Most of us would not only agree that destruction of natural habitats and the associated biodiversity is a colossal problem, but also accept the fact that the buck stops with us !

Monisha Krishna, our next pathbreaker, Co-Founder & Director at Sacred Groves, leverages the latest technologies (geospatial imaging, digital twins etc.), to tokenize forests/ natural habitats that helps companies or individuals to easily participate in conservation.

Monisha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about several defining moments in her career that got her thinking of ways of bridging the gap between people and nature.

For students, nothing matters as much as your attitude and determination ! Have a vision and work towards it !

Monisha, what were your growing up years like?

I come from a service class background – my father was an army officer (emergency commission), who moved into the civil service as an IAS officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre. My mother worked as a teacher/ lecturer in multiple schools and colleges (due to my father’s transferable job), before finally settling into a corporate job with Nestle, India where she spent 20 years.

My early years were spent in Madurai, Kanchipuram and Chennai, where my father was posted. My schooling in these places was in convent schools, where besides the usual academic subjects, moral science lessons formed an important part of the curriculum. These were simple everyday lessons on how to be a good person and a useful member of society. My family moved to Delhi when I was in class 8 – a huge cultural shock for me at the time primarily due to the size and scale of the city and the school. While the adjustment process was very difficult initially, I eventually settled down and did well at school, becoming House Captain in class 12.

As with most children, my biggest influencers have been my parents – the value they attached to qualities like hard work, punctuality, integrity and respect for others, have shaped the way I live and work. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to various far-flung parts of India with my parents, which sowed the seeds for my love of travel and nature.

After my parents, my biggest influence has been books. The written word has immense power to shape minds and influence behaviours. In my school and college years, I mainly read fiction and classics, while in my later years I have been reading mostly non-fiction – books on India, Hindu philosophy, Indian history and so on.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My good grades resulted in my getting accepted at one of India’s premier colleges (Lady Shri Ram College) for my preferred degree in Economics. I followed that up with an MBA, specialising in Finance, from Bharathidasan Institute of Management, Trichy.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Armed with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics and an MBA in Finance, the next logical step for me was to work in the financial sector. I chose to work with India’s oldest development finance institution, IFCI, which had recently been corporatised. This was 1996, the time when India’s liberalisation program had gained traction and India was on an incredible growth trajectory. Large conglomerates were setting up mega infrastructure projects, which were being financed by consortiums of banks and Financial Institutions. Overall, it was an exciting time to work and learn the ropes. Starting out as a Management Trainee, in a short span of a decade I rose to the position of Assistant General Manager, taking care of the critical areas of asset quality, regulatory reporting, audit and governance.

Tell us about your career path

In my initial years of school and college, like many students, I did not have a specific or clear cut career plan. Instead, it was more about pursuing areas of interest and working hard to acquire the relevant qualifications.

The late eighties and early nineties were an exciting time of transition for India, when the economy was being transformed from a planned & controlled system to a liberalised market economy. Eager to understand the workings and impact of the new system, I chose to pursue Economics in my high school and graduation years. Subsequently, I embarked upon my MBA to participate in India’s amazing growth story.

As a part of campus placement, I joined IFCI, India’s oldest development finance institution, as a Management Trainee and rose to the position of Assistant General Manager in the span of a decade. During this time, I worked in many areas ranging from managing IFCI’s investments to monitoring asset quality, working closely with the corporate finance division.

After a decade of working with IFCI, I decided to become a full time parent to bring up my young daughters. As a family we had the opportunity to move to Dubai, UAE where my daughters were exposed to a wonderful culture of inclusivity in a country that boasts over 190 nationalities as its residents.

Living in Dubai gave my family the opportunity to travel and explore the world, many of them nature based trips. While we were struck by the immense beauty of nature, we also witnessed aspects of destruction and degradation. Our first such experience was a coral bleaching event in 2008. Consequently, my family and I started making small but meaningful changes in our lifestyles, such as reducing usage of plastic, composting, recycling and so on. But the more we did, the more we realised there was so much more to be done; but we didn’t really know where to begin.

Then inspiration struck from yet another of our travels – this time to the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya where we had an occasion to visit a sacred forest. The sacred forest at Mawphlang, a short distance away from the capital city of Shillong, is a place where members of the Khasi tribe worship. There are strict rules for entering the forest – nothing can be taken in and nothing can be taken out; not a dried leaf or twig or stone. The reverence with which our guide showed us around the forest was a deeply moving and spiritual experience. We realised that as urban folk, we have become distant from nature, with the nearest forest possibly being a few hundred kilometres away.

As we delved more into the topic, we were horrified to learn that every six seconds the world loses a soccer field equivalent to primary forests (1.76 acres)! Destruction of natural habitats and the associated biodiversity is a colossal problem, with a million species at the risk of extinction coupled with the fact that wildlife populations have shrunk by a whopping 69% in the past 50 years alone. While these are difficult facts to deal with, we saw a ray of hope in the work done by UN-REDD, which states that simply halting deforestation and forest degradation could address upto 30% of the climate solution.

We started to think of ways of bridging this gap between people and nature; and thus was born The Sacred Groves – a UK registered Community Interest Company (social enterprise) incorporated in February 2020, with the purpose of protecting natural habitats all over the world from further degradation and destruction. We have leveraged the latest technologies (geospatial imaging, image analytics, block chain, cloud computing, etc.), to create a digital twin and tokenize the forests/ natural habitats to make the participation in conservation easy and meaningful. In just a few minutes, our Guardians (environmentally sensitive individuals and companies) can embark on their conservation journey.

How did you get your first break?

The Sacred Groves technology platform was launched in August 2021. The first big break for Sacred Groves came about in March 2022 when Eaton Business School approached us with a request to facilitate gifting Sacred Groves Clusters to each student of their graduating cohort.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

My personal challenges on this journey:

Challenge 1: Getting back into the formal workforce after a long gap of 12 years. I experienced some hesitation and lack of confidence initially, which gradually got resolved as I interacted with more and more people and the message/ purpose of Sacred Groves started gaining acceptance.

Challenge 2: Transitioning from being employed to self employed. In my earlier avatar, I worked within defined structures and had clear tasks and objectives. Setting up a company from scratch required me to wear multiple hats simultaneously, as well as excel in scheduling and time management.

Challenge 3: Learning on the job.

In order to set up the company, I had to learn on the job about various aspects such as company structure, hiring and contracting partners for various functions (eg. legal, forestry, technology, accounting, audit, brand & communications, etc.) and interacting with each of these functions to deliver our vision for Sacred Groves. Besides learning and executing the tasks for the day to day running of the company, I have been spending a great deal of time reading, to educate myself about conservation and allied areas.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I work full time with Sacred Groves and manage the day to day running of the company with a focus on finance, technology, legal and compliance. The fundamental skills required are a commitment to the cause and a willingness to learn. It is my firm belief that specialised skills can be acquired or outsourced but the right attitude is invaluable.

A typical day starts with a stand up call with the technology team, followed by meetings with various companies who would like to collaborate/ partner with Sacred Groves, interspersed with replying to emails, keeping track of various deadlines eg. financial accounting, etc.

The Sacred Groves has developed a model to protect existing forests and natural habitats from destruction/ degradation and provide a mechanism for generating conservation funding. This is how the model works: 

(i) Secure a natural habitat – The Sacred Groves owns and protects three habitats – two ancient oak woodlands in Wales, UK and one Acadian forest in Nova Scotia, Canada. Coed Rhyal Forest – Sacred Groves, Gigrin Prysg Forest – Sacred Groves, Ocean Sanctuary Forest – Sacred Groves .Each of these was up for sale for commercial exploitation (timber, recreational hunting). By taking it out of the commercial market, we have ensured that these areas remain forest for times to come. The conservation approach for these habitats is to follow Assisted Natural Regeneration – keep the area undisturbed so nature can take over.

(ii) Create a digital twin of the habitat area by geo mapping the area using Google Earth. Our appointed surveyors physically examine the area to provide us with the geo-coordinates of the land boundary to enable mapping. 

(iii) Use computer imaging and analytics to convert the three dimensional surface of the earth into a planar (two dimensional) surface; and further create virtual tokens or Sacred Groves Clusters. In simple terms, if you were to imagine a graph sheet over a land area, each box or unit of the graph sheet would be a digital Sacred Groves Cluster. 

(iv) The Sacred Groves Clusters are placed on the blockchain for security, transparency and traceability and can be supported by environmentally sensitive individuals and companies (Guardians) for a one time fee of $50 for a ten year period.

(v) Guardians have access to our dashboards (via our web and mobile applications), which clearly show the area protected, estimated carbon sequestered and pollution removed. Sacred Groves Clusters also make for a meaningful planet positive gift, with a choice of 46 gifting occasions.

So far, Sacred Groves Clusters have been protected by Guardians (both individuals and companies) from 40+ countries.

At Sacred Groves, it takes us anywhere between six to nine months to onboard a forest/ natural habitat area. The process we follow:
(i) work with our legal team to identify parcels of land that are in some danger of commercial exploitation;
(ii) appoint natural capital surveyors to physically examine the area and determine that it is a natural biodiverse space (as opposed to a plantation or monoculture) that is important to conserve;
(iii) the legal team then checks for clear title, any encumbrances or conflicting rights;
(iv) finally the purchase formalities are completed.

This model of digitally tokenising natural spaces in a transparent manner to provide funding for conservation and expanding the acreage to protect more and more areas is unique and hasn’t been done before. By doing all the heavy lifting and providing a transparent, secure mechanism for our Guardians, we have democratised conservation.

How does your work benefit society?

Climate change, primarily caused by human activity, is an existential crisis that is impacting every aspect of life on the planet. By committing and working towards protecting and conserving natural habitats, we are attempting to reverse some of these effects in order to bring nature back into balance.

As per the UN-REDD 2008, (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation),

(a) Currently 11% of all carbon emissions stem from deforestation – more than emissions from all means of transport combined.
(b) Halting deforestation and forest degradation can avoid emissions of more than 5 gigatons CO2/year.
(c) Forest conservation and restoration can provide more than one quarter of the emissions reductions needed in the next two decades.

So far, Sacred Groves has protected three forests – two in Wales, UK and one in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

The most memorable moment was when The Sacred Groves got formally registered as a Community Interest Company in the UK. Prior to that, my Co-Founders and I had spent about 18 months conceptualising and fine tuning the Sacred Groves model. I personally spent four to five months studying various corporate structures before we decided that the CIC structure is the most suited to our cause.

A CIC is a social enterprise or ‘for benefit’ entity that by definition exists to serve society. It is regulated by Companies House, UK and has to comply with various statutory requirements, such as:

Asset Lock: the end use of the assets onboarded can never be changed. In the case of Sacred Groves, this means that our forests will remain in their natural condition for posterity.

Community Interest Test: We are continually accountable to the regulators that we exist to serve society. Additionally, we have to file an annual statement to this effect, with Companies House, UK.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I’m inspired by the words of Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

My advice to students would be – recognise your areas of interest early on, work hard to acquire the relevant education and qualifications, develop an attitude of curiosity and hunger for learning, and last but most important – grit!

Future Plans?

My ambition is for Sacred Groves to protect and conserve a portfolio of natural habitats (grasslands, wetlands, forests, peat bogs etc.) in a variety of geographies with a coverage of at least 1 million acres by 2030.