Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Following the forest path

Sundar Bharadwaj MBA1998 and Roy Masamba launched a multi-billion-dollar startup to grow bamboo on a huge scale across Africa

Following-the-forest-path-1140x346_Think_terragrn

In 30 seconds:

  • Company will transform large swathes of barren land across South Africa into sustainable, biodiversity-compliant forests with millions of bamboo and other trees
  • The harvested bamboo will be converted to biomass pellets and shipped to industrial customers around the world in the power-generation and heating sectors to replace coal and wood pellets and reduce carbon emissions
  • Goal is to remove millions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere via the forests and in reduced customer CO2 emissions
  • Project will create 30,000-plus jobs for South Africa’s local communities in the forestry sector and engage 300-plus local South African women who will run the business and become stakeholders.

TERRAGRN: goals and stats
The company’s climate-action plans in figures

  • Grow 200 million+ trees before 2030
  • Remove 4.5 million tonnes of C02 per annum
  • Reduce 1 million tonnes of C02 per annum for industrial customers
  • Empower and employ 300+ female entrepreneurs
  • Create 30,000+ new jobs in the forestry sector over 8 years
  • Share wealth with local stakeholders
  • Contribute to 15 of the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals
  • Protect local biodiversity and enhance soil health
  • Achieve near-zero carbon footprint via power, transport and communications
  • Support social-infrastructure development within local communities
  • Promote gender equality in education and work
  • Create a comprehensive watershed scheme for soil and water conservation.

Sundar Bharadwaj is a business leader with three decades of global experience. “I feel I’ve been preparing for this job for the past 30 years,” he tells me over a Zoom call. When he explains what “this job” entails, I see what he means.

He is CEO of TERRAGRN (pronounced “Terra Green”), one of the largest private-sector, nature-based solutions currently tackling climate change. “I’ve spent years running large organisations across multiple continents,” he adds, “which I’d never have survived if not for the confidence I built up at London Business School. It was the experience at LBS that provided me with the formative skills to look at global issues through multicultural lenses. Vigorous debates in a class represented by 40-plus nationalities provided a perfect setting for appreciating multiple perspectives on the same issue and realising that many global issues need local solutions.”

Joining Sundar is another LBS alumnus, Roy Masamba, who did a two-week residential advanced management programme from 2004-06. “LBS introduced me to new elements of education, mainly finance, capital markets and strategic leadership,” he says. “All of which have been put to use while supporting Sundar in investor pitches, fundraising and long-term planning. I would not have been able to do this without my experience at LBS.”

The third member of TERRAGRN’s founding team is Krishnakumar Raman (“KK”), “who dreamt of the idea” while enjoying retirement, but was lured back to work to develop the company, which was launched in 2021, after curating it for over 40 months.

The first step will be to secure large swathes of barren land for reforestation across South Africa – up to 200,000 hectares. The land will be transformed into sustainable, biodiversity-compliant forests with millions of bamboo and other trees.

Why bamboo? Because it emits 35% more oxygen than other plants, absorbs 40% more CO2, and grows to full maturity in four years. New shoots grow to full height in six to 12 months, providing new green cover to mitigate effects of harvest. This, says Sundar, “means you can maintain a thriving forest without deforestation effects.”

The harvested bamboo will be converted to small biomass pellets and shipped to industrial customers around the world in the power-generation and heating sectors to replace coal and wood pellets and reduce carbon emissions, removing millions of tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere via the forests and in reduced customer CO2 emissions.

To grow bamboo at such a large scale is not easy outside of China due to its flowering pattern. TERRAGRN has overcome this challenge with a tissue-culture facility to generate millions of bamboo saplings.

The next step will be to engage 300-plus female entrepreneurs – local South African women who will run the business and become stakeholders. Bamboo lives for 60 to 120 years, so a female entrepreneur can pass on her part of the business to her daughter, and the legacy continues.

The project will also create 30,000-plus jobs for South Africa’s local communities in the forestry sector. “This,” says Sundar, “is when the business starts to create tangible socioeconomic impact. South Africa will see a lift in the economy after such high unemployment levels. Fundamentally, this is the right model.”

Photo by

Rob Greig and Ben Bergh

“South Africa is only the start – Kenya and Ghana will follow, with five or six more countries later”

A large global bank also believes it’s the right model and has offered to syndicate TERRAGRN’s multi-billion-dollar investment needs in the project, making the company one of the largest startups in the world. And South Africa is only the start – Kenya and Ghana will follow, with five or six more countries later.

This is what Sundar and Roy have to say about TERRAGRN – and each other.

Sundar on Roy

“I first met Roy around 2010, when we were working for Vodafone. He was HR director and he tried to hire me from the UK to work in Kenya. I didn’t take that job, but we formed an excellent relationship. I found out he’d been at LBS six years after I was there, in 1996-98. After that, we bonded.

“Because TERRAGRN is such a huge, people-intensive business, we needed someone who’s a people’s champion, who has run a large people setup. Roy’s was the first name that sprang to mind. When I contacted him, he was wrapping up one of his major engagements in South Africa as chief people officer at the cable TV network MultiChoice. I got to him just when he was thinking, ‘What next?’ Roy saw the opportunity of TERRAGRN, but also the challenges. He said, ‘How do you think we can get the local people involved?’ I knew then that I needed Roy on board. A month later he said, ‘I’m in.’ That was a year ago.

“Since then, the three of us – me, Roy and KK – have been beavering away, building an investor community. Three months ago, things started to turn very, very fast in our direction. The large global bank agreed to bring their own funds and syndicate our entire investment for the South African project. MTN Foundation – part of one of the largest telecommunication companies in Africa – said they would put resources on the ground to support TERRAGRN’s efforts. The World Resources Institute – which works with the UN Climate Change and the World Bank – also got behind us.”

Magnetic personality

“Ever since I met Roy I’ve cherished every moment of interaction with him. He’s one of these magnetic personalities. Once he gets into a conversation, people want to listen. Because he’s worked and studied in so many different countries he has this perfect balance between his ‘Africanness’, understanding local cultures and thinking global. This impacts really positively on his decision-making.

“Roy is very measured in his style of communication and clarity of thought. He’s not an HR person – the type that goes by the rulebook. He’s a commercially minded people champion. This might be partly down to LBS thinking. He went there on an advanced management programme through Vodafone, so he was already identified as a rising star.

“He adds value every step of the way. He takes up two primary roles. One is setting up and developing the organisation that’s going to house 30,000 employees. He also has to select the 300 women entrepreneurs – a very tough job. He’ll have to find a way to upskill them and put organisational structures in place. Roy’s a natural salesman, without having to sell. He is absolutely charming. Even in difficult conversations, he’s calm, composed, assertive, firm and clear about what he needs to get out of it.

“Roy’s other role is Land Acquisition Lead – and he’s performing phenomenally on it. That means getting all the land approved or allocated to us, on long lease, from the different custodians, and securing government consent to generate forests. We have to go through so many procedures with the local chiefs, the agriculture, forest and fisheries department, and the biodiversity units in the South African government. Roy is the man on the ground. He’s made connections with local chiefs through his own network. He pitched the idea of TERRAGRN to the King of Mpumalanga province and his council last month, and we are now working to finalise a long land-lease agreement with the royal household.

“He’s got this British sense of humour, quite cynical. I’ll be talking about something serious and he’ll make a remark and we all burst out laughing. He can lighten up any tough conversation. He takes the mick out of all of us. I’m very commercially minded and I keep thinking, ‘We need to find investors, we need to find customers, we need to do this and that.’ Roy, although he understands that, takes a different approach. The three founders, we live in three different countries, and we work well as a team. It’s phenomenal.

“We will make money. Absolutely. We’ll make a lot of money for the community, a lot for our investors, promoters and founders. It’s a $1bn turnover business from year 10. And that’s just in South Africa. This is absolutely a money-spinner, but we’re doing this by looking after our planet. We’re also writing a blueprint. Anyone who wants to take this idea, and do it in their own country, is welcome. We need everyone involved. I wake up every morning so energised, doing something that will make a difference.”

Roy on Sundar

“When Sundar first contacted me about TERRAGRN, I’d just left the corporate world, my last group CHRO role, and I was in that space when certain things are meant to happen, you’re in the right place at the right time. I’d been looking to do something of my own, something more entrepreneurial. I was immediately captivated by the purpose of this project. It was so elegantly simple. And I knew the impact it would have on a continent that’s close to my heart. I was born in Zimbabwe. I’ve seen my mother’s struggles, my grandmother’s struggles, my sister’s struggles. So, doing something to help balance that chronic gender imbalance is a huge strand of motivation. The impact, the scale of it, the fact it’s going to give generational contribution to the fight against climate change – all these elements came together in my early conversations with Sundar. I was on board. I couldn’t resist.

“I did my MBA at Cranfield, and one of the highlights was we beat LBS at rugby! So, when I had the chance to go to LBS, on an executive advanced management programme, I was like, ‘Yes, of course – after beating them at rugby I’m going to spend two weeks drinking their Kool-Aid!’ But there were so many rewarding elements of my LBS course. It also brought together senior leaders from across Africa, who I got to know deeply.”

Global perspective

“Sundar and I first interacted during our Vodafone days. I talked to him about a job opportunity which didn’t materialise, but when we found out we’d both been to LBS that sealed our bond. That’s what brought us back together, overseas, seven years later.

The global perspective, being able to work across cultures, is something very strong we share. He’s from India, I’m from Zimbabwe, and we’ve both worked in Europe and the UK.

“I’m always wearing my CHRO hat, asking, ‘How do we place this huge team we need to bring in?’ Having lived and worked across Africa, I know the territory more than most. I know about African talent. Sundar is infectious in his optimism. He exudes it. He’s always got a smile and boundless energy. He’ll be sending you things at 1am, 2am... He juggles hundreds of balls.

“And whenever he interacts with you, he has the time for you. He’s not distracted. His listening skills are fantastic. There’s never a negative experience in the way he does things. And of course, he’s as smart as hell.

“As CEO, he’s always seeing 360 degrees of this project. His ability to project-manage, chaperone things forward, and be seen on the sidelines – to find out what needs to be brought in and when – has been the most helpful.”

No hierarchy

“Sundar is very resourceful. His sales background really helps. He’s got the tenacity to follow through on connections. We’ve opened doors with amazing people across the world who fall in love with what we’re doing and want to jump on. A lot of that has been down to how he farms his network.

“He has the overall leadership role, but he does it in a way that [says] we’re all in this together. There’s no hierarchy. His humility is something else; he always gives credit where it’s due. We speak every day, myself, Sundar and KK. It’s a team of three that gets on like a house on fire. We’re like brothers now. If a day goes by and we haven’t spoken, it feels weird.

“Sundar and I are both quietly ambitious. There’s fire inside us to do bigger, grander things that are unthinkable, but we’re going to march on. We share that quality. We wouldn’t be involved in this project if we didn’t think crazy! But we’re trying to act normal. When I go to bed I think, ‘What the hell are we trying to do here…?’ but it’s energising us. We’re not stopping.”

Follow TERRAGRN’s progress on LinkedIn, Twitter and www.terragrn.com

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