Philanthropic Business

Hi, My Name is Akon

This episode features Akon, the Senegalese rap superstar turned social entrepreneur, with excerpts from my conversation with Professor Paul Collier of Oxford University. We sat down with one of the most exciting entrepreneurs working in developing markets, and perhaps the foremost economist on African development. These are two heavyweights in their field, positioned to speak about how to think and do business in developing markets. We discuss how Akon started a 400 million dollar solar micro-grid company that has expanded into 17 developing countries in just three years,  expanding across Africa. Our next episode will feature more of my conversation with Sir Paul Collier, former director at The World Bank who has written five books including The Bottom Billion, as well as excerpts from my interview with Samba Bathily, the CEO at the helm of Akon Lighting Africa. Our article supplements these fascinating interviews, fleshing out the picture of what is working in Africa, and the new force that is socially minded entrepreneurship in the developing world.

How Akon Set Out to Become an Elon Musk for Africa

‘Hi, my name is Akon. I have done more for the people of Africa than all of the charities in the past 30 years combined, by providing solar energy to 80 million Africans in 14 African countries.’ The meme popped up in my inbox with the face of the Senegalese hip-hop/R&B artist staring into the camera before a field of solar panels. What could the musician, actor, entrepreneur, and the voice artist behind the triple platinum single Smack That have done to impact Africa? Memes are provocateurs, but when I spoke to Akon he told me that it wasn’t 14 countries anymore, today it’s 17. Founded in 2013, Akon Lighting Africa has already invested 400 million dollars in solar micro-grids in African countries. Akon’s excitement over the patchwork he is building across the continent is oddly contagious. While he speaks knowledgeably in the smooth intoxicating style of a voice artist, the substance can be all techno-entrepreneur.  Like Elon Musk, who helped build the largest solar provider in the United States (Solar City), Akon is a member of a new generation of socially conscious renewable energy moguls. Akon Lighting Africa (ALA) is rapidly scaling their business model, which is based on demonstrating commitment by providing solar systems up front, and structuring re-payment. This model allows the company to follow words with rapid action, and avoid much of the endless gridlock that comes with demanding large amounts of money up front. The success of a few companies like ALA comes just as multinationals from Barclays Bank, to Nestle, to Coca Cola have withdrawn from African markets in the face of corruption and a stagnant middle class. This is the unlikely story of how a small team of West Africans built a nimble energy company succeeding in some of most inhospitable developing markets on earth. In doing so, they are creating their own pipeline of skilled, local African workers through the Solar Academy founded in Mali in 2016. Economists agree that jobs and training are pure gold for developing nations, the keys to the elusive stability and growth they so desperately need. In an age when the West is becoming increasingly disenchanted with the power of aid and NGOs to create long term growth, the story of ALA and its operational arm, Solektra International, sheds light on the brave new world of social entrepreneurship creating an impact in the developing world.

The recipe for Akon Lighting Africa was not a single rapper. Akon is joined by two formidable co-founders, both of whom provide the ingredients required for success in a complex and risky undertaking. Thione Niang was one of 28 children born in Senegal. He began working as a busboy when he arrived in the U.S. with only 20 dollars in his pocket, to a U.S. college graduate, to the Obama campaign fundraising division. He is currently the Ambassador to the Ministry of Energy for Minority Energy Entrepreneurs and an ideal political/fundraising agent when Akon brought him on as a cofounder of ALA. His involvement reveals the importance of political support and investor perception for an organization seeking socially minded private dollars.  Mali businessman Samba Bathily is the man Akon chose as CEO of the organization, boasting long experience in the African telecommunications and energy industry that he brings to bear on the project. He started and runs both NGOs and private enterprise from his homeland in the center of the continent. Bathily’s deep roots in Mali is the reason ALA founded The Solar Academy Initiative there in 2016. This endeavor provides skilled, young African technicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs the opportunity to build and maintain the mini-grid systems locally. This represents the evolution of ALA as it goes beyond the installation of micro-grids and into the critical work of creating human infrastructure to expand the undertaking.

Perhaps the greatest roadblock to private sector growth in Africa is that to most companies and entrepreneurs outside of Africa, the continent might as well be Mars. And not the exciting Mars Elon Musk plans to land a Dragon V2 Capsule on in 2020, but a remote dead place, worthy of consideration only by the charitable. In this imagined place, all investments are speculative and morally fraught. African investment has long suffered from the kind of malaise and pessimism from which space exploration suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Paul Collier called it ‘sticky investment rating’: once a bad investment where private companies cannot innovate and profit, always a bad investment.  In his 2009 book The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done, Collier pointed out that, “The problem for the reforming countries of the bottom billion is that the risk ratings take a long time to reflect turnarounds.” So why did an American rapper whose previous investment in Africa was in a diamond mine sell the mine and start a renewable energy company on a desolate continent he left long ago?

In 2010 Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam returned to his Grandmother’s house in a village in Senegal where he spent large parts of his childhood. The son of a jazz musician who bounced back and forth between the U.S. and Senegal, Akon returned a national hero with the simple aim of buying a new house for the woman who helped raise him, ideally one with electricity. Shortly thereafter, Akon hit his first roadblock. “She didn’t want to leave the house that she had pretty much raised all of us in. You know, grandparents are really stubborn,” Akon recalls as he reminisces upon that first failed enterprise: moving an old women to a new house. The village to which Akon traveled in 2010 lay 65 miles from the nearest major population center, one of so many parts of rural Africa too far afield, and too poor for utilities to reach. Akon first tried to bring power to the village by meeting with his friend the Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. President Wade told Akon that such a major infrastructure project was, at that time, beyond the means of Senegal. So Akon traveled to The Middle East looking for energy investors to support the project. This was the moment when the entrepreneur explores the old broken way of doing business before he or she is forced to innovate. Like Elon Musk who went to Russia looking to buy rockets for Space-X before he built his own, Akon went to Saudi Arabia looking to build power plants. He found energy investors to the north of Senegal willing to fund the construction of several plants. Akon returned to Senegal to get the body politic on board with the project. “I ran into a lot of politics, and I realized wow, I’m in a business that creates wars. So this definitely is not as easy as I expected.” The political infighting Akon encountered hamstrings investment and discourages investors in places where regulations are agonizingly cumbersome, and politicians obstinate.  Large scale infrastructure projects relying on major outside investment quickly become politicized, as the beneficiaries fight for money that must come in part from leaders and constituents who will receive nothing. Akon remembers how, “He [President Wade] said listen son, I know you’re trying to do great things for your country, and this and that, but I think you have to find a different solution.”

That different solution became a company better suited to circumnavigate intractable political infighting. It is the kind of nimble company that is filling the void in African markets abandoned by multinational corporations. “I was riding down the street and I saw this light bulb. I saw this solar panel light bulb that someone was selling on the side of the road. And that’s when it hit me. Wow, that’s the solution, because when you think about it, Africa has an abundance of sun, and it’s our biggest resource.” To explore solar as a potential solution, Akon then traveled to Guangzhou, China to meet with the largest Chinese solar manufacturers. The moment that Akon chose to explore the potential of solar energy was perfectly timed. The U.S. levied tariffs as high as 165% on imported Chinese solar cells to protect American manufacturers, and Akon found massive underutilized solar manufacturing capacity meant to serve markets in the United States and Europe.  In the case of solar, China is a tech leader, having spent the last decade snapping up US solar technology out of the practical necessity of combatting horrendous pollution.  “We found so much stuff that wasn’t even on the market yet,” Akon remembers. When he left China, he did so with a 1 billion dollar line of credit with which to bring solar to Africa, and to provide the upfront investment that would make Akon Lighting Africa a success. The biggest challenge for ALA became convincing African leaders of the superiority of Chinese solar systems over the alternatives, a job that continues today as the company quickly establishes itself across the continent.

Akon’s story echoes other success stories in African business today, most often from companies creating markets and focusing on self-reliance in defiance of obstacles and gaps in infrastructure. One example is the Taloram Company which sells 20 cent packets of noodles in Nigeria. In Africa’s New Generation of Innovators from the January 2017 issue of The Harvard Business Review, the authors note that Taloram controls 95% of production inputs, and makes 1 billion dollars in revenue annually. Selling 20 cent noodle packets to working class Nigerians is not so different from electrifying villages for $75,000 a piece on average. The village by village solar panel model is the ‘20 cent package of noodles’ solution for infrastructure development where millions of dollars and heavy involvement by the government is the norm. The middle class in Africa remains stagnant in many countries. Addressing the needs of that ‘bottom billion’ that Western companies tend to ignore in favor of more affluent markets is the recipe for building the success that Akon and a few others are harnessing successfully.

The emergence of ALA comes at an auspicious moment for solar technology that promises growth to those companies positioned to capture market share in the next few decades. Innovation in the solar industry is occurring at a breakneck pace. Solar modules cost $300 per watt in 1956, $50 per watt in the 1970s, $10 in the 90s, and around $1.00 a watt today including installation, modules, and electronics. Pinpointing exact prices including the variable ‘soft costs’ (installation) of solar can be difficult. Those ‘soft costs’ decrease slower than the price of the cells themselves, but evidently the current state is poised at a threshold past which solar will compete on price anywhere in the world. To gain perspective on the maturation and proliferation that this technology will enjoy in the next few decades, consider the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Vision Study which projects 10% of American energy coming from solar by 2025 (100x the current 0.1% market share) and 14% coming from solar by 2035, 140x the current market share. This in-progress explosion in the United States where installation and manufacturing costs are comparatively high, is good for news for a company using Africans to install solar panels in Africa. The current effective cost of solar is around nine cents a kilowatt hour, a price point that is already competitive with traditional energy generation costing around 12 cents an hour. Yet over one-third of photovoltaic cells currently in use  are in Germany, also the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturer, but a country about as sunny as Alaska. China expects to surpass Germany in production of photovoltaics by the end of the decade as German plants close due to market competition and flagging government enthusiasm for subsidies. However, the move of the industry South and East into poorer, sunnier markets may be a natural evolution as Germany is on track to achieve 60% renewable energy for themselves by 2035.  “We’re going into Latin America, Brazil,” says Akon. “All the emerging markets. And of course we’re going into India too. But that’s the beauty of it. Emerging markets aren’t just in Africa, they’re everywhere.” This is how we should think of companies like ALA, as experts at surviving in emerging markets.

If you are like many Westerners raised on stories of African famine and AIDS epidemics, right now you aren’t sure how you feel about a company charging villagers for solar panels. When partaking in business in Africa, the scarcity of private sector dollars does not go unnoticed, and the word ‘donation’ is more familiar than investment when it follows a discussion of the continent. Yet in Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and Why There Is a Better Way for Africa, author Dambisa Moyo notes that the transfer of 1 trillion dollars to Africa in the form of aid in the last 50 years put the recipients in a worse-off position than if they had not received it in the first place. Professor Paul Collier at Oxford is in relative agreement with Moyo, testifying to the destabilizing effect that aid can have on political and economic systems. The classic example Moyo uses is the donation of 1 million mosquito nets to a malarial region of Africa that puts every local mosquito net manufacturer and repairman out of business. Aid is in practice simply less reliable over time, and that makes all the difference. Most critically, aid fails to produce pipelines of skilled labor and jobs, the makings of long-term stability. “The way I see it, aid is only beneficial when there is a natural disaster,” says Akon, “but if there’s no natural disaster you’re handicapping people. It becomes a natural disaster because now you’re handicapping them, you’re putting them in a position to get fed, not to feed themselves. It never worked.” The voice of a self-made Senegalese immigrant joins an increasing number of modern development theorists pulling few punches as they point to business, not aid, as the critical ingredient for Africa’s health and growth.

Though Solektra International emerged to treat African energy problems, Akon and Samba Bathily understand that with any luck, they created a model that provides services to emerging markets everywhere. At their best, companies of this type allow countries to leapfrog stages of development. In 2000 around 1 in 10 Africans had cell phones. Today between 64% (Uganda) and 86% (South Africa with the same percentage as the US) of African countries have cell phones. Telecommunications matured and proliferated, and that will both drive and hopefully be the track of other maturing technologies like solar energy. Only 5% of the population owns smartphones in Uganda, 34% in South Africa, and it is here that we can glimpse what energy and access to technology means for developing a globally competitive African populace. "To connect people living in remote regions, traditional connectivity infrastructure is often difficult and inefficient, so we need to invent new technologies,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talking about, which plans to launch satellites to provide affordable internet in Africa. Imagining a future when a child in a remote African village uses a solar powered cell phone and satellite internet to teach himself algebra online is achievable in our lifetime.  The value of such access cannot be undervalued on a continent of young strivers, but it is not everything. Security, a stable job, food, and water require more than energy acess. But energy is a big deal when it comes to creating opportunities for an Africa that has median age of 19.

Like any good visionary, Akon has grand ambitions. “Stage three is Akon Food in Africa. Which is where we’re now going to start going into all of the agriculture, taking full advantage of the rich soil out there, and making agriculture cool. And that’s the biggest challenge. What young kid under 21 wants to get into agriculture? How are you going to survive if you can’t make your own food? I already figured out the plan to make agriculture cool. I think it’s really African solutions for Africans.” Perhaps a rapper is the perfect person to understand the role of both African and Western perception in the success of ambitious African enterprises. Sierra Leone imports over 100 million dollars worth of rice annually, even as 56% of the population is actively engaged in subsistence agriculture. One cannot mechanize an activity that over half a country currently performs by hand without waging a public perception campaign. In fact, the term ‘mechanized African agriculture’ makes knowledgeable people nervous. That being said, when I asked Professor Collier about the subject, he said he favors the long term mechanization of agriculture in Africa. Though potentially a painful process, Professor Collier compared it to the transformation that began in Bangladesh with the arrival of a single foreign garment manufacturer. The company was quickly mimicked by Bangladesh owned companies and it eventually led to 20 billion dollars in annual clothing exports a year today. Revolutions like this are rife with ugly problems, but they generally do more good than harm by creating opportunities and raising the standard of living exponentially in just a few generations. It is worth noting that the man with all the optimism in the world for his own potential to create change in Africa spent three years behind bars in American prisons. Akon would be the first to remind us, “the past does not determine the future.” This African chameleon, who has himself transformed many times, should be one of Africa’s transformation architects. When I asked Akon who his hero was, he spoke with great admiration of a fellow African native. “The one person that I really love, and I love what he’s doing is Elon Musk. He’s the one guy I’ve been watching for the last five years, and I’m saying to myself he clearly gets it. I know his vision is solid, and I can feel it, and he can feel it, and that’s why he’s relentless. I love love love how he’s moving.”

The Iron Man

The Real Story of Russ George and Iron Fertilization

The current hometown of one of the world’s most infamous geoengineer was unassuming. White Rock British Columbia was just shy of the U.S. border, it’s quiet downtown windswept and picturesque with a view of Puget Sound. The waters, dappled in winter sunlight on the day of my arrival, were an appropriate connection to the oceans that obsess Russ George. I met Russ in White Rock’s finest Jamaican Restaurant, and proceeded to sweat profusely over a plate of extremely spicy wings. Russ George had the homely style of a college professor on summer break, fit with a trimmed white beard in a loose fitting sweatshirt. He reported that he walked a dozen miles daily, and was only harassed by Canadian government officials occasionally these days, as the tirade against him dragged on into its fourth year.

In the summer of 2012, Russ was aboard a storm tossed 130 foot long  fishing boat in the North Pacific off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the beautiful austere island home of the indigenous Haida People. The ship was crewed by a small team of 12, and captained by a Russ, a scientifically minded environmentalist. There is something fundamental about a small team with purpose and grand vision. In the age of Mark Zuckerberg and Silicon Valley, they seem capable of making waves of infinite size, be they good or bad. The men and women on the fishing vessel were determined to mimic an ancient natural process, once described by Darwin as he sailed the world's seas aboard the Beagle. Darwin wrote about a storm blowing dust off the Sahara. He described how the dust coated the ship so heavily that it had to be shoveled off the deck. 200 years later, a naturalist and a small intrepid crew would also return nutrients to the ocean waves. In this instance, 100 tons of iron sulphate and other forms of iron minerals mixed to Russ’ specific formulation, and sifted into the hungry waters of the Pacific over 10,000 square kilometers  (4,000 square miles) of ocean where iron already floated in miniscule quantities alongside all the other elements known to man. The simple and studied act would inspire outrage and gleefully dramatic headlines around the world: Can We Stop Modern-Day Mad Scientists? Search warrants would be executed, and threats of litigation would be leveled against the crew. Like many a small team of warriors before them, their motivations would be questioned, their methods deemed unsound.

Perhaps iron fertilization didn’t fully penetrate public consciousness until 2012, but it was the oceanographer John Martin who declared in July 1990 at the Bretton Woods Oceanographic Conference, “Give me a half tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.” This ‘iron hypothesis,’ voiced twenty four years earlier, drew on the idea that the ocean is this planet’s temperature control engine. Nutrients (notably iron) are its gasoline, and plankton and the organisms they feed are pistons, capturing carbon out of the atmosphere, and in death, driving them deep into the hypoxic ocean depths. Some, led by John Martin, have argued that hundreds of thousands of years ago an asteroid, or just especially dusty conditions, fertilized the oceans causing massive plankton blooms that captured massive amounts of carbon (CO2 being the primary greenhouse gas blanket) and trapping it at the bottom of the ocean. It was plankton that ate the warm blankets off the earth, resulting in falling temperatures that left entire continents covered in ice miles thick. Regardless, the hypothesis illustrates the academically undisputed power that plankton has to influence global temperature continuously, even in the absence of galactic intervention. No one disputes plankton were primarily responsible for filling our air with oxygen over the last two billion years. One can imagine planetary temperatures rising, land based plants dying off as desertification takes hold, and dust from these deserts feeding plankton that sequester carbon at the bottom of the ocean, thus breaking the warming cycle. It was John Martin and his oceanographic peers who theorized that today there are large swaths of the ocean which fall into high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll zones where iron alone is enough to create and sustain large plankton blooms.

Of course today we have broken our planetary thermostat. In 2010, a study published in the journal Nature found that plankton levels in the ocean have declined 40% since 1950. Since the majority of carbon consuming plant life exists invisibly on the 70% of this planet that is water, this means we’ve experienced massive aquatic deforestation that outpaces anything perpetrated on land. Meanwhile, NOAA and NASA jointly reported that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998. The top three hottest years being 2014, 2015, and 2016. As we set  temperature records year after year, the situation looks ever bleaker, just as we realize that the oceanic thermostat is broken.

Russ George speaks knowledgeably in a surprisingly moderate tone (listen to our two podcasts episodes) about all of this. The calm scientifically verifiable arguments were impressive, considering the viciousness of the attacks against him in the press. The estimate by Russ and his climate change colleagues that their 100 tons of iron sequestered some tens of millions of tons of carbon with the plankton bloom that it created at the cost of only a few million dollars is less certain, but his real focus wasn’t the carbon. The name of the company he formed with the Haida People was The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and was focused on restoring fishing grounds for the Haida People. A National Broadcasting Company article cites experts who agree that, “When plant plankton plummet, as they do during El Nino climate cycles, seabirds and marine mammals starve and die in huge numbers.” Russ' concern for aquatic life betrays the  fact that he isn’t quite the ‘American businessman’ (read capitalist oligarch) he has been painted as in the press. Despite this fact, I still told a Canadian border guard I was off to interview an American businessman, because it sounded particularly benign. Neither is Russ tenured with the institutional might of a university to fund his operations, although he has done nuclear physics work for the United States government, which looked after him as he and his US research ship were  targeted by environmental extremists in 2006, long before his work in Haida Gwaii.

Russ George’s first open iron experiment in 2002 utilized one ton of iron, and oddly enough, singer Neil Young's yacht. Young was an acquaintance George met at the docks willing to give a starving environmentalist a hand. That work earned Russ a feature in Nature, the gold standard for scientific reporting. The Haida Gwaii experiment ten years later controversially drew on funds from the Haida People, who hoped to both revitalize depleted fish grounds, and recoup carbon credits that might have been worth hundreds of millions. Hearing about iron fertilization as a means of revitalizing fishing stocks, it was The Haida who approached Russ.  They funded the work in plebiscite election with super-majority support, approving the expense while under the regulatory scrutiny of the Canadian government's Indian Affairs Ministry, which required quarterly reports from the Haida on the project for years prior to the first iron dust reaching their ocean.  Another government of Canada ministry provided a formal financial guarantee insuring the value of the potential carbon credits that would be earned by the Haida project.  But the carbon credits, which would have made the salmon restoration project financially sustainable, were forever gone following an article in the British Guardian, which Russ claims was filled with inaccuracies and downright falsehoods. This seems to have initiated a 180 degree shift in government attitude as a spotlight was shown on the operation for the first time in years, and a Canadian SWAT Team bursting into Russ' laboratory, destroying and confiscating the work of his team of scientists. In spite of this censure, the fish, so it seems, did show up.  

    The 2013 commercial Alaskan salmon catch more than quadrupled the state’s forecast of 52 million Pink salmon. 226 million fish were caught that year. This unprecedented boom, combined with satellite data, means that news organizations and even the 2016 Convention on Bio-Diversity Geo-Engineering Report, begrudgingly admit that the Haida Gwaii experiment succeeded in creating a large nourishing plankton bloom that fed an incredible number of fish. So what’s the controversy? Opponents say that iron fertilization is simply too risky.  They cite the dangerous precedence of individual nations attempting geoengineering experiments on their own. They cite how much we don’t know. Russ would say that we have studied iron fertilization for three decades without ever seeing or isolating concrete risks, and some opponents and scientists would have us studying it for another fifty. Alarmists cite concerns about ocean acidification due to dissolved carbon dioxide, although they admit that global warming and the human race is already transforming and acidifying the oceans in radical ways. Many environmentalists I spoke to simply do not want to let carbon producers ‘off the hook.’ Russ George would say that this is not a zero sum game we are playing with our planet: If carbon producers lose, we do not necessarily win. He also points out that we humans have already emitted nearly a trillion tons of CO2 into our atmosphere, and that ‘yesterday’s CO2’ is, if we do nothing, already a lethal overdose for most of ocean life as we know it. It seems likely that at the core of our resistance to iron fertilization is our aversion to introducing anything into our oceans. Dolphins with six pack rings around their beaks, and floating islands of garbage are just the kinds of iconic environmental issues on the other end of the spectrum from global warming, the ones easy to understand. We remove 75 million tons of fish annually, but god forbid we put anything back into the water to make up for the harvest. On land, we’ve come to understand the effect of soil exhaustion because we can see it, but we have no language to describe the exhaustion of the nutrients in our oceans. It’s simply not something we have any familiarity with. Also, humans simply like clear empty water, anything else scares us right down to our suspicious ancestral roots. We’re only just coming to terms with the dangers maintaining antiseptic oceans in our own bodies, let alone on our planet (see the rise of allergies and fecal transplants).

The problem with introducing the concept of ‘accountability’ into the climate change debate is that climate change will disproportionately affect the poorest billion people on this planet before it affects the rest of us. They will suffer for any the conceit of any moralizing we do. Eventually we will reach a crisis point when we won’t worry about who pays for a solution. The problem with climate change is that by the time that crisis point hits, it will be too late, Hitler will have crossed the Rhineland, appeasement will have failed. For this reason, global warming is the kind of problem we are bad at solving. We won’t feel its immediacy until after the bullet hits us.  This is also the problem with arguing to stay the course using current technology. No one today can foresee the full effect of what will happen over the next hundred years, but there is little optimism in our call to double down using current technology. Many environmentalists I spoke to confirmed that we are changing course, “from mitigation to adaptation,” meaning we have given up on stopping the dominoes from falling. We can only hope the doomsayers will be like Thomas Malthus, the 19th Century philosopher who looked at 70% of the world working in agriculture and the rising population, and predicted a future of starvation. The solutions are usually there, and today phosphorous based fertilizers and mechanized agriculture mean that 1% of the population makes four times more food than we actually eat. Despite everyone’s pessimism, the carbon futures market hums away with 6.2 gigatonnes of emission allowances, and offsets in 2015 valued at 48.4 billion dollars. Russ George says that this carbon market views a cheap solution to global warming which might reduce the marketplace of billions to millions, as a threat to be crushed. What if we put some of that money in an X-Prize to identify a carbon sequestration solution 100 times cheaper, one that gives us a fighting chance?

Whether or not a powerful cabal of vested parties have spurred negative media coverage of Russ George, it is undeniable that iron fertilization is a politically radioactive concept. This is only surprising because no one really doubts that it works, and no one can provide evidence to attribute ecological damage to the 2012 experiment, or for that matter any iron fertilization experiment. The idea that our oceans are off limits and must not be sullied with rock dust, doesn’t hold water either. We have gutted our oceans and destroyed their flora and fauna, even as we crank up the thermostat and dissolve our gases and chemicals in their waters. We found the most tangible question mark regarding iron fertilization to simply be its price tag. Russ George pegs the cost of sequestration through iron fertilization as low as a penny a ton, and says that even if it costs ten or one hundred times that, it would still be the large half of the holy grail we are looking for.  The Update on Climate Geoengineering in Relation to the Convention on Biological Diversity, who are on record in firm opposition to iron fertilization experiments, dismissed iron sequestration as costing $457 for one tonne of carbon, suggesting that it could be done for $20 per tonne with nitrogen. It is hard to identify from where these numbers come. Competing industry accepted land based techniques sequester carbon for $50 a tonne. If that price can be reduced by ten times or 100 times, let alone 45,700 times (Russ’ most optimistic estimate) without destroying our oceans, then we could prevent mass extinction, and inestimable economic and financial hardship. Berkeley estimated a 20% reduction in global GDP by 2100 due to unmitigated climate change, while Citibank threw out a 44 trillion dollar estimate of costs to be accrued by 2060, but no one really knows. The bottom line is pain, lots of pain.

As I sweated over Jamaican wings on a still cool afternoon in White Rock, Russ George smiled. “It just works. They destroyed or confiscated all of our scientific data and materials, but they couldn’t destroy the fish. The fish came back.” When asked if the world would ever see another iron fertilization experiment, the professorial grandfather in the baggy sweatshirt became mischievous. “It’s too cheap to be stopped. It’ll happen again, only bigger and better this time, and when it does, they won’t be able to deny that it works.”  If there’s any lesson I’ve learned as a combat engineer officer, it’s how hard it is to stop anyone from doing anything that only costs a few million dollars. We routinely discover North Korean tunnels under the DMZ that evade our ground penetrating radar, and that you can drive a tank through.  All Russ would need is a squad of men, a boat, one wealthy benefactor, and a little subterfuge. What seems undeniable as we reach new levels of crisis in climate change, is that if we as a species need anything, it’s the technology Russ George is describing: the ability to sequester carbon for one penny a ton, or ten pennies a ton, or one hundred pennies without destroying the environment. If we fail to find that solution, our outrage that someone would jeopardize the safety of our oceans is moot. They are being destroyed, they will be destroyed, there will be no preserving them in anything like their current state. As sweat dripped onto a spicy wing, I dreamed of that technology, and imagined that just maybe it was right under our noses all along.