Under the Jamaican Sea: Turning seaweed into carbon credits at Kee Farms
Nicholas Kee, CEO and co-founder of Kee Farms, interviewed by Nishitha Vivek, MS ‘23 & Common Home Editor
What is Kee Farms?
Kee Farms is a regenerative ocean farm network based in Jamaica. We try to mitigate climate change by growing seaweed, oysters, sea cucumbers, and sea grass, and preserving mangroves. These biomasses and organisms are then converted into products (such as agar, carrageenan, biochar, and hydrochar) which are useful for everyday society.
What is your revenue model?
We center our business around growing and selling the biomass we cultivate in the ocean. We either sell the seaweed to be processed into byproducts or convert them ourselves. We create biochar and hydro char, which are soil and remediation materials, as well as activated carbon, which we can use for water and air filtration at an industrial level. Agar and carrageenan are also two important byproducts of our seaweed. The healthcare, food, and services industries use these byproducts extensively.
Accruing carbon credits is another prong in our revenue model. What we grow on our ocean farm removes carbon from the atmosphere. We earn carbon credits for this work, which carries a financial value to us. Our work (for example, our oyster reefs) also increases biodiversity, cleans waterways, and provides clear habitats for organic growth and restoration.
Another revenue stream is facilitating research from institutions and possibly individuals that might want to do some work with us on an R&D level.
We also train fishing communities in Jamaica on how to replicate our cultivation process, so that they can set up their own ocean farm and then sell the biomass (namely seaweed, sea cucumbers, and sea grass) back to us.
How did your multi-pronged business model develop?
We’ve been running for a little over two years now. The barriers to entry are extremely high within the climate change space. In my experience, it is mainly because of regulatory concerns.
We spent half of our existence working with the Jamaican government, and within the Caribbean countries, to ensure that we have policies in place to facilitate our activities, as well as facilitate others entering into this space. During that time, we relied heavily on grants to help bootstrap a lot of our core operations and R&D.
That learning led to a new transitory phase of providing fertilizer as a by-product of the seaweed that we collect. In doing so, we activated a new revenue stream: using by-products.
With respect to carbon credits, entering into that marketplace is a bit tricky again due to the lack of legislation or regulatory framework in place. That makes this space uncertain, but it also makes us the front runners who try to inculcate projects like presale carbon credits into the conversation. It is on the horizon for us, but it’s not too far.
Since Kee Farms is doing so many different things, how do you choose among competing priorities?
Our overarching narrative is based on our top two priorities. First, to ensure that marginalized communities, like fisherfolk, gain access to some added revenue streams or alternative revenue streams based on their precarious nature and risk as a result of climate change. Our second priority is ocean regeneration and restoration.
As these issues are so complex and with occasional tradeoffs, we are nudged to incorporate every single variable, all at once. That nuance can stagnate conversation but we try to mitigate the inherent difficulty in balancing priorities as much as possible.
Why did you start the business? What gap did you see, and attempt to fill, in efforts to reduce climate change?
During the pandemic, I was definitely burnt out, so I decided to do something outside of the norm. I already had exposure and nascent experience in the climate change space through other side quests in life and I had done a lot of policy work.
In policy work, I saw a whole lot of issues in how we think about climate change mitigation for small island developing states, like Jamaica. I got a bit frustrated that we were always on the defensive approach with respect to how we think about protecting ourselves and preparing ourselves for the future.
The entrepreneur within me was pushing for a more aggressive and offensive approach. I wanted us to significantly contribute to solutions with the resources that we have available, and to compete at an international level. The ocean is a critical part of the solution. I also had some practical exposure to the climate change space through renewable energy tech, such as working on solar mobile collectors and lab experiments on artificial photosynthesis within organic electronics. It made sense to me to leverage my background and interests and jump in.
You mentioned that there has been a bit of a “defensive culture,” could you elaborate?
The Global South generally tries to negotiate with the Global North for funding with which to protect ourselves. But it has felt like a losing battle. It has felt as if there isn’t enough leverage for us to really participate more meaningfully in a lot of the conversations.
This motivated me to shift my approach to a more offensive one – to have communities be more involved, have them growing seaweed, creating products and selling those products back into the Global North. This way there can be a more harmonious approach to the way we think about climate change mitigation–a way that minimizes rather than perpetuates the power dynamic between the Global South and the Global North.
Was there any pushback from the traditional Jamaican fishing communities to your new methods and approaches?
We found that the older generation inherently was used to a lot of the older lifestyles that have allowed them to receive income over the past few decades, which was generally efficient for the time.
That is no longer necessarily the case, or at least their ways are not as profitable. We originally came in with approaches that were at least similar to how they would have thought about fishing activities in the past (for example, the ocean parameter). Even though it was greeted with some pushback we found that the younger generation of board members was more adept and willing to explore new ideas. This made us hopeful. Our objective is to grab those that can share our vision, and are able and willing to be trained.
Beyond the community of growers, you’re also a part of a community of entrepreneurs at Halcyon House in DC. How has that experience been?
We are all experiencing similar challenges in our own fields because we tend to be attacking very niche problems. We are all in a precarious spot with respect to the economy, and having to fundraise allows us to bring back all of the stories and lessons that we basically take to better our approaches. Something as simple as them coming back to me with different approaches on how to see different investors and find different opportunities, or even navigating the fundraising space has been incredibly helpful. And for that, I am extremely grateful.
Climate finance is a rapidly evolving space, and you are in some respects a first mover. How do you view that in terms of opportunities and risks?
I’ve been a bit optimistic on this front, with the point of view that this is going to be a long game. The true return on investment hence, won’t necessarily come within the first five years, or even possibly ten. We’re predicting a significant uptick as the pressures of climate change and debris degradation become more evident. And following that will be like a slew of people climbing on the bandwagon, who hadn’t been on board before.
I used to be a tech entrepreneur. In my experience, the climate change space is vastly different from it and far more precarious. We have to think about such aspects as policy, private sector interests, and product-market fit structure along with the dynamic overarching environmental considerations. It is definitely overwhelming if you don’t have the grades, and even if I dare say, financial runway to execute and keep this going.
Five years from now, what would you want to see at Kee Farms?
I definitely want to grab hold of setting operations in three to five more countries within the Caribbean region, especially in the activated carbon market. From an ecosystem standpoint, we are hoping that more attention will be paid to the Caribbean by the Global North with respect to opportunities for climate change mitigation and revenue within the region.