As the world grapples with the impact of climate change – which saw catastrophic floods, devastating forest fires and brutal heat waves continue wreaking havoc across the planet this year – the need to help vulnerable communities worldwide to quickly adapt is now greater than ever.
Google, through initiatives supported by its philanthropic arm – Google.org – has been funding artificial intelligence (AI) projects led by social impact organisations that are aimed at helping communities tackle not only climate-related but also medical and social issues.
“It is important to engage these local communities and give them a voice, so that they can be part of the solution,” said Marija Ralic, Google.org lead, Google APAC, who was speaking at the closing plenary of the Unlocking Capital for Sustainability event, an annual summit focused on sustainable finance, held in September. “Often, the people who are closest to the problem know what the solutions are, and what works for them.”
For instance, one key problem faced by the cotton farming communities in India is pest control. Up to 30 per cent of cotton crops are destroyed each year by pests such as the pink bollworm, leading to loss of yield and affecting the livelihoods of millions of rural households in India that depend on cotton farming. Most Indian cotton farmers are smallholders who lack the resources to adopt effective pest management systems.
Mumbai-based not-for-profit organisation Wadhwani AI sought to find a solution. In 2019, Wadhwani AI received a US$2 million grant under Google’s AI for Social Good programme from Google.org to develop an app that uses AI to identify pests, recommend mitigation strategies and advise farmers on how to reduce pesticide use.
“They needed more support, so our Google fellows worked with them full-time over six months to bring their solution to life,” said Ralic, referring to Google employees working within a pro bono capacity, to support Wadhwani AI with their initiative.
The project has, so far, delivered promising results. “[Wadhwani AI] has helped smallholder farmers to reduce their use of expensive pesticides, safeguard their crops and improve their profit by over 20 per cent,” added Ralic.
To further build on this positive impact, Wadhwani AI received an additional US$3.3 million grant from Google.org in 2022 as part of the AI for the Global Goals project, a US$25 million initiative specifically aimed at projects that use AI to accelerate progress on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“This grant allows them to partner with the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare in India, so they can scale [their pest control solution] for billions of people in India,” Ralic said.
Ralic added that Google.org also looks at whether projects helping underserved communities are both feasible and scalable. She noted that social impact organisations should have access to the local underserved communities to understand the challenges they are facing.
Driving long-term sustainability solutions in APAC
Asia Pacific is especially vulnerable to climate change. From 2008 to 2020, the region accounted for 80 per cent of the total global new displacements related to disasters, becoming the world’s most climate-vulnerable region in both slow-onset and sudden-onset events, according to a 2023 UNESCO report.
“When we talk about an equitable transition, it means that everyone benefits from a shift to a cleaner economy, and it also means investing in communities most vulnerable to climate change,” said Kate Brandt, chief sustainability officer at Google, during her keynote speech at Unlocking Capital for Sustainability.
Brandt announced that Google.org was committing another US$5 million to support the APAC Sustainability Seed Fund, which was launched last year by the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) in partnership with the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The fund provides grants to non-profit organisations to fight climate change and drive sustainability in Asia Pacific (APAC).
“The APAC region is diverse,” said Ralic, referring to how organisations in the region are at varying stages of technology know-how.
Ralic added that Google.org is supporting these organisations through a two-pronged approach. The first approach is to support organisations’ innovative technology solutions, noted Ralic, highlighting that the APAC Sustainability Seed Fund allocated grant funding to 13 local organisations focused on sustainability solutions for vulnerable and underserved communities in Asia Pacific.
The second approach is to help social impact organisations that are keen to leverage innovative technology but are unsure where to start and how to use it for their organisations. “We support them through capacity-building programmes so they can learn how to leverage AI technology to suit their purposes,” said Ralic.
“It is really important that we keep supporting these organisations’ innovative solutions that, in the long term, will have a positive impact on local communities.”
Blended finance, or the strategic use of public finance to mobilise private finance, can be an effective way to unlock funding for climate investments that are seen as too risky.
Speaking at the closing plenary panel, Zia Nariman, senior investor officer and Asia Pacific Climate Lead, International Finance Cooperation, said that a significant amount of blended finance is needed. “We need to be judicious in the use of blended finance,” Nariman stressed. “It needs to play a role where we are pushing the envelope and supporting technologies that are currently not scalable or cost-competitive, like battery storage.”
Another panellist, Leticia Guimarães, lead, carbon markets; climate hub, United Nations Development Programme, noted: “We need to understand the ecosystem of the different players [involved in blended finance] so we can better position each of them.” There is a need to better measure the impact of initiatives as not all of them bring immediate results, she added.
Naina Subberwal Batra, chief executive officer of AVPN, noted that blended finance must take on a balanced role. “We can’t keep saying that philanthropy will take on the biggest burden just because it is the ‘catalytic capital available for the first loss,’” said Batra, referring to investments provided by an investor or grantmaker who agrees to bear first losses to incentivise the participation of co-investors that would not have otherwise entered the deal.
While philanthropists can catalyse change, the actual scaling of it takes place through partnerships, said Ralic. She added that there is a need for both “risk-taking” philanthropy that supports bold, AI-driven solutions, as well as “patient” philanthropy.
“For positive change to happen, it really takes time,” Ralic concluded. “We need to be comfortable with change. Sometimes that means we need to learn new things and unlearn some things.”
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