Is nature-based investing ready for take-off in Africa?

Conserving Africa’s biodiversity is vital for the continent’s long-term economic development, and the private sector may be poised to assume a bigger role.

Image : lnichetti / Adobe Stock

Thousands of delegates gathered for the 2022 United Nations biodiversity conference (Cop15) in Montreal in December, tasked with finding a pathway to halt the alarming decline in global biodiversity. The negotiations eventually produced a landmark agreement to protect 30% of the Earth’s land and oceans by 2030, along with a host of other targets to reduce the loss of biodiversity.

While the agreement was signed by national governments, private sector representatives were conspicuous by their presence at the conference. But financial institutions have increasingly been making commitments to protect and enhance biodiversity in recent years, giving rise to a plethora of new jargon.

“Nature-based investing” – where investors provide benefits to nature and ecosystems, alongside achieving a financial return – is the latest buzzword. At the heart of this approach is the acknowledgement that “natural capital” – in other words, the Earth’s biodiversity and natural resources – provides benefits, often defined as “ecosystem services”, to the human population.

Nature is clearly indispensable to many economic activities. In Kenya, for example, tourism is making rapid progress in recovering to pre-pandemic levels, when it generated over 8% of GDP, and the tourist trade depends heavily on the lure of the country’s wildlife. Threats to biodiversity and ecosystems in Africa and around the world are therefore an issue of profound importance for investors, as well as governments.

“We have been losing natural capital at such an incredible rate over the last 60 or so years, and the pressure from consumption and demographics is so huge, we are now at that point in time where there’s just not enough resources to go around,” warns Alejandro Litovsky, CEO of consulting firm Earth Security. “There’s a real question around the operating conditions for companies and assets that depend on the services that have been free for a very long time.”

The sixth extinction?

The gravity of the crisis facing nature has sometimes been overshadowed by the climate crisis (which is itself one of the main drivers of biodiversity loss). But the data on nature makes for grim reading. Over 6,400 species of animals and 3,100 species of plants in Africa are at risk of extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Globally, the scale of the disaster is such that many scientists argue that the Earth is entering its sixth period of mass extinction. This puts the current biodiversity crisis on a par with the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs 65m years ago.

The destruction of vital ecosystems across many parts of the world is the consequence of prevailing economic models prioritising short-term gain at the expense of long-term sustainability. “I spend a lot of time with African leaders,” says Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation, “and they’ll tell you frankly that ‘the global economy doesn’t pay or reward me if I secure forests. But they reward me if I cut down the forest and export sugar.’”

But when habitats are lost or damaged, it is often humans who pay the ultimate price. The devastating mudslides that hit Freetown, Sierra Leone, in August 2017, killing over 1,000 people, were partly caused by deforestation on hillsides around the city. As the city grew, its surrounding hills lost much of the tree cover that had held soils together and provided a natural drainage mechanism.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, Freetown has become one of the pioneers of nature-based investing in urban areas in Africa, according to John-Rob Pool, senior manager at the World Resources Institute. Among other initiatives, the city is establishing a ‘water fund’ as a public-private partnership to protect nearby areas of forest that provide Freetown with its water supply.

Other African cities can benefit from following Freetown’s example, says Pool. “Nature-based solutions, when implemented and deployed properly, can be really useful in improving air quality, in reducing extreme urban heat, improving the quality and the supply of water, in reducing the risk of landslides and flooding, and so on.”

Chinese minister of ecology and environment, Huang Runqiu (L), shakes hands with the DRC's environment minister, Ève Bazaiba Masudi at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference in Montreal
The Chinese minister of ecology and environment, Huang Runqiu (L), shakes hands with the DRC’s environment minister, Ève Bazaiba Masudi at the 2022 UN biodiversity conference in Montreal, Quebec. (Photo: Lars Hagberg / AFP)

Financing dilemmas

The 2022 UN biodiversity conference produced a historic agreement on biodiversity – but the conference concluded in controversial circumstances. In declaring the text of the agreement to be final, the Chinese president of the conference ignored the objection of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which was continuing to seek additional financial commitments from wealthy nations.

“We didn’t sign the agreement,” Ève Bazaiba, the DRC’s environment minister, said. “It is not possible for us to implement it. We cannot accept the level of ambition without more finance.”

The UN Environment Programme states that the private sector currently provides only 17% of total investments into nature-based solutions. It estimates that total financing will need to more than double, to $384bn a year by 2025, in order to meet biodiversity goals.

The fact that financial institutions are lining up to express their enthusiasm for nature-based investing may be seen as an encouraging sign. Gautier Quéru, head of the Land Degradation Neutrality Fund, which provides long-term financing to projects that meet strict environmental and social standard, says Cop15 has brought “momentum” to nature-based investing.

“Public money will not be enough to meet the objectives,” he says. “We need the mobilisation of private sector actors, including finance and industry. And the good news is that at Cop15, the positive mobilisation of the business and finance sector was really striking.”

A natural fit?

While the availability of finance is one part of the challenge, investors also need to determine what, in practice, they can actually invest in when it comes to nature.

Devang Vussonji, a partner at consulting firm Dalberg, says that the difficulty of measuring and assigning value to different types of biodiversity is a major factor holding back investment in nature-based solutions in Africa.

“There’s a lot the market needs to figure out,” he says. “What do we value and not value?

“How do we set a price around it? How do you compare mangrove populations declining to elephant populations declining? How do you compare tropical areas to temperate areas and so forth?”

For many investors, a possible starting point is carbon credit schemes, which are designed to conserve or enhance forests that act as carbon sinks – theoretically enabling companies to offset emissions from other activities. Such schemes are mainly intended to contribute towards net zero targets, but nature is a possible added beneficiary.

“There’s now a recognition that if the carbon markets have proven themselves, are beginning to take off, there’s good demand for products as well as good supply of products, then the same can be replicated for broader nature-based investing as well,” says Vussonji. “The first of those opportunities we’re seeing is piggybacking on carbon credits, so as carbon credits are being created or being sold, other ‘biodiversity credits’ can be added on to them.”

While private sector finance has an indispensable role in conserving biodiversity in Africa and elsewhere, another essential element is coordination between the public and private sectors.

Sebunya emphasises that governments and NGOs must help provide a pipeline of projects that investors can adopt. Even where funds may be available from impact-focused investors, he says, “finding the bankable pipelines that are shovel-ready for investors is a huge, huge challenge”.

The African Wildlife Foundation, in an effort to meet this challenge, has been working with the Rwandan government on ways to support the mountain gorilla population in the country’s Volcanoes National Park. With the gorilla population expanding thanks to the success of recent conservation efforts, Sebunya says that thoughts are turning on how to expand their habitat.

One solution, he suggests, is encouraging local communities to grow bamboo – the gorillas’ favourite food – as a cash crop. This would potentially provide a win-win solution, allowing locals to generate income from selling bamboo to companies that could process the crop into various products, while providing a food source for the gorillas.

Will life find a way?

Conservation will have to compete with many other priorities in Africa, including the need to ensure a food supply for a human population that is set to almost double by 2050. “You do have that trade-off between protecting virgin nature and cultivating food for a growing population,” Litovsky acknowledges. Developing agricultural techniques that regenerate natural ecosystems will be “really quite fundamental” to Africa’s future, he adds.

Yet it is worth bearing in mind that Africa has in fact been more successful than most of the world in retaining its biodiversity up to now. The continent hosts around one-quarter of the Earth’s biodiversity. It contains the mighty Congo Rainforest, one of the “green lungs” of the planet. Its megafauna have remained relatively intact, thousands of years after early humans slaughtered the largest animals they encountered on other continents.

“Africa today has abundant nature in many places and abundant natural resources,” says Litovsky. “If you think about those as an asset that can be monetised in a variety of different ways, as part of a long-term economic development model, then that can really create a very exciting prospect for how Africa can develop into the future.”

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