From landowner to land steward – how companies can use data to enhance nature

We talk to digital activist and tech entrepreneur Jaya Chakrabarti about connecting business to communities to regenerate nature.

Joanna Watson18 Mar 2021

“If corporates were human, I’d say they were basically sociopathic “says Jaya Chakrabarti from Vana, the afforestation data app. “Because they exist to maximise shareholder value and minimise risks, they often prioritise profit over the needs of the people and the environment”.

So how does a digital activist and tech entrepreneur harness her drive for corporate transparency and open data and get through the door to talk to businesses about planting trees and nature regeneration?

Head shot of Jaya Chakrabarti
Head shot of Jaya Chakrabarti © Jaya Chakrabarti

Engaging business with communities to transform the natural environment

Although her previous work had taken her into the dark side of human rights abuse, Jaya had a lightbulb moment when her research into company data showed unused potential in their land holdings. Could she use digital technology to identify woodland potential on this land and connect to community groups wanting to plant trees and help regenerate nature? This is Vana in a nutshell - engaging business with community to take practical steps to transform the environment.  

“I think of a company as a body. The head is the Board, making decisions about finance, and profits and money. But the heart is its people. They’re community members, parents, humans who want a safe place to live and rear their children, who want to feel they’re doing good”.  

Using the heart to get to the head

As Jaya delved in land registry data, she realised that over 20% of land identified by Friends of the Earth as potential woodland is owned by corporates but often just sits on their books, with very little understanding of how it is currently being used. This insight led her to research options and prototype a user experience that could persuade a company to move from being a passive landowner to an active land steward, championing regenerative practices. 

Aerial view of Bristol green belt
Aerial view of Bristol green belt © Geofutures

“The corporates have the land but don’t know what to do with it. I can give them the data to make good and informed decisions and start conversations with people who are passionate about their local area and interested in restoration and regeneration. This is the core mission of the Vana project”. Small beginnings - though Jaya doesn’t set national limits to her vision.   

She sees that many businesses are not yet joining up across all their areas of activity and this can be a barrier, if for instance, the company isn’t thinking about sustainability in relation to the assets in its portfolio.  “So you appeal to the heart – the part of the company that is there to promote sustainability and worry about reputation. And when you’re in there, you talk to the head by using persuasive data to create a business benefit.

“Vana is not only a tech solution. It’s a way to use compelling data to penetrate that membrane.  We have learned what makes a good collaboration. Creating a value proposition to empower a company to see things differently and to develop a broader understanding of its place in the ecosystem. “

On parallel tracks

People planting trees on Ben Moss land
People planting trees on Ben Moss land

Which is where Friends of the Earth comes in. We had been on a parallel track in developing tools to identify woodland opportunity and our paths crossed. We were looking at how to use a data tool to connect community activists with landowners. Jaya’s insight that she could use a company’s own data to connect it to communities to bring mutual benefits chimed with our thinking. Jaya had the vision, the technical competence and the drive. A meeting with Mary Stevens, Friends of the Earth’s innovation programme lead, helped her settle round her pitch.

Mary supported her in a successful funding bid, helping her organise her thoughts and linking her to our extensive network in the South West. We were able to accelerate her project by connecting her to the data in our soon to be launched woodland mapping tool (now live).   “Mary has been awesome. She knows how to extract what we’re doing and turn it into something meaningful. We secured the funding on the back of the mission deck she helped us create. She knows the lay of the land and making connections.  I don’t know how far we would’ve got without Friends of the Earth.” 

So what next?

Data can provide the evidence for what works. Vana wants to make it easy to see the link between profit and a hopeful future which is evidence-based and scientifically sound.  

Jaya is developing the business model and is looking for corporate partners to fund the next stage. If you have been inspired by this passionate data evangelist and avid environmentalist and want to find out more, contact Jaya Chakrabarti  [email protected]

Get someone to plant a tree and you can go on to have much more complex conversations about their business practices.

For more insight about Friends of the Earth’s work on finding land for trees,