An international team led by David Hughes, founder of Penn State’s PlantVillage project, has been named among 15 milestone winners of the latest round of the XPRIZE and Musk Foundation’s Carbon Removal Competition. The prize comes with a $1 million award funded by Elon Musk, which the PlantVillage team will use to demonstrate their capacity to draw down one billion tons of carbon per year in a sound and economically attractive way that benefits low-income farmers in Africa.
For Hughes, who is also Huck Chair in Global Food Security, professor of entomology and biology, and director of the USAID Current and Emerging Threats to Crops Innovation Lab at Penn State, this latest development in the decade-long story of PlantVillage promises to further extend the viability of his vision for the program.
"This is an incredibly exciting validation of the approach that PlantVillage bets on, communities of African farmers and youth creating change,” said Hughes. “The goal of the carbon XPRIZE is massive carbon drawdown at an affordable price. We believe African farmers and African land offer the realistic potential of 1 ton of carbon, permanently sequestered at less than $25/ton. This prize money allows us to prove that case."
The global market for carbon credits is enormous — $272 billion in 2020 — and growing. Many companies across the globe currently purchase industrial machine-enabled carbon offset credits at a price ranging from $600 to $2,000 per ton. Hughes believes his approach, centered on planting trees and permanently storing carbon as biochar in the soil, can do much better.
The PlantVillage team’s novel idea is to re-imagine smallholder African farms as “AI-powered carbon capture cubes,” said Hughes. This approach leverages a range of systematic tools and methods, which include: tagging trees with QR codes, mapping farmland with satellite imagery, deploying AI-enabled apps onto cellphones, and tracking carbon sequestration credits in a radically open and transparent way via the fast, inexpensive and scalable Solana blockchain platform, a digitally distributed public ledger of cryptocurrency transactions that exists across a network.
One critical aim of this unique system is to make carbon credits publicly verifiable, with real-time monitoring. Another is to raise 200 million farmers out of poverty in Africa by developing a new income stream for them to be paid by customers seeking carbon credits on the global market. The overall vision for the project is to empower these farmers to collectively pull down a billion tons of carbon dioxide every year by planting and growing trackable trees on their land, helping not only themselves but the global community as well.
"Speaking on behalf of our entire agroforestry team and the broader PlantVillage Dream Team in Kenya, I can say we are all so honored to win this prize," said John Mayieka, Agroforestry Team lead for PlantVillage.
“We are so excited to have won,” added PlantVillage country director John Chelal. “As Kenyans, we are proud to lead the way in helping the world fight climate change."
For Hughes, the carbon removal project is a further development in his long-term goal of taking Penn State's land grant mission into the 21st century. PlantVillage was conceived from the very start as a tool for bringing the latest and best Penn State research expertise into the hands of struggling farmers.
Prior to planting and monitoring trees, the international PlantVillage team focused on addressing crop diseases in Africa with AI-enabled cellphones and mitigating crop destruction during the 2020 African locust crisis. In August of 2021, with the support of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, the team’s focus shifted to exploring how they could direct their energies toward carbon drawdown. By September, systemic planting and monitoring had begun in two Kenyan counties, Busia and Bungoma. To date, the team has planted and set up monitoring for more than 770,000 trees, and now expanded to Burkina Faso.
The XPRIZE is an intensely rigorous execution and demonstration competition. From a field of 1,133 teams, 287 teams met the eligibility criteria for the Milestone Awards. Seventy expert reviewers screened and ranked the inbound proposals for scientific validity, and selected the top 60 teams. Judges then went deeper on operations plans, performance data, life cycle analysis and cost estimates in order to ultimately select the top 15 teams taking home the interim $1 million Milestone Awards. The winning teams represent Australia, Canada, France, Kenya, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
For PlantVillage, this Milestone Award is actually XPRIZE win number two. In November 2021, a subgroup of the team, led by Penn State Ecology graduate student Edward Amoah, was selected as one of 23 teams to receive a $100,000 XPRIZE Carbon Removal Student Award. The recognition hinged on the team’s demonstration of a viable method for tracking and monitoring carbon sequestration on African farms.
The overall XPRIZE Carbon Removal Competition now completely resets with a new, open playing field before $80 million in grand prizes are awarded in 2025. To win the grand prize, teams must demonstrate a working solution at a scale of at least 1,000 tons removed per year; model their costs at a scale of 1 million tons per year; and show a pathway to achieving a scale of gigatons per year in future, as validated by a third party. The grand prize winner and runners up will be announced on Earth Day 2025.
Visit the XPRIZE Carbon Removal website for more information.