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Christian Kroll searched for his meaning of life on a world trip and created Ecosia: a search engine that plants trees. He has had great success with his social enterprise, and yet: Can Ecosia be an answer to Google's omnipotence? A conversation with Europe's first tech forester.
CCB Magazine: Christian, you founded the search engine Ecosia in 2009 after a trip around the world. Please tell us, how did that come about?
Christian Kroll: When I finished my business studies in 2007, I knew that I wanted to do more in my life than just a career. But I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do, so I went on a trip around the world to find the meaning of my life. First, I spent half a year in Nepal, then almost another year in Latin America. During this time, I realized that I wanted to help people who didn't have the same opportunities as I did - and that I also wanted to protect the nature of our planet. In South America, I drove past soybean fields for hours and wondered what was there before. Of course, I was already aware of all this, the monocultures and the poverty in other countries, but it's quite different to see it with your own eyes than just to read about it. So, this trip was very significant for me. I realized I wanted to help people, I wanted to do something about climate change - and that's how Ecosia came about.
CCB Magazine:In 2008/2009, the economic and financial crisis was the focus of world attention. Greta Thunberg had just started learning arithmetic. But you already knew that climate change would be the dominant issue of the 21st century?
Christian Kroll:Climate change has been known for a long time, basically for decades. If you read into it, it becomes clear pretty quickly, even ten years ago. But sure, the issue hasn't always made it into the media headlines. But deforestation and the threat to forests was also a topic ten and twenty years ago, and it was always in the news.
I went on a world trip to find my meaning of life. During this time, I realized that I want to help people who don't have the same opportunities as I do - and that I want to protect the nature of our planet. Ecosia combines both
CCB Magazine:Ecosia supports tree planting campaigns around the world. To date, over 135 million trees have been planted. Why trees and not other environmental projects?
Christian Kroll:Why trees? Quite simply because trees have a global climate effect by absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere. And they are not only particularly effective at it, but also very cost-effective. As a CO2 absorber, the tree is unbeatable. Trees also have many other positive effects. Let's take a typical one of our projects as an example: We are often active in developing countries and pay locals for the planting activities, so we create work locally. People can also benefit from the trees in the longer term; they can harvest the fruit of fruit trees, for example; other trees strengthen the ecosystem and contribute to the fertility of the soil. Trees are excellent water reservoirs and useful against floods. We always try to make sure we support regional projects that strengthen local biodiversity as a whole. The money goes directly into the respective projects; we hardly ever work with international NGOs.
CCB Magazine:And how can one check whether 135 million trees have actually been planted? You don't know every single tree, do you?
Christian Kroll:Yes, actually we do. We know where every tree we've planted is. Not the exact location, but the approximate location. We have close to 60 tree planting campaigns in 15.000 different geographic locations, and we pretty much know, there and there we planted so and so many trees. We have a dedicated tree planting team and a Chief Tree Planting Officer who manage and monitor all of this - by satellite, by app and, of course, on site.
CCB Magazine:Like all search engines, Ecosia is financed by advertising revenue. At the same time, you see yourselves as a social enterprise - which harbors a potential conflict of interest. Can anyone advertise with you or are there restrictions?
Christian Kroll:That's true in principle, and it's sometimes a difficult trade-off. Less advertising revenue means fewer trees to plant. However, we categorically exclude some companies, including oil companies and weapons producers. But there are also companies we allow in that I'm not morally convinced of, so it often takes a compromise. If we only allowed the "good guys" to advertise, there wouldn't be much money left over. Transparency is important to us: We publish our financial reports every month, where you can see how much we have earned and how much we have spent. You can also see which organizations the money has gone to.
CCB Magazine:Your business model is a mixture of for-profit company and NGO. 80 percent of your surplus income goes to tree planting projects. This is undoubtedly very good for the environment. But isn't that also an obstacle to Ecosia's growth, since much of the revenue is not reinvested in the business?
Christian Kroll:After all, it's 80 percent of the profit, which means we can already continue to invest and grow. We have the ambition to put as much money as possible into the tree planting campaigns, but of course it is also important to us to get more users in order to increase our reach. At the end of the day, however, we are a purpose company, we are not financed by any investors, nature conservation is at the center.
Google has a 97 percent share of the search engine market, while Ecosia has just one percent. This is a distortion of competition, and antitrust law is years behind. We could already grow ten times faster if there were fair competitive conditions
CCB Magazine:Ecosia uses the search algorithm of Bing, the second largest search engine after Google. How does this cooperation work? Is Bing involved in Ecosia?
Christian Kroll:The core algorithm is from Bing, so in simple terms the search starts from Bing, in addition we enrich the search with our own widgets. In the future, we want to integrate even more sustainability criteria into the search, which we are already doing, meaning that the search results on Bing or Ecosia are similar, but not the same. Yes, and why does Bing provide us with its algorithm? If you look at the search engine market, you find that Google has 97 percent market share, Ecosia has one percent, and Bing has a bit more. Bing is simply trying to increase its market share by cooperating with us. Microsoft, on the other hand, which cooperates with Bing, gets a minimal share of our revenue.
CCB Magazine:Ecosia has 15 million monthly users worldwide, and in June 2021 Google received almost 12 billion search queries in the USA alone. In this context, to speak of David against Goliath would almost be an understatement. Do you see yourselves as competitors to Google?
Christian Kroll:We might have a hundred million searches a week, but you're absolutely right, of course, against Google we're a grain of sand in the desert. Above all, Google also owns many of the platforms that we want to have better access to, such as Chrome, Android or YouTube. Google solidifies its market share through these platforms. Basically, it's a distortion of competition, antitrust is years behind. I think we could already grow ten times faster if there was fair competition. And yet we represent a competitor, or shall we say alternative, to Google. Our credibility on climate protection is our plus point.
50 searches finance one tree at Ecosia. The bottom line is that 5000 times as much CO2 is absorbed as is blown into the air. In addition, we have solar panels distributed on roofs throughout Germany and are therefore CO2-negative, which means that we feed electricity into the grid
CCB Magazine:Christian, you launched two other eco-search engines before Ecosia, znout and Forestle. With both of them you cooperated with Google, in the case of Forestle only for a very short time. Would Google also have been your partner of choice for Ecosia?
Christian Kroll:As you say, the cooperation was short-lived. From an economic point of view, it made no sense for Google. Of course, the reach of Ecosia would be much greater with Google, but for the future I would rather wish to cooperate with different partners. Sometimes Google, sometimes Bing, sometimes someone else. But unfortunately, we have to play the game of the big guys. The core problem is that people rely more and more on Google search results and let themselves be influenced. Google suggests book XY and people buy it. That's analogous roughly to having only one news site. That can't be good.
CCB Magazine:Google itself estimated that a search query on its platform causes 0.2 grams of CO2. How does Ecosia offset its CO2 emissions caused by search queries?
Christian Kroll:In short: through renewable energies. We have solar panels distributed on roofs all over Germany and are even CO2-negative, which means we even feed electricity into the grid. Our calculation is also based on Google's estimate of the average CO2 emissions per search query. For us, it is about 50 searches that finance one tree. A tree absorbs about 50 kilograms of CO2 a day, compared to the 10 grams of CO2 consumed by 50 searches on Ecosia. In other words, 5000 times as much CO2 is absorbed as is blown into the air.
CCB Magazine:Ecosia is unique as a concept. Are you surprised that no one else came up with this idea before?
Christian Kroll:There are a few smaller search engines that work for other things. No one knows who they are. In the end, our success is thanks to our well-functioning team, and I'm proud of that, too.
CCB Magazine:Let's be honest, don't you ever use Google for your searches?
Christian Kroll:Yes, of course, I also use Google sometimes. Some things you just can't find on Ecosia. But sometimes Ecosia is better! I do a good 90 percent of my searches there.
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