The digital revolution is transforming financial services. The total global FinTech investments exceeded the 100 billion mark in 2018. More than doubling the amount invested in 2017. Impressive amounts but what about the most pressing issue today: climate change? Ant Forest is an inspiring story of how FinTech can do good for society and the planet.
You are not familiar with Ant Forest? The Ant Forest program is embedded in the Alipay app and enables users to collect energy points to save for virtual trees and ultimately for real tress. More than 500 million Alipay users participate in the Ant Forest program and are doing good for the planet. This is over 5% of the world population. The result of the program is even visible from outer space. The Ant Forest program has resulted in 100 million trees planted to date, covering a total area of more than 925 square kilometres. Equal to 130,000 soccer fields. This impressive result indicates the huge potential for other sustainable FinTech initiatives.
Mobile wallet and payments app Alipay is used by 900 million people multiple times a day. Mainly by users in China. To buy food, to pay utility bills and to make a bus trip. Ant Financial, the parent company of Alipay, introduced Ant Forest as a virtual platform embedded within the Alipay app in 2016. The main objectives were to promote a green lifestyle and to contribute to a sustainable environment. This by providing points for low carbon activities. Ant Forest monitors and rewards small reductions in users carbon footprints. Low carbon activities such as buying goods via a second hand sales app, saving on utility costs or taking public transport instead of the car contribute to users Ant Forest energy points. User spent these energy points to plant and care for trees in Ant Forest virtual garden. When the virtual tree is fully grown, Ant Forest match the users achievement by planting a real tree.
The app encourage users to reduce their carbon footprints and to plant trees. Ant Forest cooperated with many partners including NGOs. These institutions assist in planting the trees and providing calculation methods for carbon emissions. With technologies such as artificial intelligence, drones and satellite pictures, users can see directly the real impact of their actions. To see sandy plains transforming into forests.
As part of the introduction, Ant Financial committed to spend USD 79 million to support Ant Forest. This commitment made Ant Financial – the highest valued FinTech company in the world (150 billion) - frontrunner in sustainable finance. A role which Ant Financial takes serious as also subsequent actions indicate. Take for example the step of the Ant Financial CEO Eric Jing to join the UN task force on digital finance at the end of 2018. These actions underpin Ant Financial firm objective to harness financial technology to reduce pollution, mitigate climate change, and create a sustainable environment.
The popularity of the Ant Forest program and the growth in the number of trees planted per year is tremendous. The program was responsible for 13 million trees by the end of 2017 and over 100 million mid 2019. An important reason for this impressive growth is the direct and tangible contribution to improve the climate by the user. Climate change is an important topic in China as people suffering the negative effects of environmental pollution in their daily life due to the smog, desertification and polluted rivers.
Not only the environment benefits from the success of Ant Forest. The green objectives of Ant Forest align perfectly with the Alipay image as trusted and reliable app. Alipay users are rapidly planting and nurturing virtual trees. The initiative also accounts for other benefits as higher customer experience. Ant Forest users show high user stickiness for the Alipay app and maintain an active community. Friends interact activity due to socials features as watering each other plants and to “steal” each other points. Users write actively on social networks and examples of trips to their own planted trees are wide-spread. I have not seen these benefits translated in monetary terms but also these must be impressive.
The enormous success of Ant Forest may be an indicator for the potential for other sustainable FinTech initiatives. You may even ask the question if sustainability will not be the primarily driver for growth anytime soon. Climate change is here and now. We see the signs in our daily life. Record breaking temperatures, desertification and the loss in biodiversity. Kids are protesting and shouting for action. Highly likely that they are willing to pay a premium for - and in the future demand – sustainable initiatives and features embedded in financial products and services. FinTech may be wise to do good for the planet.