Ant forest and low-carbon lifestyles

There is unique science of sustainability and its interlinked organs. It cannot be some sort of moral sacrifice or either the political dilemma or a philanthropical cause. Indeed it has to be a design challenge which currently our nation is undergoing. In the prevalent situation I believe we need to address this challenge by benchmarking the successful sustainable projects being executed and have positive socioeconomic impacts.

Thus, I conducted a case analysis inspired by the Chinese government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; Hanghou-based financial technology player Ant Financial Services Group introduced an innovative program called ‘Ant Forest’ on Alipay in August 2016.

Combining elements of the Internet, finance, and low-carbon lifestyles in a video game format, Ant Forest encourages users to take part in low-carbon activities like walking, paying for bills online, and taking public transport, to create virtual ‘green energy’. By accumulating this green energy, users can grow virtual trees. These online trees then get planted in real life in the desert through the support of Ant Financial and its partners.

This serves the dual purpose of promoting greener habits while protecting the environment. Bai Xue, senior researcher with Ant Financial, says the scheme is very popular with online users. “Currently, 230 million people are actively participating in Ant Forest on their mobile phones. Technology, which can be used to mobilize the public, makes public welfare activities easier. If everyone is involved, we can easily popularize a low- carbon lifestyle.”

How exactly does Ant Forest turn virtual trees into real ones? Ant Financial cooperates with environmental NGOs like the Society of Entrepreneurs and Ecology (SEE), and the China Green Foundation. We’ll (continue to) use technology to do more.’ This environmentally-friendly scheme has also inspired many mobile payment users, 60% of whom are under 20 years of age, to be healthier and conscious of their carbon footprint. A user reports, “I used to weigh 140 kilograms. Because I’ve been walking every day, I now weigh 100 kilograms. I’ve planted four trees with all the energy I gathered in my online Ant Forest account. Every time felt like giving up, the idea of planting a tree pushed me forward.”

Within China, Ant Forest has been responsible for planting a total of 10.25 million trees, which has directly reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.22 million tons. Ant Financial’s environmentally-friendly scheme is also in line with Chinese agricultural and forestry officials, who plan on promoting tree-planting and forest cover in the five-year- period starting from 2016. According to a UN report, China is also on track to increase forest coverage up to 23% of total land area within the next three years.

Having a glance at idea of Ant Forest, let’s get into more detail how this was germinated. In actual the above discussed sustainable project is a byproduct of the business, operations which contribute to society with an inclusive approach to financial services, giving anyone, anywhere, equal opportunities for financial investment i.e. Ant Financial.

In a survey conducted while designing a case analysis for Ant Financial I ask most people in China to name a location they associate with ‘finance’ and they may say ‘London’, ‘New York’, ‘Singapore’, ‘Hong Kong’, or ‘Shanghai’. All of these are modern cities with highly developed financial services industries. Historically in China, financial services have been readily available to wealthy urban residents, while poorer rural residents have difficulty in accessing these services. There is less motivation for banks and other financial institutions to offer services in rural areas.

The lack of a credit recording and scoring system means there is no way of calculating a how likely a person is to repay debts. ‘Pledging,’ a method of using existing assets to provide security on a loan, is also not an option in these areas. Both of these factors mean that financial institutions would need to take on a much higher risk if they provided loans to rural residents. Upon closer inspection Pakistan is also having the similar conditions in our rural areas.

Chinese addressed the above problem in highly technical, sustainable and feasible model. Alibaba Group launched its first financial product, payment app ‘Alipay,’ in 2004. Ten years later in 2014, Aipay’s parent company was rebranded as Ant Financial signaling a new era Of Alibaba financial services.

The name Ant’ was chosen to represent the combined strength of many working together. One of the most important aspects of Ant Financial’s platform is its open, shared credit system.

Ant Financial has developed this system through big data analysis, including monitoring of user behavior on Alipay and other Ant Financial products. Users are given access to different types of financial services Via Alipay depending on how good their credit score is.

Unlike traditional credit-scoring systems which else have a limited amount of data from a limited number of financial institutions. Ant Financial’s system makes it possible to score all users. Regardless Of where they are located and how many traditional financial services they have used in the past.

From 2014 to 2017, Ant Financial had provided loans, insurance and payment services to 160 million crop farmers and nearly 1.8 million livestock farmers. In addition to farmers, it also provided services to individual business owners and SMEs in rural areas. This impressed World Bank President Kim Yong, who commented: “It’s now easier for Chinese farmers to buy insurance than it is for me to do so in the United States.”

In addition to developing a financial services system that is more inclusive Ant Financial is actively supporting rural development in other ways. It provides loans as part of the ‘Graduate Hometown Development’ scheme, where university graduates interested in contributing to the development of their hometown can apply for a loan to help them do so. Only eight months after launching its e-banking service. Ant Financial had provided 400 million loans to 14 thousand university graduates under the scheme. Of these loans have been distributed to graduates in national and provincial poverty-stricken areas.

Besides this, Ant Financial has plans in the making to radically simplify financial services in other ways. For example, the company aims to reduce administrative banking costs for loans from 2,000 RMB to just 2 RMB by making the process fully automatic. Applicants spend three minutes filling in and submitting their loan application online, and Ant Financial’s system uses big data and Internet resources to process and transfer the loan into the applicant’s account within a single second.

In order to conclude, given the massive success of Ant Forest, Ant Financial is keen on rolling out a similar carbon-tracking scheme in other countries as well. I really suggest Pakistan to put forth such initiatives under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Moreover, all the above points streamline the similar initial conditions of Pakistan and China rural areas before the advent of such feasible idea thus its replication could also reap fruits for our economy.

The writer is a Master Trainer/Advisor at the Pakistan Industrial Technical Assistance Centre Lahore, under the Federal Ministry of Industries and Production, Islamabad.

Within China, Ant Forest has been responsible for planting a total of 10.25 million trees, which has directly reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 1.22 million tons.

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