Hands up if you’re not totally convinced that non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are about to take the world by storm.
There’s no doubt that the NFT concept has made its presence felt. Digital artists have welcomed a technology that enables them to produce single or limited-run artworks that can be bought and sold, with their provenance validated on the blockchain. Huge sums have exchanged hands and headlines have been duly grabbed. In the less rarified world of marketing, brands are using so-called utility NFTs to sell tokens and logos that also provide buyers with special benefits, such as loyalty scheme memberships or access to events.
The question is, of course, why not simply sign up customers to good old-fashioned membership schemes? Is there any real utility to the less-than-humble NFT? Or to put it another way, is there something uniquely useful about this kind of technology? Ben Whately thinks there may well be. In fact, he has set out to demonstrate that NFTs can be a force for good.
Whately cut his entrepreneurial teeth as co-founder of Memrise, a language app launched in 2010. While still working as Chief Strategy Officer for that company, he is also the co-founder of Angry Teenagers, a startup established in November of last year with the aim of doing something to alleviate the problem of land degradation. NFTs are at the core of his venture’s modus operandi.
The Result Of Frustration
As Whately tells it, the new company owes its existence, at least in part, to a frustration expressed by his teenage daughter. “She came back from a climate march and said fine, but what can we do to really make a difference,” he recalls.
The comment chimed neatly with Whately’s own approach to technology-driven entrepreneurship. He sees technology as a means to turn intentions into actions. “When waves of change happen entrepreneurs create products that unleash that change,” he says.
But what doees that mean in practice? In some sectors, 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 the environment? Whately sees an aspiration among a growing number of people to do something practical to alleviate environmental problems but he also detects a sense of helplessness. “What can you do?” he asks rhetorically. “You can eat less or fly less, but what kind of positive action can you take?”
Well, you could argue that eating and flying less is a kind of positive action, but Whately was thinking of was something more hands-on. And that brings us to NFTs. Whately’s solution was to create Angry Teenager NFTs, which can be bought and sold on the environmentally 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 an Angry Teenagers token and in addition to the visual artwork your money pays for the planting of trees in a geolocated square of Land. As the trees grow, you can track the impact. Ultimately, the trees generate cash through carbon offsets and some of that cash is reinvested in forestry projects. A certain amount is also returned to the buyer’s wallet, although this is also earmarked for reinvestment.
The token can also be sold, and access to the impact information passes to the new owner. But is there an incentive for secondary purchasers? 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 are also helping to make a difference.
All well and good. But given the rising pressures on Land – and populations are increasing in Africa – will this be any kind of a lasting solution or will the trees simply be cut down when commercial pressures kick in and someone 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 is 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 foundational 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 have a snowballing impact over time.
But perhaps the question of NFT usefulness remains. It should be equally possible to take donations for tree planting and provide transparent impact reports, without the benefit of NFTs and the blockchain. That said, it can’t be a bad thing to harness the allure of a trending technology in order raise awareness and fund a startup that combines revenue generation with purpose. New low-carbon blockchain platforms – Tezos one of them – are emerging, potentially adding to the appeal.