no Wi Fi, they're not interested. Yeah, that is kind of the children of today. And I respect that. So, you know, you learn as a parent to pick your battles.
Cory Ames 19:59
Vahid, it sounded like you were surprised with the momentum that the renewable energy movement got in your work, both in the Middle East, and it sounds like, throughout the rural communities that you visited in the African countries? What do you think led to the success and momentum of that that kind of caught you by surprise?
Vahid Fotuhi 20:17
I think ultimately, you have to kind of follow your intuition. At that time, I could see the potential, I could see that, you know, it was not economical to use fossil fuels to power your buildings and to use it for electricity generation, because solar power could solve that problem much more efficiently. And particularly if you do it at scale. And so you really have to follow your understanding of the subject matter, and to drive it home. And at that point, having had kind of an education in economics and market fundamentals, I was able to use the underlying market rules of supply and demand to be able to anticipate where the markets were headed, and to be part of that drive. I could see that it was not economical to burn fossil fuels for power generation, they would have to learn to love solar, because it's just much more economical.
And inevitably, if you point out the facts, they will kind of come to light and then see the merits of your argument, and kind of embrace it and follow you, as in making that case. And so I was able to, you know, successfully in the Middle East, and then successfully in Africa with several projects, unveiled and successfully commissioned, initially in the field of solar power. And then in the field of wind power, which I was really excited about. And I'm very excited about kind of replicating the same success and the same example, in the field of using climate finance, to fuel and to grow forest protection, and forest restoration activities at a large scale.
Cory Ames 22:02
Well, yeah, let's start to dive in there, and perhaps set the foundation with your tree of choice, which has been the mangrove. Can you explain for us, Vahid, just to make sure that that we're all on the same page? What is a mangrove, just so we can kind of visualize here in our head? What kind of tree that is and what forest we might imagine? And then as well, why are they so important, and particularly unique in the context of nature based solutions to climate adaptation?
Vahid Fotuhi 22:34
Sure. I like to describe mangroves as effectively the underdog of the forestry sector. For one, people don't actually think mangroves are trees, they think they're shrubs. They certainly look like shrubs, they don't necessarily have that beautiful, long, you know, heroic looking, you know, profile that a tree has. You don't see them on any dollar bills, you don't see them being used very often as logos. They're not pretty, you know, certainly from afar, they're not pretty, they don't look particularly inviting, typically dark. So it's not really like you would think of them as a forest or something is a tree. And that was experience for myself.
I go to like, Thailand or Malaysia, and we see these mangrove forests, it seemed like a spooky, dark area, which was kinda like a freak of nature, certainly not a forest. But because you know, kind of having grown up in Canada being surrounded by trees and forests, I was naturally yearning for kind of a similar experience here in the Middle East. And of course, being surrounded by sand, there's not that many trees around, understandably. But luckily, along the coastline, you do find mangrove forests. And so, you know, thanks to my passion for kind of trees and all things green, I was kind of attracted to these mangrove Forests here in Dubai, to kind of, check them out, see what's what's going on and get to go inside them, you know, kayak through them. And I realized, oh wow, these were actually pretty beautiful forests. And there's actually a lot of action in these forests, both in terms of like birdlife, fishing, animals, there's a whole party happening in these mangrove forests that I had not been aware of.
And it's quite a learning-- and also, you can already see from a climate impact as you go through a mangrove forest, it's a cooler environment, because it keeps the temperatures down compared to an area where there was no trees and certainly no mangroves. And so, as you look through the water, you can see, you know, an entire world of fish that are there because the fish actually lay their eggs inside the roots of the mangrove trees. And it serves as a nesting environment for fish to spawn. And this is why whenever there's mangroves, there's a lot of fishing activity. And this is what's the beautiful part about mangroves, is it's the only tree that can actually grow in water, that it doesn't need to be on dry land all the time, and in fact needs tidal water for it to actually blossom. And it can also be found in over 100 countries, which are tropical or subtropical.
So it's much more widely dispersed than you would think. But at the same time, it's also quite a finite resource. If you look at the entire forests' wealth of the world, the forest footprint of the total footprint of forests in the world, only 3% represent mangrove forests. So it's a very small percentage of the total forest reserves that we have, which represent mangroves. But nevertheless, in many countries, they're seen as the guardians of the coast, because they help shield those communities against natural disasters, such as cyclones and tsunamis. And so whilst they may be finite and little, they certainly play an oversized role, both in terms of biodiversity, for fish, for birds, for animals, as well as in terms of providing protection for coastal communities.
And a third superpower that they have, as it turns out, is that they're a great source of carbon capture. They're able to sequester five to 10 times depending on the species of mangrove, more carbon dioxide than conventional terrestrial trees. And so for every one ton per hectare that you're able to capture and sequester from a normal forest, the same forest the size, we're able to be able to sequester five times. So you're getting a lot more, you know, carbon capture per hectare through these wonderful mangrove forests than you would from a terrestrial forests. And at a time where climate change is more important than ever, and our efforts to capture and to sequester these harmful, nasty pollutants from the air into the ground, then the mangrove tree becomes your front line in this campaign, in this battle, as it sucks in more carbon into the tree, and is able to sequester it for over 1000 years.
And because of these wonderful characteristics that this tree has, you know, for me, it's a no brainer to empower the tree to kind of become a champion of the tree and to help it blossom, and to, at the very least, prevent it from from being deforested. Because the sad truth is that we have lost half of all the world's mangrove forests due to deforestation. 50% has already disappeared. And I've seen it with my own eyes. It's very sad, you go through areas - entire like, you can see entire landing strips from 747s that used to be mangroves that have just been slashed and cut down in many countries. And we've lost half of our mangrove resources already. And every year we're losing 1% of the remaining mangrove forests. And so conceivably, in 50 years, there will be no more mangroves, which means, you know, the coastlines will be bare, exposed, there'll be no more fish, no more birds.
It's a really, really sad scenario. And I'm just doing my part to kind of raise awareness and to A. stop the deforestation from happening, and B. where it has happened, work together hand in hand with the communities to restore those forests and to protect them for many more years to come.
Cory Ames 28:59
And so is it strictly development - building - as to why we are losing mangroves at such a rate? Or are there any other kind of more complex reasons, economic or otherwise, why those forests are, are being diminished?
Vahid Fotuhi 29:14
It's a typical human trait where effectively, populations are growing, everywhere, particularly in developing countries, they're growing at a faster rate, than, you know, kind of developed countries. And as it turns out, most of these forests are in fact, in developing countries, in southern countries, where the need for development, and the need for livelihood is more acute. And as a result, you know, when the government doesn't provide opportunities, and when the private sector doesn't have opportunities, and they live alongside a forest that has trees and there is a marketplace for those trees, particularly in the form of charcoal or construction material, then, you know, the obvious thing to do - I think, Cory you and I would do the same thing - we just basically take the axe and go to town. We basically cut the trees, so we can make some money at basically no cost, and help improve our livelihood, feed our children, and to get to get a better life that all of us want and deserve. Because there's no other alternatives.
But this pattern is all fundamentally unsustainable, and unless kind of programs and measures are put in place, people are just going to keep cutting. They're gonna keep cutting, and in fact, it's going to grow at a rapid pace. Because, you know, through kind of a zero sum game approach, people realize that, if they don't cut it, their neighbor will, and he or she will benefit. So it's almost like a race to the finish, where people are cutting the trees more aggressively, and for bigger purposes. It's no longer just for charcoal or for for building materials. Now, they're using slash and burn approaches to clear entire fields, so as to build, you know, crab farms, you know, fish farms, chicken growing farms, to do salt ponds, all sorts of more commercial, larger scale ventures, that are more kind of commercially rewarding, but also from a biodiversity point of view, much more harmful. And this is happening - it's happening all over the world, not just one country or region, happening everywhere. And this is why I'm trying to accelerate my work to kind of provide more sustainable solutions for these communities, so as to prevent these wonderful forests from getting cut down.
Cory Ames 31:33
I think that's it, maybe it's some of the most interesting nuance of reforestation projects, as tree planting very broadly is becoming more popular in mainstream. It seems like it's something that's tagged on to all sorts of small little commercial initiatives of, you know, people planting a tree for this transaction, this purchase of this product, or kind of any other sort of exchange, you know, oftentimes to incentivize or kind of sweeten the deal more so in a a marketing and kind of conversion standpoint in the business world on occasion or fundraising standpoint.
And so it seems like both there's, you know, just the aspect of the actual repopulating these forests, but then it seems like very, very critically important is essentially, you know, turning the faucet off on this rapid deforestation that's happening. Continuing to plant trees, you know, but also having to really mind you know, what is the origin of the issue? Why people are cutting them down? Why they are needing them for other purposes, than, you know, what, what seems to be our environmental, and so many other list of benefits?
Vahid Fotuhi 32:40
Absolutely. Honestly, I think tree planting is fundamentally flawed. I think most people think of tree planting as a feel good experience, as a feel good thing to do. And corporates, you know, like to put it on the website. Yes, we planted a million trees, we planted 5 million trees. But the reality is, it has nothing to do with planting, planting is effectively not solution. Growing is the solution. How many trees have you grown to maturity? And how can you improve it? It's like having a child. And so, yeah, I produced 10 kids, right? Where are these kids? What are they doing? What kind of education are they getting? How are they playing a positive role in society? That's the fundamental question you should be asking.
Same with tree plantings, like what mechanism have you in place to ensure that this tree will be there in 10 years? 15 years, 20 years? How are you going to make sure that if someone's going to look after it, who's going to pay for the post planting care? These questions are not answered by those who are doing the planting, and those who are funding the planting activities. All they want is a little sticker saying, "yeah, I planted a tree" or planted a million trees. And I think, luckily, we do have a solution. It is not, you know, a universally accepted solution, but the voluntary carbon markets is a solution effectively, the way I see it. The volunteer carbon market is an effective channel, to fund capital from the polluters to the protectors. And whether you like it or not, there's no better marketplace that can do this.
And it's much better to look at how we could tweak it to perfect it and make it more successful and more efficient than to try to smear it and say it doesn't work. I work in this day and night, I can tell you it does work. And I think more and more people should embrace it, particularly at the community level, as a way of not only improving their livelihood, but also as a way of protecting their force for the long term. Because frankly, there's no other way of doing it.
Cory Ames 34:46
Well, let's get into that more specifically with Blue Forest's approach. First to paint a picture, Vahid, what are the current projects that y'all are working on? And as well how you know using those examples, perhaps, do you secure those projects and get the bid, essentially, to be the provider, the reforestation expert on the ground?
Vahid Fotuhi 35:09
I look at it as almost like a dating game. If you're a girl, you see this hot guy, like, he's really cute, I really want to go out with him, you know, you start exchanging messages, you go on a couple of dates, you know, you start seeing, you know, they started kind of assessing you out in terms of commitment, is this guy serious, is he willing to commit for the long term, they make you jump through a couple of hoops to see that you have the commitment and the resources to deliver for the long term. And if they see that you do, then they tie the knot. Fundamentally, project origination works the same way for forestry.
You first have to identify the cute opportunities or areas where there are forests that require healing, and that has potential for carbon credits, then you have to do the courting game where you basically have to speak with the forestry officials and explain to them the potential, outline to them your capabilities and your commitment to assisting them in putting in place measures. They'll make you jump through some hoops, you know, they'll make you do feasibility studies, they'll make you do ecological baseline surveys, they'll make you do stakeholder mapping, to really to assess you and make sure you're serious and that you have the bandwidth and the funding required. And you do this, you come back from the roadmap, you know, you show them you are really serious, you want to do this for the long term, you want to tie the knot. And if your business plan is sound, then they will tie the knot with you.
And that's been my experience, to be honest. I know it's a bit unorthodox as an example, but that's been my approach to project negotiation to demonstrate that you can build a value, to put in place over long term roadmap, and to show them that you're able to, you know, deliver on your commitments. And in the case of reforestation, that involves feasibility studies, ecological surveys, stakeholder mapping, in areas where you know, there's a need for reforestation and conservation. And to just build partnerships over time. It's not something you do overnight, it's you know, 6, 12 months of hard work and a lot of tea drinking, a lot of time in shabby hotels and remote places with bad Wi Fi and crusty pillows, showers that don't work, you know, all sorts of stuff in your room, like just, it's not comfortable. But you know, you got to push your limits, you got to go outside your comfort zone to demonstrate commitment. And it pays off. And certainly that's been the approach that we at Blue Forest have adopted.
And as a result of this approach, we've been able to forge partnerships in several countries, such as in Kenya, in Mozambique, in Gabon, in Cote d'Ivoire, as well as some countries in Asia, such as Indonesia, and Myanmar. And soon we're going to be expanding in Latin America, going to places like Mexico, Brazil, and all of them with the same goal in mind, which is to halt the sources of mangrove deforestation, and to put in place livelihood programs that help provide the communities with better sources of livelihood, which then enables them to kind of be able to appreciate their forests and to conserve their mangrove forests.
Cory Ames 38:27
And so one of those projects I believe, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but in Mozambique, that's perhaps the largest mangrove reforestation project underway in Africa. Is that right?
Vahid Fotuhi 38:37
Yes. And that's been like a goldmine of an opportunity that's kind of like just unraveled in the most beautiful way. And Mozambique has one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, there's a single track that that measures almost 200,000 hectares. And that's currently kind of being deforested, which in turn is making the coastline a lot more vulnerable. And a year and a half ago, they had this massive cyclone that hit them, which resulted in over $2 billion damages. Very painful, very painful, and the country is now mindful of the importance of their mangrove forests represent, and they put in place programs and partnerships to protect and restore those forests.
We were fortunate enough to be, you know, considered and invited to forge one of these partnerships. And so we're restoring an area that's about 185,000 hectares. It's a huge, huge area. If you add up New York, Paris and London, you would fit all of these three metropolises within our project area. It's massive, and it has the potential to sequester 3 million tons of co2 annually in that one project. And so it is effectively the largest blue carbon, the largest mangrove project now in the world. And we're just having so much fun bringing it, you know, developing it.
Cory Ames 40:03
What does the timeline look like on projects like that? I imagine there's a whole list of milestones and things to check in on. But is it open ended? You know, we're going to continue to check in, you know, every so often, you know, whatever increment? Or is it something like, you know, we have this very hard milestone 10 years from now? Because that just has me wonder about the build long term reputations of you know, exactly what we've talked about with reforestation projects, how do they sustain and how they continue to be managed and protected?
Vahid Fotuhi 40:33
Sure, well, with these reforestation projects, there's always a defensive play and an offensive play. You start with defense, you start by defending the trees that are still in the ground. These trees have been there for over 1000 years, they're sequestering hundreds of tons of co2, you want to defend, you want to protect them from getting cut down. And so the first thing you do is what's called avoided deforestation. And that means understanding, you know why people are cutting the trees in the first place, and putting in place programs, livelihood programs, just providing them with other jobs, you know, other sources of income, so that they don't cut this poor tree down. So that's defense. And that's the first thing that we do. We go in there, we sit down with the community, and collectively, we identify what are the solutions to protect those forests. And we put in place those programs. And these are over long terms of 30 year programs that have to be put in place to make sure that what's there remains there.
Then once you've got the defensive game down, you go into offense, right? You do basically a topographical survey to look at the land that's been deforested. We do a hydrological study to see what are the streams, what are the flows of water, what are the tidal conditions, so a lot of science involved. You do a biodiversity analysis to look at what are the species of mangroves that existed to ensure that you plant only indigenous species of mangroves. And as part of this ecological survey, you come up with a reforestation strategy to identify you know, where we're going to build the nursery, where we're going to grow the seedlings, who's gonna do the painting, how you gonna plant them, how you gonna monitor them, and ensure that the survival rate is 70, 80% to demonstrate success. And again, the community is very much on the front line. They're the ones who are doing the planting, they're the ones who are monitoring.
One of the cool things that we do as part of our knowledge transfer agenda, is we use drones to do the surveillance and to do the monitoring. But we don't just bring, you know, drones into these countries and say, "Hey, here's a cool gadget, you operate it." Like no, we actually go to these countries, and we develop domestically made drones, locally made drones, using the engineering talent that exists, and providing the sensors and the little core components that are needed to develop those drones from scratch, so that you basically develop manufacturing capabilities in country. And then you provide them with the skills to operate and monitor these these machines that they build, so that they can carry out, you know, surveillance over the mangrove forests and to produce reports about their health and about the success rates.
And it's always very popular, because you know, people love flying drones and they love, basically, to learn new skills. And so this is one of the ways we kind of use reforestation to instill and to provide new skill set into these communities, and provide them with the know how that they can apply to forestry, and then extend to other industries as well. And it's, frankly, really rewarding. And really long term because the when you're there, these these contracts, these, you know, these carbon contracts are typically 20, 30 years, and you are incentivized to make sure that for 20, 30, 40 years, these trees remain in the ground, and the trees that you've planted, continue to grow to blossom. Which is really, you know, one of the key elements about the structure that enables you to, you know, and developers and community members to have the trees and the forest, you know, at the heart of what they do, and to ensure that they're safeguarded for the long term.
Cory Ames 44:18
What's the maturation timeline for a mangrove tree?
Vahid Fotuhi 44:23
Minimum 10 years. You want to really look after the tree for 10 years, you know, to get over that 10 year hurdle. And if after 15 years, I think the tree is on its way. So fully mature, I think it's 15 and above, and you want to look out for it for at least 10 years.
Cory Ames 44:39
So it seems like, as you've reiterated multiple times, an important, important component of finding who your local stakeholders are. And as well, you know, as you said, just from the livelihood component, you know, that's a critical component to turn the faucet off on the deforestation in your defensive phase from the beginning. But what sort of approaches are you taking to find local stakeholders or community members? You know, do you find that that's explicitly necessary? And like, who do you look for? You know, is it outside the realm of, you know, strictly, you know, the governing bodies in that, you know, those various municipalities? Who are you looking to get in contact with to help build connection with the local communities that you're working in?
Vahid Fotuhi 45:24
Sure. So in this sense, it was very similar to what I was doing in the solar area, when I was building solar power plants. There, too, you have to first figure out where you're gonna plant this solar project, who's gonna provide the land, and who's going to provide the skill set. And this typically starts with town halls, typically under a baobab tree, or some sort of outdoor community area where everyone kind of gets together and starts talking, and ultimately work towards consensus. And so the same consensus building approach that I use when I was building solar power plants I'm using to effectively put in place forest restoration programs. Where someone helps you identify who are the tribal leaders, the tribal leaders bring the community together, they kind of oversee the deliberations and kind of help the discussions come together, people are given a chance to voice their concerns, their wishes.
And then over time, you kind of put in place a roadmap to say, "Okay, here's what we're going to do, here's how we're going to, you know, intervene. Here are the programs we are going to be setting in place." And the community will say, "Well, you know, we want to basically adopt more sustainable fishing practices. So we need kind of better nets or better boats, or we need more techniques, or we want to basically set up a fish farm, so we need this technology. We're dredging where we want to build a crop growing farm, so we're going to need some technology and some know how, some capital to build it." We've had an interest in an harvesting honey in one of our projects in Kenya, so we had to bring beehives and help them install the beehives and to basically do the harvesting of honey, which we can then bottle and sell from the community members so they can make money.
So there's several different businesses that you can help set up that are locally self sustaining, and which provide the community members with a source of livelihood. Now, one of the areas we're working in Mozambique, we're going to build a big promenade over the mangrove Forests and put little kiosks for people to sell, you know, little widgets, or you know, to sell meals, set up a cafe, starts to bring ecotourism into the area, so as to provide people with sources of livelihood, so that they can see the forest as a source of income by standing for us, rather than anything else. And so there's many different ways where the community can identify solutions. And Blue Forest, or the developer, provides them with the funding, and the training and the skills required to bring those programs to life.
Cory Ames 48:12
These seem like wildly complex projects. It's, you know, the one variable in one project where you're, you know, you're now starting these these small honey businesses as an example. I'm sure that all those variables continue to exist no matter, you know, whether these projects are in one country or another there's all these different, you know, intricate working parts. How are these, you know, maybe one, a really crystal clear roadmap is very important, but how are these projects so effectively managed, especially given the fact that you know, that there will be these variables that come up, especially on the timeline of, you know, 10, 20, 30 years?
Vahid Fotuhi 48:52
Look, it's not for the faint of heart. Project development is not for the faint of heart, particularly in the field of reforestation, and particularly, in developing countries, such as Africa or Asia. You want to really be going in there, you know, with your eyes wide open and ready for some adventure. Because typically, what can go wrong, will go wrong. And you'll have to just figure it out. But if you have a long term approach to it, and you just basically say, "Look, I'm gonna roll up my sleeves and get it done," you will find a solution because the willingness is often there, and the solutions are typically there. You just need to be patient, committed, and have a long term approach. And if you go in there with a long term approach, and you can do a mentality when things do go wrong, and as they inevitably do, you adapt, you adapt your model, you adapt your solution set and you find something that is more resilient, and more sustainable. And so it's really a question of mindset and having the right approach. And if you do go in with the right approach and a long term strategy, you will ultimately prevail.
Cory Ames 49:59
Are there any current limitations that you're seeing in your project strategy currently, like any problems that you're looking to solve? Or do you feel quite confident currently with your framework? Like what is the limitation strictly just the quantity of projects for you, you see as Blue Forest? Or where is the perceived bottleneck both in, you know, you're providing the service? Or as well getting the opportunities to do so in and take on these projects?
Vahid Fotuhi 50:28
Yeah, I mean, every project has its own nuances and it has its own problems that you have to deal with. With communities, of course, one of the often challenges is that if you go into community, and you're successful at providing benefits for that community, and they help protect the forest, the neighbor community says, "What the hell, how come they're getting all this good stuff and I'm not?" You either have to extend the benefits, or they're going to come and destroy the guy's forest, because it is, again, a zero sum game, and people are just like that. They're like, "I'm not going to benefit from it, why is my neighbor benefiting from it?" It often happens, you know, and so you have to really have like a holistic approach and kind of inclusive approach to make sure everyone has a seat at the table, not just the people immediately along the side of the forest, but on the periphery, who can mess up your plants as well.
And you really have to have this, you know, open minded and inclusive approach towards your stakeholders, because they could torpedo your project faster than you could blink. So that's certainly one of the problems, one of the challenges that we've had to overcome is that people don't want to be left out. And if you provide benefits to some, everyone else is going to want it. And you need to figure out how are you gonna sustainably distribute the benefits. So that's one problem. The other problem is that, of course, you know, the carbon market is a marketplace, and prices go up and down. And, you know, should project prices, carbon prices, drop below a certain level, say, $10, then you're going to have to struggle to provide those programs to those people to keep the trees in the ground.
So that's another thing that you need to really be mindful of how you're gonna structure, your commercial agreements to ensure that you have at least a baseline price to keep the lights on and to keep the programs in place, so that your trees don't get cut down. So lots of different challenges. But you know, fundamentally, it's very rewarding, because you're not only saving trees, you're actually improving livelihoods, you know, the kids grow up healthier, happier, more educated. And you know, you're able to do this from your day job, you know, it's very rewarding, I definitely enjoy getting up every morning. And I really am grateful to be able to have an impact that's not only you know, helping our planet, but also helping people in very remote communities.
Cory Ames 52:53
It seems to me, Vahid, and I may be wrong, but of course, the purpose is clearly there in the work that you do, it's very meaningful. And the tangible results that these communities and the world receives are very cut and clear as to why you do the work that you do. But I sense as well, that there's some sort of thrill for the adventure, that seems to appeal to you personally, from the whole courting process, you know, time spent in the shabby hotels, all the tea drinking and figuring out the nuances of the communities that you're working with, to as well the variables that come with the projects for years to come. Is that something that I'm sensing correctly? Or would that not be a way that you describe yourself as someone who's a bit adventurous?
Vahid Fotuhi 53:40
I mean, definitely, you're spot on Cory. I mean, this work is not for the faint of heart. But if you're the type that likes to-- that's okay with discomfort, and that's okay with risk and exposing yourself to potentially very, very compromising situations and then seeing what happens, then yeah, this is for you. So you really need to have that kind of Indiana Jones approach. Because no, it is kind of an Indiana Jones lifestyle, in that things could go terribly wrong and they could be very bad repercussions. But you have to just get out, go for it and hope for the best. And you know, I've been doing it for 20 years. And so far, so good. I'm still alive, I got all my fingers, no major diseases, and frankly, I'm a better man for it. So you do need to have an adventurous spirit to excel in this field. But if you do, it's a very rewarding line of work. And one which provides you with lots of anecdotes that you could tell your friends over drinks, over beers, on the weekend.
Cory Ames 54:45
Well, one thing that has really stuck with me, I'm just so curious to ask. It seems like the family situation you had growing up, obviously wildly complex, your family had to flee Iran and it sounds like you ended up growing up in Canada. What were your parents like? How does that maybe connect your upbringing to what it is that you do now?
Vahid Fotuhi 55:06
Yeah, well, good question. I mean, my parents were in very much like firefighting mode. We came from a family of six children. That's six mouths to feed, and you can't even speak the language. It's tough work. It's tough work, my mom had to do two jobs, I barely saw her. Culturally, it was very difficult. And so they ended up getting separated, made it even more complicated. So you didn't really have the support system in place to that you would typically expect. But you know, I think that ultimately helped develop me to the person I am today where, you know, I don't necessarily depend on a support system. I'm happy to fend for myself, and to make the best of difficult situations. And certainly, that is kind of the reason why I have been able to excel in these difficult situations with very little support mechanisms. And I think that's, you know, that's definitely one of the factors that has made me the person I am today.
Cory Ames 56:10
Well, thank you so much for sharing. Vahid, I really appreciate you taking the time with me here today. I want to be respectful of it. So before we wrap up, do you mind if I ask you a couple rapid fire questions?
Vahid Fotuhi 59:12
Cory Ames 59:14
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All right. So first one for you, what's maybe a book, film or other resource that impacted you recently, or maybe something you always come back to that you might recommend to our listeners?
Vahid Fotuhi 57:41
I read the Walt Disney -- I forget the name, but the CEO of Walt Disney wrote an autobiography of his time. 20 years that he was at ABC News, and then he was the CEO of Disney. I thought that was a fascinating book about how you can effectively rise up the ranks of a global brand that's already very well established. And to help it reinvent itself through the acquisition of Marvel Comics, Lucas Films, and a number of other kind of brands that has enabled it to kind of thrive, really through innovation. And now they have Disney Plus, which is also a streaming channel. And so it really taught me to embrace innovation. And so as soon as I started Blue Forest, I decided to really determine what are the most innovative remote sensing technologies, to accelerate the mapping of the capturing of mangrove forests, and to using artificial intelligence and machine learning to accelerate how I can identify hotspots in deforestation, so as to always be on the cutting edge, because if you're not innovating, you're gonna be left behind.
Cory Ames 59:00
Good recommendation. Next one for you, what's maybe one morning routine or daily habit that you absolutely have to stick to, if anything?
Vahid Fotuhi 59:10
It's a hard work I do. It's honestly mentally draining. And I find what really helps is a morning jog. So I typically wake up at six o'clock, and I go for a jog. And that's like turning on the engine. The morning jog for me, it's turning on the engine. By 6:45 the engine is raging. And so I just sit down from like six to 10, I do my best work. And then from 10am It's basically a downward cycle.
Cory Ames 59:41
Sounds like you've found your sweet spot. And I imagine that with everywhere you've been in the world across your life that you've you've had some very satisfying morning jogs. So, a last one for you, Vahid, and this is, I guess, very specific to you: of the 20 plus countries that you visited in Africa, what would be one that you'd recommend people should visit?
Vahid Fotuhi 1:00:02
Okay. That's a hard question. Because you know, indeed, there's a lot of them. All of them are unique.
Cory Ames 1:00:08
You could do a top couple if you want.
Vahid Fotuhi 1:00:10
Okay, well, look, I think people typically, they don't give enough credit to the countries in Africa. I think Africa has some stunning, stunning countries with beautiful nature, most kind, wonderful people. And so I would recommend exploring Kenya, which is a very soft landing for kind of people who've never been to Africa. Further afield, Uganda is a wonderful country, the kindest people, vast open horizons. Further north you have Rwanda, which is like effectively, like a bastion of sophistication and comforts within the African continent. If you're into western Africa, at the French speaking countries, Cote d'Ivoire, it's beautiful, very sophisticated, you have the European cuisine and the flair with the African touch, which is just beautiful. If you're more into Latin and Portuguese, you're going to love Mozambique and colors, the spices, the kind of creativity and the passion that you find in a country like Mozambique. And so it really is, you know, an amazing continent full of wonderful, wonderful cultures, landscapes, cuisines that I highly recommend you visit.
Cory Ames 1:01:30
Excellent, great list. And I guess, one final question here, I want to make sure you get as well, what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with these folks are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it, what might you part us with?
Vahid Fotuhi 1:01:49
I would recommend what I have done myself, which is really go on the fringes of the marketplace, where the market has yet to develop, and to be a first mover. To plant the seeds, to build the relationships, because that's how you're going to have long term growth. And to be able to be really competitive. So find out whatever you're doing, find the markets that have the potential to develop and to grow, but that are not there, and just camp out there and spend time, you know, do what I've done, and it will ultimately bear fruit.
Cory Ames 1:02:25
Unique and compelling advice for us to end on. Vahid, where should folks keep up with you and Blue Forest? Where are the best places to follow along?
Vahid Fotuhi 1:02:33
Yes, you can follow Blue Forest and myself on LinkedIn. That's where I'm probably most active. I'm also on Twitter. Blue Forest also has an Instagram and so on all these three channels you can keep up with our activities. Tomorrow is World Ocean Day, we'll be unveiling some stuff onto our socials, and we'd like to create a movement. And so if you're interested in mangroves, get in touch. We'd love to hear from you.
Cory Ames 1:03:01
Excellent. We'll have all things Blue Forest and you, Vahid, linked up in our show posts at socialentrepreneurship.fm and growensemble.com. Thanks so much, Vahid.
Vahid Fotuhi 1:03:11
Thank you for having me, Cory. It's been great.
Cory Ames 55:44
All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.
Founder & Chief Executive
Vahid Fotuhi has 25 years of experience in the renewable energy industry in Africa, Middle East and Central Asia. His background covers every aspect of the renewables value chain, including strategy, project origination, financing, construction and asset management.
Before joining SOURCE Global, Vahid was Managing Director of Access Power, a leading developer, owner and operator of renewable energy assets in Africa and Central Asia where he focused on deal origination. During his six years at Access Power he originated, developed and helped finance (equity and debt) greenfield solar and wind power projects in 12 emerging markets, delivering over $600m worth of clean energy assets in partnership with EBRD, CDC, Proparco, FMO, and Total.
Prior to this, he spent 8 years at BP during which time he held several Executive level positions, including the regional head of BP Solar for the Middle East, the region’s largest solar systems provider. He also led BP’s Integrated Supply & Trading (IST) analytics team in Dubai where he ran quantitative assessments for MENA investment opportunities.
Vahid is the Founder of the Middle East Solar Industry Association (MESIA), the largest and most active solar trade organization in the Middle East, established in 2009.
Following a decade of travels across 25 countries in Africa, Vahid published his first book in 2018 entitled "African Perspectives" which vividly illustrates all that is beautiful about Africa.
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