At the beginning of 2021, Rabobank officially announced its online marketplace for carbon trading: the Rabo Carbon Bank (“RCB”). Using remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, RCB aims to create a globally scalable and transparent solution for climate change while empowering local smallholder farmers, thus building on Rabobank’s origins as a farmers’ bank .
RCB’s key proposition “Acorn” explicitly focuses on helping smallholders in developing countries in the global south. Using the knowledge of business partners and interviewing experts and around 50 smallholders, Acorn learned that many problems of smallholders relate to land degradation and deforestation .
By leveraging Microsoft’s technical expertise in remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and machine learning, RCB aims to create a globally scalable and transparent solution for climate change while empowering local smallholders . RCB’s key proposition “Acorn” explicitly focuses on helping small producers in Africa. Using the knowledge of business partners and interviewing experts and around 50 smallholders, RCB learned that many problems of smallholders relate to land degradation and deforestation .
According to RCB, regenerative farming – particularly agroforestry in the case of smallholders – is crucial in tackling degraded soil issues and low rainfall rates. Acorn’s landscape approach to agroforestry plots can strengthen healthy microclimates, as trees and cover crops protect the soil from degradation and increase regional rainfall rates. The carbon sequestrated through these trees and cover crops can be traded as carbon credits. Microsoft was the first to buy Acorn’s high-quality carbon credits .
Acorn was created with the aim of “giving small farmers access to the carbon credit market”, said Strategy Lead Emma van de Ven. In an interview, Ms Van de Ven stressed that “small farmers are the most affected by climate change. However, the money from the carbon credit market usually goes to big project developers because they can be certified and be able to quantify, for example, how much carbon dioxide can be stored” .
Fig. 1: Old-growth agroforestry row at Sitio Semente (Brasilia, Brazil).
Acorn will bring together the demand of international corporates who want to offset their residual carbon emissions and the supply of smallholders who have captured atmospheric CO₂ through their agroforestry plots and converted it into carbon credits. Acorn’s objective is to offset 0.5 per cent of global CO₂ emissions released annually by 2025. To reach this target, about four billion trees must be planted by approximately 15 million smallholders worldwide .
Acorn’s ability to scale up its operations depends on finding a fair business deal with farmers. It is also contingent on the degree of innovation required for reliable and cost-effective monitoring. Understanding whether the smallholder is genuinely interested in such a revised income model has been proved to be a critical step for potential scale-up.
To define the project requirements, the farmers’ needs, and a valuable collaboration offer for farmers, Acorn has been running ten pilot projects worldwide. Acorn proved its ability to remotely sense, clarify, and sell carbon credits through these projects. It also found high interest in smallholders who want to participate and multinationals who want to invest in the project .