An Action Learning Project on Carbon Credits With a Sustainability Startup
2 March 2023
Action Learning and how it began
Choosing the right MBA program was one of the most difficult decisions of our life. This experience will not only define our career path, but it will also give us the required skill set to be successful. We already possessed on average 12 years of work experience, so our choice had to be something that complemented our work experience and adds something substantial to each of our resumes.
The two big reasons why the three of us picked ASB, and decided to come here were the MIT connection and the Action Learning (AL) initiative. AL is one of the biggest reasons why ASB was voted as the most innovative MBA program globally.
Even though we were unfamiliar with many of the topics related to our first AL project, such as marketing or carbon credits, it was exciting, as ASB would provide us access to a business coach who is a professional and experienced member of the industry, as well as a faculty advisor to help us on the academic side, and the AL team, to also assist us.
The Team : Sudhanshu, Iskandar and Thiagu
The AL team carefully curates the projects and the teams, and our team was a perfect blend of international and local students, all from completely different backgrounds. It felt so fresh to be a part of that team because everyone was starting at the same level and everyone was a newcomer. We each had our strengths and did our best to utilize them as we worked on our Action Learning project. It seemed like the 3 of us (Sudhanshu, Iskandar, and Thiagu), were fated to work together on this project.
The fact that we came from three varied backgrounds made for an interesting collaboration. Iskandar is a chartered accountant with ten years of international work experience in the United States, Singapore, and Malaysia, while Sudhanshu is a consultant who specializes in developing growth strategies. His most recent role was Chief Strategy Officer for an agriculture company in India. Thiagu is a Diplomatic and Administrative Officer who works with the Government of Malaysia with almost a decade of experience in government services.
The Host : Tabah Asia
We got Tabah Asia as the host for our AL project. Although Tabah is a new company, its founders have been working in the sector for over 20 years and know in and out of the sustainability space. The host briefly described their background to us at our initial meeting. Tabah Asia offers organizations integrated services and solutions to boost revenue, manage risks, encourage stakeholder management, boost brand value, and find pertinent solutions and commercial opportunities arising from the climate change agenda.
Akharamsyah, Norrita, and Rob (Tabah Management) were all very senior people who have held top positions in the Malaysian government and private sector, and it was a great learning experience interacting with them.
The Task : Problem Statements
Despite being a startup, our host was an expert in their field, therefore there was limited room for us to come up with a suitable issue to address. The first few sessions focused on our reading and comprehension of the sector, and the difficulties experienced by our host.
Our discussion with the host led us to the opinion that the hardest challenge to overcome is getting other parties to join their projects. The issue of ownerships and rights over carbon credits was one of the obstacles. Convincing them, based on the project’s feasibility, was another component of the problem. These problems led us to formulate the following problem statement:
“How can Tabah Asia enable relevant stakeholders to acquire carbon credits and maximize long term sustainable revenue using Verra standards?”
The host was pleased with this approach, because it enabled them to secure new projects and increase their earnings. In order to determine the requirements for ownership of carbon credits, and how they would be distributed in accordance with Verra regulations in the market, we based the project’s scope on stakeholder analysis. In order to assess the future profitability of Tabah’s business model, we chose to research the market outside of Malaysia, and how carbon credits are valued for the pricing analysis.
Although this was a very tough ask, as none of us had any clue about carbon credits and their life cycle. But precisely because of that, it has been one of the most enriching experiences of the entire semester. We read multiple project reports of various completed projects under Verra and Gold Standard from different parts of the world to understand how carbon credits are allocated, and who are the key stakeholders during the entire journey of the project. We even studied the prices of American and European markets to understand how carbon credits are priced, and the expected prices that they will reach in the coming years.
Our Solution and how we got there
Stakeholder Mapping: The Findings and The Recommendations
We narrowed our focus to a specific project that the host is currently working on, and completed a stakeholder mapping under the guidance of the business coach and faculty adviser.
In order to understand the key stakeholders in a typical project, we requested our hosts to bring us to meetings where we interacted with their potential clients, and asked them various questions to understand their motive behind the project, and what the key drivers are.
From these discussions and interviews, we carefully identified the key players in a typical project, but identifying them was not enough. There was nothing available online in terms of mapping these stakeholders for a carbon credit project, so we had to come up with our own structure. We carefully designed a Power Benefit Matrix for Tabah, which enables them to plot the various stakeholder in the matrix, and which gives them a clear picture of whom to focus on going forward, and which key people can win the project. This is 100% original research and nothing of the sort exists anywhere, not even on the web. To test our matrix, we introduced it to one of the projects Tabah was eying for a while, but was not having any results with.
After attending a couple of meetings for the project, and interviewing a few people we plotted every stakeholder on the matrix and eureka! We were able to identify where the roadblock was, and what Tabah was missing. When we showed the matrix to our hosts, they immediately agreed that they have been focusing on the wrong people, and they really appreciated our matrix.
We also identified potential risks that should be taken into account for successful stakeholder management. As a result of stakeholder analysis, our research provided a framework that is suitable for identifying important stakeholders in a typical carbon credit project. Nevertheless, Tabah Asia must evaluate the risks in order to comprehend how shifting stakeholder dynamics may affect the project.
Pricing: The Findings and The Recommendations
The next problem was devising a pricing strategy, which was the most difficult part of the project because there is zero data on this subject, and our hosts, business coach, and faculty advisor was aware of this as well.
Malaysia would follow Verra standards, which do not price carbon credits, something that made it even more difficult. Prices for compliance markets and the carbon tax are typically easily accessible. Data on the voluntary market are not made public, though. Additionally, Verra, the certification standard that Malaysia chose, does not determine the price for carbon credits. Price information is also unavailable. As a result, we researched the data from various standards that was available.
We were trying to come up with a pricing strategy against a standard that has no pricing embedded in its structure. We again hit the books and read everything that was available on the web about pricing. We even went as far as studying the Gold Standard, which is not really relevant for Malaysia, to expand our knowledge. All that reading paid off, as we noticed that there is a very close link between carbon credit prices and project’s incorporation of the Sustainable Development Goals. We then proposed our design of the quality framework, and how we can categorize different SDGs into buckets. We then created a pricing model which differentiates between quality and investment.
Our research has led us to the notion that the price will be set above the cost price. As a result, we developed the following pricing model, which combines the cost-plus and value-based pricing strategies:
P = X + Y
X = Costs (Investment + Project + Carbon Costs)
Y = Value (Quality Impact)
P = Carbon Credit Price
As of now, ours is the only framework that quantifies quality, there is again nothing available on the web or anywhere else, which gives a clear explanation of what is a high-quality carbon credit and ours is the only model through which one can calculate the premium that comes with the quality. Our hosts were very excited to see this framework, as they themselves did not have any answer if anyone asks them why the carbon credit is worth a certain amount. Our quality framework actually allows them to justify the price not only to the buyer, but also to Verra.
Price sensitivity analysis was performed to test the framework, and the results were nearly identical to what the market demanded. The host appreciated the structure and chose to apply it in their subsequent pitch.
In order to support and further enhance revenue for Tabah Asia and the landowners with whom they collaborate, we advised the host to implement the Quality Impact Framework into Tabah Asia’s project. The framework can improve the project’s VCU count, enhancing income. To raise awareness of SDG values in relation to carbon credit price, we also advised the host to introduce the Quality Impact Framework to SIRIM QAS (a Malaysian validation body) and Bursa (Malaysian carbon credit exchange platform).
The price analysis’s findings confirm that the project is viable (Market rate > Cost). Tabah Asia can implement the Quality Impact Framework and aim to accomplish more SDGs for greater carbon credit valuation to increase profitability.
All in all, this was a fantastic experience filled with multiple learning opportunities about a completely new sector. Probably ours was the only group that had 2 distinct problem statements, the answer to either was not available anywhere. We however, stepped up and came out with not one but two original works, which are highly innovative and are helping move the sector forward. The result is extremely gratifying as our hosts love our solutions and will incorporate them in their own sales deck. They are extremely satisfied with our efforts, and have told us multiple times that they want to be the host next term as well. This not only gives us a feeling of accomplishment but also gives us the assurance that we have not let ASB down. After this experience, we are looking forward to other AL projects and the opportunities they will bring along with them.