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Impact investing: a social for-profit venture that plant trees

A platform that allows organisations to increase their customers while helping their employees on improving their sustainability via SMART tree planting is what Hong Kong’s startup EcoMatcher strives to achieve.

“I have a passion for climate change. But I’m not a tree hugger though,” says Bas Fransen, founder and CEO of EcoMatcher. “EcoMatcher’s contribution is to bring in the right type of digital technologies and solutions, and to involve companies and consumers. We cannot save the world by ourselves. It is a bigger team effort.”

A native of the Netherlands, Fransen completed his masters’ degree in electrical engineering at Delft University. He went on a two-year tour of duty with the Royal Dutch Navy, in the submarine division. And moved to Asia afterwards, first in Taiwan at Philips Electronics and then in Japan for IBM. He eventually transferred to Hong Kong more than ten years ago, working for various organisations before launching EcoMatcher.

At one annual event, Fransen was dismayed upon noticing that delegates received wasteful paraphernalia like umbrellas, non-recyclable bags, and plastic pens — products that had a short shelf life.

It dawned on him that something substantive needed to be done to counter the damages done to the environment but would also benefit companies and their employees in the long run.

Established in November 2016, EcoMatcher becomes the world’s first tech platform where it sources trees from non-government organisations which are resold to companies in a tailored way so they can build their employees’ engagement and maintain their sustainability.

“It creates a sense of belongings. You make employees part of the sustainability journey of the company,” says Fransen.

When a tree is planted at one of EcoMatcher’s approved planting organisations, it’s captured by a photo so its location is detected via GPS tracking and for quality control purposes. Today, EcoMatcher trees can be found around the world, namely in the Philippines, Indonesia, Guatemala and Uganda.

Fransen manages a team of five, he and his colleague are in Hong Kong while the rest are all based in Bandung, Indonesia.

One main challenge that EcoMatcher has faced is allowing people to better comprehend how a green tech company like themselves can be sustainable.

“If I had been in a Fintech company, raising growth capital in Hong Kong would probably not have been difficult. But if you start talking about tree planting and sustainability, not a lot of investors care yet or understand the opportunity,” says Fransen.

But he is hopeful because Hong Kong is experiencing a change in impact investing.

“Some investors are getting on the bandwagon on diversifying their investment portfolio, besides properties and stocks. That is a good trend but this needs to be accelerated,” Fransen says.

Another challenge EcoMatcher has faced is finding the right tree planting organisations. Countries like the Philippines, Fransen was unfamiliar with at the beginning and therefore research and stringent criteria were needed prior to putting the EcoMatcher seal of approval. For one, Fransen flew to the Philippines to meet the staff, visited the facilities, and made sure that everything was on par with EcoMatcher’s strict requirements.

“We want the farmers to take care of the trees as if those are their babies,” says Fransen.

EcoMatcher has profit objectives. Scaling up in their operations means money is needed to do so. Having already established themselves with some investors, Fransen says this will solidify a more visible, successful concept of EcoMatcher’s vision with more impactful investors.

Asked whether tree planting is just a fad or a ‘feel good’ act, Fransen says EcoMatcher is not a charity.

“You invest in a venture where you can make money. You not only can make money but also feel good about it. An investment that touches the heart.”

Last December 2018, EcoMatcher launched its latest feature — TreeChat — a new and fun tool where people can chat with their trees. While this might sound weird at first, TreeChat, similar to that of a chatbot, replies back based on the queries sent by users. This feature can also be tailored to a specific brand like incorporating corporate communication strategies related to corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability.

According to Fransen, the beauty of the platform is that it has unlimited number of potential partners. Since EcoMatcher provides customisations, other ventures like solar panels, wind farms, and others can also be used similar to that of the SMART tree planting model.

“If you ask me, what is your dream?” says Fransen. “It’s to make EcoMatcher an impact unicorn out of Hong Kong. Social for-profit ventures like EcoMatcher can become a new stream of companies in Hong Kong. It is a huge business opportunity.”

But importantly, Fransen believes in providing a sustainable agenda.

“Sustainability is a natural way to improve your brand, as long as you are transparent about it. You can improve your bottom line, you get more and engage better with customers, and you can retain and get talents. Climate change is real, and customers and employees expect companies to do something,” says Fransen.