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Carbon dating: the power of trust and relationships in driving business strategy

Don Hoyt Gorman

Carbon Tanzania is a social enterprise that has demonstrated just how effective nature-based conservation can be. By developing and marketing high-integrity, verified carbon credits based on the protection of forest landscapes, they’ve been able to channel significant resources into local communities and the indigenous people who live there. By rewarding people for their stewardship of the environment in this way, Carbon Tanzania has established a paradigm that places a true value on nature.

We’ve been working with its founders Marc and Jo across several aspects of the brand and business as they explore the next chapter of their story. Could they build on the success of Carbon Tanzania, for instance, to inspire more people around the world to adopt a similar value-based outlook on conservation?

Our own journey as a business has seen us drawn more and more into such strategic conversations. It’s increasingly rare for us to simply take a brief for a rebrand or a new campaign. Far more often we find ourselves crossing the blurred boundary between brand and business strategy, a trend that has been exacerbated by a tech-fuelled trend for business reinvention that shows no sign of slowing. So we’ve been investing in new skills and establishing new workflows to ensure we’re bringing maximum value to these new conversations.

And so to Arusha, for a two-day workshop to identify and discuss possible directions for the new business that would build on the foundations laid down by Carbon Tanzania’s success.

Our eureka moment

From a practical point of view, the workshop was a creative exercise to explore possible answers to a single strategic question (agreed in a separate session prior to the trip). From a shortlist of possibilities, we would then frame further questions, hypotheses and tests that would enable the Carbon Tanzania folks to make an informed final decision about the way forward.

So much for the theory.

From an emotional point of view, this was a rare opportunity for those stakeholders (the two founders and their partners) to lay bare their ideas, hopes and fears for the future of the business in a safe space. The two-day format helped here, as did time spent travelling to the workshop location together. Sharing time together away from the Post-its and Sharpies was crucial to building the kind of trust we all needed to cope with the openness, vulnerability and occasional tension that characterised the workshop itself.  

Indeed it was the social conversations, particularly over dinner after the first day, that were the spark for perhaps the biggest breakthrough of the whole experience. Within the first few minutes of day two we’d all aligned around the fact that we were trying to answer the wrong question. Reframing the question as a way to protect the equity and legacy of Carbon Tanzania to date – without losing sight of the bigger environmental picture, of course – set the scene for an intense but ultimately far more fruitful conversation. Much progress was made. 

The honeyguide

The workshop over and next steps agreed, we got a chance to see what all this was about. We took a trip out into the bush to visit the Yaeda Valley and some of the Hadza people who have hunted and foraged in Tanzania for tens of thousands of years – and who now benefit directly for their stewardship of the forests around them.

Waking up in our bushcamp on our last day in Tanzania, I was lucky enough to spot a honeyguide, an amazing bird that has developed a specific relationship with humans. Honeyguides – as the name suggests – literally guide humans to bees’ nests, knowing that once people have taken honey for themselves there will be a feast of honeycomb and grubs waiting for them.

Jo has used the honeyguide in the past as a metaphor for the sustainability model Carbon Tanzania has created. People are rewarded for taking care of the forest, which, in the long run, takes care of us.

The love Jo and Marc have for their work is palpable. That was clear to us from the moment we started working with them, but spending time with them outside of business settings – and literally outside – was powerful. As was the sense that we’re helping them on the next stage of their personal journeys.

A stand-out moment was the day we climbed to the top of a boulder to look out over the forest. Standing there, Marc said: “Look at all of this: this is our work. This is the carbon, this is where it comes from.” The look of pride on his face was inspiring.

It was a privilege to have so much trust placed in us to go on this journey with Jo and Marc. The trust we placed in them as they took us out into the unknown for a wild camping adventure pales by comparison. But I’m so glad we did. The whole time we were driving back I was thinking: “When are we going to get a chance to come back?”