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‘Why We Do’ with Danya Hakeem, Director of Agriculture and Circular Economy Innovation

March 13, 2020

· 7 min read
Ian Chipman Editorial Director

We often think about what we do at Elemental as building a machine for deploying climate technologies. However over the past decade, we have learned again and again that innovation is really about people, not just technology. The why behind what people choose to do is the driver of progress. It’s an engine steered by ingenuity, but powered by hearts.

So why do we do what we do? Here, Danya Hakeem, our Director of Agriculture and Circular Economy Innovation, shares what drew her into her work, why Elemental is the right venue for the change she wants to see in the world, and what she’s excited to see flourish in 2020. This is part of a series of profiles that, as we recruit and get to know our next cohort of entrepreneurs, we hope will help you get to know us.

DxIs in Hana
Danya and her fellow Directors of Innovation in Hana, Maui.

You wear a couple different hats leading Elemental’s agriculture and circular economy work. What drives you to work in these two areas?

Whether it’s billions of tossed plastic cups or millions of tons of discarded clothes, we’ve created a disastrous mess through our over consumerism. I was raised by a single mother whose deep-rooted immigrant values were embedded in me at an early age, and I continue to try to live by her “clean plate club” mentality, never wasting food, wearing clothes until they fall apart (ok, maybe she doesn’t love that!) and deriving great satisfaction every time I use my reusable cup and cutlery while I’m on the move. While I didn’t grow up on a farm like many working in food system change, I do have generations of ancestors who did. And my grandfather was a successful food entrepreneur, owning a chain of falafel restaurants across Syria. I’ve even heard claims he invented falafel, but the jury is still out on that one.

Food connects the human race everywhere you look, but it’s really notable how it can do so in heavy-conflict zones where language, culture, and religious beliefs can create vicious divides. Early in my career on assignment for National Geographic in Israel and Palestine, this dynamic was undeniable. With so much division both physically and emotionally, one of the only remaining unifiers is a shared love of hummus, pita bread, and of course, falafel. While that’s often not enough to dissolve generations of trauma, breaking bread can be a first step towards reconciliation.

There was something else that drew me to working in agriculture and the circular economy. Unlike some industries, individuals like you and me have the power to genuinely make an impact through our food and packaging decisions multiple times per day. These decisions are a gateway to environmentalism. You may be someone who’s so passionate about polar bears that you run for office and impact national policy on oil drilling. For many of us, though, the dire messages about the ice-caps melting just inspire fear and inaction. But you can decide to eat an organic peach or bring your own reusable cup, and those small actions are the beginnings of broader systems-level change. My hope is that people see themselves, as well as their relationships with the broader agricultural and waste sectors, as major players in combating climate change.

What are you hoping to achieve through your work at Elemental and with our portfolio companies?

I was drawn to Elemental’s mission of supporting solutions that build a more robust, equitable, and regenerative food system. And in order to transform our linear and extractive global economy into a more circular and regenerative one we need to engage corporates, policymakers, and individuals across every sector, economic class, and geography simultaneously. Thankfully at Elemental, over the past decade we’ve supported a broad portfolio of companies building a circular economy, whether it’s through lowering our reliance on fossil fuels with renewable energy, amassing large datasets that enable shared mobility options, and even utilizing waste CO2 to “green” buildings. And we are just getting started!

What are the main themes in the food and agriculture landscape you see coming into focus in 2020?

  • Digging into the soil carbon connection. I’m excited by the increased awareness of the soil carbon connection, and the expanding efforts to incentivize using soil as a CO2 storehouse, from initiatives like Zero Foodprint and Restore California, California’s Healthy Soils Initiative, and Healthy Soils Hawaiʻi, just to name a few. In order to fully harness the power of agricultural soils to become a carbon sink, we need to be able to measure with confidence how the management of agricultural lands will affect soil carbon content. At Elemental, we’re eager to support solutions that can measure, report, verify and ultimately help to incentivize soil carbon sequestration.
  • Reforestation + biodiversity for the win. Scientists are showing how reforestation can be a major solution to climate change, but we can’t forget that these initiatives need to be focused on endemic trees and biodiversity over monocropping of invasives. I’m especially encouraged by companies that can help rapidly reforest while also integrating food production, like our portfolio companies TerViva and Propagate Ventures. In Hawaii, local initiatives like the Hawaiʻi ‘Ulu Co-op as well as alternative corn, soy and palm oil solutions can alleviate the push for deforestation.
  • Alt proteins and OG proteins. I’m encouraged by the rise in alternative sources of protein for human, animal, and fish food using a variety of raw materials, ranging from tree crops, plants, insects, and even methane and CO2. At the same time, it’s important to not overlook that livestock and poultry play a big role in creating a holistic, regenerative food system, especially at the local level. That’s why we remain interested in supply-chain platforms like Farm Link Hawaiʻi that can increase access to local producers.

What about on the circular economy side — what are you excited about there?

  • Innovation through regulation. Increased awareness of food waste and plastic pollution is spurring some really ambitious policy changes at the local, national, and global level. China, which already banned imported waste and recyclables, recently introduced measures to slash single-use plastics. Hawaii just passed one of the strongest disposable plastics laws in the country. New York, California, and Austin have all adopted new requirements to reduce the amount of food waste that ends up in landfills. These types of policies are galvanizing innovation, and we want to see more municipalities follow suit. I’m also intrigued by efforts to reduce the amount of waste we’re generating in the first place through data collection and source reduction platforms.
  • Closing the clothing loop. In addition to broader plastics and food waste awareness, consumers are starting to reckon with the steep environmental costs associated with fast fashion. As much as 60% of fabric fibers are synthetic and derived from fossil fuels, and 85% of textiles get landfilled or incinerated in the U.S. But a new wave of fashion resale initiatives, led by our portfolio company Trove, is showing how large corporates are starting to make big sustainability commitments. That has huge environmental implications, but also shows job creation potential. To continue to push forward on this challenge we are particularly interested in technologies that can create renewable fibers from mixed textile waste as well as companies with business models that reduce consumption and incentivize reuse.