Think Before You “Do Good”
A prerequisite in Rocket Science is not required.
This article is about not giving up on your intellectual capacity to analyze things for what they are and not for how they are made to look, and it is also about Ghaf trees.
Advocacy work can be lonely, time consuming and definitely not financially rewarding. I am not somebody who is eager to take it on, nor am I somebody who is financially secure. Our organization does not currently have a single paying member (despite offering a membership option of $11 per year) and does not pay salaries. Three and a half years ago when I officially first set it up (we only instated paid membership options in July of this year), I did not do it because I had a revenue generating “business” model; I did it because there was a need for it. I am not laboring night and day, risking my “popularity” because it is something I like to do, but rather because it is something I am compelled to do. Now that we have that out of the way, here is what this labor of necessity, i.e. this article, is about: it is about not giving up on your intellectual capacity to analyze things for what they are and not for how they are made to look, and it is also about Ghaf trees.
I was scrolling through our organization’s Instagram feed a couple of days ago and came across a sponsored post by CAFU. The post made these statements: “Give back to the world and our future generations,” and “our commitment to fight climate change continues.” This was not the first time I had come across an advertisement by the company. My first encounter with a similar advertisement happened when a lockdown had just been instated earlier this year and I was at home watching Youtube here in the city of Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE). The advertisement was peculiar in that it introduced CAFU as a “technology company” facilitating a drone plantation project. The CAFU I knew was primarily a fuel delivery service.
A simple Google search of CAFU, will render this result: “Petrol & Diesel Delivery In UAE — 24/7 Delivery Service,” thanks in part to the remarkable Search Engine Optimization (SEO) efforts by the “technology company.” Their Instagram account profile description is equally honest with a “We are the region’s first contactless fuel-delivery application making refuelling cars more accessible. #HappyFuelling.” To write this article, I looked up the video from which the Youtube advertisement was made, and it mentions that fuel delivery is CAFU’s “first step.” The description of the video states that CAFU “the MENA region’s first on-demand delivery app for motorists has partnered with soil, plants and drone experts to announce an ambitious project in a commitment to fight climate change.”
In the CAFU Youtube advertisement earlier this year, I could identify Marc Cirera, Founder and CEO of Companies for Good and Tatiana Antonelli Abella, Founder and Managing Director of Goumbook, the company behind the Give a Ghaf tree-planting program. My first thought was, OK, so this is how money is being made on the “social responsibility” front, but I kept my thoughts to myself; this was at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, and I reasoned that only a few people would be driving their cars now and therefore resorting to CAFU’s fuel delivery services, which were not being marketed directly in the advertisement anyway. I also reasoned that trees were being planted, so at least some “good” is coming out of this. When the recent sponsored post popped up in my Instagram feed, however, I could not keep quiet. Again, no mention of the fact that CAFU delivers fuel using fossil fuel powered tankers, and instead an emphasis on the commitment to address climate change.
So I put together an Instagram post and tagged CAFU, Companies for Good and Goumbook:
“Why are we too eager to show how we’re ‘giving back’ but not honest enough about how we’re taking away? Do ads like these help make us feel good about using fuel delivery services once we develop a positive association with the tree planting message? Fuel for thought.”
I am not somebody with 10 years of experience planting Ghaf trees (referencing Goumbook’s assertion in a reply to our Instagram post), but I can fortunately tell a corporate social responsibility fiasco or a scam when I see one.
“Our aim is to unlock the green in our business 🌱 Stay tuned! Our R&D team are busy working to cater to our users needs as more eco-friendly options become widely accessible for car owners,” was a response I received from CAFU’s Instagram operator. They made sure to use all the right buzz and eco words in the rest of the message: “Whilst we are busy innovating for our customers we are bringing Mother Nature and technology together to give back to future generations! By ordering on-demand fuel-ups to your car, customers are not waiting in petrol stations queues with their cars turned on & have avoided driving to the station = reduced carbon footprint.”
The “Stay tuned” bit I am assuming is a reference to what CAFU Founder and CEO Rashid Al Ghurair referred to as internal studies in an article dated 8 January 2020 in a local newspaper, where he said they found out that by using AI to route the CAFU trucks, the company’s service was “much more efficient than a gas station.” Al Ghurair also referenced that the research is being done by a “third party” and that it will be shared with the public once done. According to the same article, written by Chief Reporter Ashley Hammond, Al Ghurair is on a mission to plant a million Ghaf trees, prompted by the devastating effects of the wildfires in the Amazon last year. This seemingly altruistic concern is also made clear in the sponsored Instagram post and Youtube video. Al Ghurair is also willing “to outsource [this technology] to areas that have been ravaged by recent wildfires in the Amazon and Australia for free,” should the company’s experimentation prove successful of course. Hammond makes no mention of the existing tried and tested drone tree planting technology elsewhere in the world.
That drones could be used to plant trees was not something new to me. I was already made aware of the possibility through videos I had come across a number of years ago (if you look on Youtube you can find posts from 3 and 5 years ago by startups like Droneseed and Biocarbon Engineering/ Dendra Systems). So, I wanted to understand what else our local “technology company” had to offer. Let’s assume that by undertaking this Ghaf tree drone planting initiative CAFU is addressing the challenge of specifically planting the Ghaf tree on a mass scale. According to Hammond, even though the Ghaf tree is suited for the UAE’s climate and desert, and requires very little water to survive, “only one seed in 5,000 actually take route” because insects eat them. Hammond makes no mention of the fact that “land owners and scientists agree that numbers [of Ghaf trees] have been reduced over the last few decades, due to overgrazing, coppicing, urban expansion, and reduced access to ground water,” according to research published in January 2005 by Dr David Gallacher and Dr Jeffrey Hill with the financial and administrative support from Zayed University.
I went ahead and looked up data on the state of the UAE’s ground water. An article by a Staff Reporter at the same local newspaper published in March 2015, cites a report published the previous month by UAE University, which states that “available groundwater [in the UAE] is estimated to last between 16 to 36 years,” clarifying further that “the year 2030, could be the first year with no more supply from groundwater resources.” Meanwhile, the CAFU drones are aiming to plant a million Ghaf trees in the desert, so the immediate question that came to mind after looking up and reading about groundwater depletion was, will the trees be dependent on artificial irrigation or will they be relying on the already stressed ground water supplies? Even if the trees are drought-tolerant, their roots “penetrate the soil up to 80 meters deep looking for water” according to CAFU’s own “CAFU Reserve” Youtube video.
Ground water scarcity issues aside, another fact that inevitably superimposes itself, is that a fully grown Ghaf tree is only capable of absorbing 34.65kg of CO2 per year, and this is according to CAFU’s own video. Also according to the video, one person in the UAE averages a carbon footprint of 15.7 tonnes of CO2 per year. This means that to neutralize one UAE resident’s carbon footprint per year, it would take 460 fully grown Ghaf trees, and for a humble UAE population of 9,890,400 million it would take 4,549,584,000 (4.5 billion) fully grown Ghaf trees, way beyond Al Ghurair’s stated ambitions of planting “maybe 10 million [Ghaf trees],” again, provided his company’s experimentation is successful. But while CAFU cannot be responsible for neutralizing the carbon footprint of all UAE residents, surely its Ghaf tree planting can neutralize its own carbon footprint, right? Here is the math: If it takes a fully grown Ghaf tree (a tree which is around 15 years old) a year to absorb emissions from 14.496 liters of petrol. Given that CAFU vehicles are not average cars, and that their weight makes for a reduced mileage. If we assume that their vehicle’s mileage is 8.5mpg or 3.61 km per liter, a 52km trip by one vehicle would exhaust a fully grown Ghaf tree’s annual CO2 absorption capacity.
In July of this year, CAFU announced that it will be “removing its delivery charges, in a move that is designed to adapt to the challenging times caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.” Antonio Al Asmar, General Manager at CAFU, “explained that the decision to move to a free delivery model is aimed at giving back to the community of customers and businesses that it serves, as well as easing their transition into a new world.” Al Asmar added “that the free delivery model is also a way to inspire a durable business model to thrive in a post-Covid era and compete in the future, which will work on the basis of increased volume of users.” He additionally boasted of a growth of “75 per cent monthly active users since April this year.” Earlier in February, CAFU also announced regional expansion to Egypt, a country with roughly 10 times the population of the UAE.
If CAFU truly was committed to “fight climate change,” should it have removed the delivery charge on its service and expanded its operations to Egypt? Is it not self evident that CO2 emissions have already been expended into developing the existing gas station infrastructure? Does it really take Artifical Intelligence for us to do the simple carbon offsetting math?
I took a little bit of time to look into what now seems to be a national or corporate obsession with planting Ghaf trees. The first recorded Corporate Social Responsibility tree planting campaign I came across was by EWS-WWF, in 2007, and it aimed to make the Ghaf tree a national symbol of the UAE. Following this, I came across article after article in local newspapers featuring the Give a Ghaf tree planting program. One article outrightly states “fact remains we need more Ghaf,” and proceeds to lay out Goumbook’s tailored corporate tree planting packages which come with the add-on option of a “private villa for corporate retreat/ function.” “Today,” Goumbook’s Abella states in the CAFU Youtube video, “we’ll be able to plant all these seeds with the help of technology and innovation.” Companies for Good’s Cirera asserts that “it will make a huge difference in the future of our planet.” Elsewhere in Dubai, a resident is having their 4WD vehicle’s fuel delivered, as well as their pool ice, single use plastic packaged breakfast, coffee, snacks, lunch and dinner, but they are making a road trip to the Mleiha Desert to enjoy a take out under a Ghaf tree for a change.
On November 20, a new article was published in a local newspaper explaining that CAFU “learnt a smarter way of germination process using seed balls that will protect the seed from getting spoilt by any mould or insect and will have better moisture holding capacity and nutrition.” The article also points out that since “a Ghaf tree is able to live up to 120 years, [the planting of 1 million trees] could result in over 4.1 million tonnes of CO2 being absorbed over their lifetime.” Still, no mention of the stressed ground water supplies or the fact that climate change and the impending rise in sea level may prevent us from living to see the day when we will be able to bear the fruit of this cutting edge labor.