"We really want to be sure that we have a big influence with the money we invest. We can take technology and turn it into something positive, something for the environment and something for society in general."
Ecosia.com works like any other search engine. It differentiates itself by donating at least eighty percent of their surplus into planting trees. I spoke with Fátima Gonzalez-Torres, head of Community at Ecosia’s office. The founder and CEO, Christian Kroll, wants to engage in reforestation and has a heart to build up communities. 3,523,742 trees have been planted since the start of Ecosia in 2009. At the moment, Ecosia is involved in a tree growing program in Burkina Faso. Ecosia is founded and bound in Berlin, Germany.
How did it all start?
When Christian finished his studies in Business Administration he did not have an immediate follow-up. Not interested in working for somebody else, he decided to travel around the world. He noticed the disappearance of trees and the problems this caused. Among others, the book Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman inspire Christian to get to work. Being interested and gifted in creating apps, he created a search engine. In his book, Thomas Friedman speaks specifically about mediating climate change with the reforestation of the earth. It made Christian think; how can we plant as many trees as quickly as possible? The search engine got connected to a bigger goal.
Why are you involved in the region of Burkina Faso?
Ecosia is not only interested in planting trees but wants to help and have a positive influence on the local community as well. Planting trees includes a big support. It improves the soil on which the local community can grow crops. Growing crops means food and merchandise: initiating a micro-economy. The impact of planting trees goes beyond taking care of the environment alone. That is the impact we are most interested in. We started in Brazil, but we soon realized that there are already a lot of NGOs involved in this region. Therefore, we got in touch with WeForest, a Belgian NGO and their program in Burkina Faso. We realized that the relative impact could be bigger there.
The WeForest program works very closely with the local community. They select the seeds, plant them and get educated in agroforestry. We really like the fact that the program is very sustainable in its root and in its thinking. It is about empowering locals to create their own community. Because Ecosia is not physically in Burkina Faso, we are not the one with the expertise to plant trees. An NGO that WeForest works together with is called OZG (Entrepreneurs without Borders) and they are the ones executing the program on the ground. I think this collaboration is a good thing, we show our trust in the people working there. They are able to do their job very well without us interfering with it. OZG is part of the international ‘Great Green Wall’ that aims to plant trees across the entire width of the African continent.
How do you work together with the local community?
The NGO works with the Burkinabe people on the team. Saydou, a Burkinabe sociologist who is part of the OZG team, keeps us updated and sends us pictures. Since we plant more and more trees, we also need more updates. This has resulted in working together with Ouaga-Lab in Ouagadougou (the capital city of Burkina Faso). It is a community centre that gathers young people, mainly students, from Ouagadougou that don’t have a job. They try to create something and come in contact with a start-up in Europe. Photographers, coders, designers and many more talented people are involved in this.
How is the team of Ecosia organized?
We work with around 14 people. We are an international group of people that exists of coders, designers, an operational manager, people in communications and our happiness officer. She keeps us happy and takes care of all sort of things around the office.
One of the things that our founder Christian is very motivated about is to invest in a very open company culture. It is open to everyone to co-define who we are and what our core values are. We try to design the working hours around the people. If one prefers to work in the morning and others are most productive working from home, that is ok. Working with an international team made us introduce workactions, so called work-vacations. They enable us to be abroad but still work normal hours.
We have been a company for more than 5 years now. Other start-up may have grown from 5 to 200 people working in 6 different offices. We decided from the beginning that we want to grow in a sustainable way. Some processes in the company cost time and need to be done carefully and step-by-step to make sure that we all are going in the same direction. We focus on quality over quantity. We really want to be sure that we have a big influence with the money we invest. We can take technology and turn it into something positive, something for the environment and something for society in general. I think that building a company in this way is something very unique to Christian, our founder.
How was it financially possible to build up the idea?
We finance ourselves with the income from advertisements. At the very beginning Christian supported himself and paid for the costs. Tim Schumacher, owner of Adblocker, supported us as well. He is our co-founder and our adviser. He invests in social businesses.
We tried to start working with Google, they declined, and we now work together with Bing. We use Bing’s technology but we cover it with Ecosia. We did not buy their algorithm but we have a direct partnership. It is a win-win situation for both of us. There is a certain kind of market that Bing cannot cover and Ecosia can. It enables them to concur better with Google and Ecosia can grow.
What are the main obstacles that the company has encountered since the start in 2009?
The main obstacle is probably Google. Google is very well established. They have been there for years and they have managed to do something that many brands can only dream of. When somebody speaks about the Internet, people are actually thinking that Google is the Internet. Saying: ‘I am going to look that up on the Internet, means I am going to ook that up on Google’. This is something very difficult to work against. To introduce an alternative search engine is a huge step.
How is your PR organized?
We are founded and based in Berlin. It started with users from Berlin and then Germany in general. But word spread throughout the entire Dach Region (Germany, Austria and Switzerland). Now 10 percent of all the non-Google users in the Dach Region use Ecosia. All people that were somehow involved with Ecosia spread the word. It got picked up and shared both on and offline. This is what supported Ecosia in the beginning and continues to do so. We have a very active and always helping community of people around us that like to share and write blog posts. It is a very big pillar that we almost have little influence with and that is really cool. Since the end of 2015 we started to more accurately invest in PR, so talking to journalists, as well outside of Germany.
Fátima is from Madrid, Spain. She studied Journalism, Film and Politics and did a Master in Politics. Fátima was asked to be part of the team in 2014.