Interview 1 of 2 with Pongamia entrepreneur Marcel van Heesewijk.
– By Kees Rottinghuis
Marcel van Heesewijk is one of the major Pongamia entrepreneurs in the world. He was the inspiration for his niece and nephew to start their own company; The Corekees Foundation. Marcel dedicated his life to the CO2-absorbing and oil-producing Pongamia tree, which we at Corekees also use. His story is unusual as it is adventurous. This is the first part of our two-part Treetalks with Marcel.
Marcel was born in Brazil. Although both his parents were Dutch, he didn’t speak the language or saw the country until he was six. “The first time I came to the Netherlands was by boat in Rotterdam on a misty cold December day.”
After studying Economics in Groningen and doing an MBA in Paris Marcel’s affinity for tech led him into software. He started working at Siemens, but he always wanted to do his own thing. So, he set up his own company; SourcingLink. “We had developed a nice software application for retailers and brought the company to the US stock market. We raised quite a bit of money.” He’s quite modest; the company was valuated at 300 million US dollars. One of the biggest retailers in the world and his biggest client breached the contract with Marcel. A legal battle followed. “We won, but it was already too late.” Marcel jokingly tells he then sold what was left of the company.
“We won, but it was already too late”
This attitude ensured that Marcel was already looking forward and planning his next venture. “The time to start up in hi-tech, with little to no capital, was gone. When I started that was still feasible but not anymore. So, I wanted to shift away from tech to land. I saw land, mainly agricultural land, as the next scarce resource and South America has a lot of it.” In essence, he was going back to his roots.
Marcel was preparing the ground for a different agricultural project when he met someone on an agricultural conference who was working with the Pongamia pinnata tree, which produces biodiesel and protein while also absorbing a lot of CO2. “He was working with this new energy crop on non-food land. It was very practical, he had a few pods and showed them to me. He connected the dots of the peak of fossil fuels and the use of non-food land. The concept as a whole came together quickly. You have a whole list of stuff you then want to crosscheck against all the opportunities you see.”
South America was the perfect fit. “It is the best place in the world where you can reach scalability in a professional manner. It has enormous land availability and a very professional agriculture. That’s how the idea started off.”
The Chaco, a region in the North of Paraguay, was best situated, so he went scouting. First, he went to a Paraguayan contact, Rodrigo, and told him about the project. Rodrigo thought he was crazy: “How can you do something like that in the Chaco, there is only cattle, and nothing grows, it’s very hostile.” Yet he still helped Marcel to find his way around the Chaco.
“So, with Rodrigo’s help we went through the Chaco. But you cannot just go there, there are no paved roads, you have to wait until there is not too much rain. And there are no hotels there, so you need an estancia (farm in Spanish, red.) that is willing to house you. We made a weeklong program. We did 3000 kilometres over sand roads, took soil samples and looked at different vegetations.”
THE FIRST DISASTER
Potential areas for Pongamia sites were identified and test areas were made. “We needed a tree nursery in Paraguay and were able to use the nursery of the University in Asunción. That was our first disaster.” Marcel laughs, “Everybody went on holiday and nobody watered our plants. So straightaway we lost half of our trees.”
“So straightaway we lost half of our trees”
That didn’t hold him back a bit and he continued his test sites, whilst also searching for own land to build a nursery. “We wanted land that had access to a natural source of water, because for a tree factory you need a lot of water. You also need to stay easily accessible; there are farms in the Chaco that are unreachable for six months per year. So, we decided early to be next to the river.”
He and Fredy, his current reforestation site manager, were driving around searching for the right spot. “In the beginning we were looking in the North. As we went there, there was an earlier road going to the river and I said to Fredy: ‘Let’s go to the river here’. He had never been there. We went another 70 km to the river and took a little river taxi and just looked around.” There they found what they were looking for, next to the Rio Paraguay, close to the town of Porto Murtinho, with high riverbanks.
“But that was the easy part. There was nothing there. We had to build everything from the ground up. We rented a boat and went there every day. We didn’t even know how far back our land went at the beginning. We couldn’t get through. A neighbour lent us his horses so we could look around. We went waist deep through the mud and water. Every stone that is there had to be brought in by boat from Brazil. We built the farmhouse, the greenhouses, everything.”
All the hard work and setbacks never seem to affect Marcel. Not losing his $300 million US-dollar company, losing half his plants or simply being miserably soaked and cold in the middle of nowhere. It’s his inexhaustible drive that keeps propelling him forward and makes him successful. But after building his own farm, he still had to work out how to become the biggest Pongamia producer in the world. You can read more about that and his drive and frustrations around climate change in our next interview with him.
Checking the greenhouse