Measuring impact can feel overwhelming. For locally led organizations that restore degraded land through growing trees, the challenge starts with choosing the right indicators, data sources, apps and platforms to use. It grows more complex when it’s time to collect, analyze and communicate that data.

Enter the trade-offs: different stakeholders, like funders and government agencies, want to see different information, budgets for monitoring and evaluation are meager, and time is tight. These differences may seem minor, but they have a trickle-down effect. Even slightly different definitions for common terms like a “hectare restored” or a “tree” can radically change the data and methods used to measure progress.

Ultimately, these differences make it hard to understand why certain projects succeed and why others fail – and how the lessons from one portfolio of projects can apply to another.

A Single Recipe for Monitoring Restoration Progress

Bringing coherence to a sector that is on the verge of channeling billions of dollars to local organizations across Africa, Asia and Latin America is not easy, to say the least. But our recent work has given us confidence that researchers, funders and project developers can use a single recipe for restoration monitoring.

Why are we optimistic? Our TerraFund for AFR100 program, capitalized by a group of donors and managed by WRI, One Tree Planted and Realize Impact, is now funding hundreds of non-profit community organizations and for-profit businesses that restore land across 27 African countries. These “restoration champions” use a variety of techniques to bring prosperity to rural landscapes, from growing trees on farms in agroforestry systems to planting native trees within degraded community forests.

For our first 100 projects, we needed a practical solution to chart progress and measure impact across the portfolio, a framework that can grow as we fund more champions. We also needed indicators that cover a breadth of benefits beyond “the number of trees grown,” such as the amount of carbon stored, jobs created, livelihoods improved and revenue earned. We also needed the context behind each of these numbers to tell a comprehensive story of impact.

The product of hundreds of hours of work from technical experts and on-the-ground tree growing organizations is our own guide: How We Monitor, Report, and Verify (MRV). It presents a practical, cost-effective and scalable recipe for the future of restoration monitoring.

The mindset of the sector is already shifting, based on the concrete results that we are producing every week. More and more organizations are now joining forces with us, including the Priceless Planet Coalition, One Tree Planted, Realize Impact, Restor, the Nature Conservancy, City for Credits and Meta. Together, we hope to improve this guide through testing with projects working around the world.

The Ingredients for Restoration Monitoring, Reporting and Verification

Developing an MRV process is like creating a new dish that pays homage to existing recipes but isn’t like anything you’ve ever tasted or seen before. It requires equal parts creativity, scientific expertise and evidence from the field.

With any new recipe, you have to impress the critics – and accept that someone will find something wrong with your dish. Our process for monitoring, reporting and verifying is that recipe. We define our indicators – what they mean; why each is important; how to measure them; how to collect the data; how often to quality assess, aggregate, manage and verify it; and how to share the results with project developers and funders.

Documenting that detailed process enables the TerraFund partners to visualize the big picture – the product of a delicious dish – and how all the pieces come together. Detailed mapping of the workflow, like the one below, highlights where project developers or analysts can save time without sacrificing quality.

Figure showing how we monitor, report and verify.

To illustrate this point, let’s walk through an example of how each ingredient is combined on a real restoration site in Malawi, managed by our partner Wells for Zoë. All of this information is housed on WRI’s TerraMatch platform, which 120 projects use to track their impact.     

Ingredient #1: Geospatial Polygons

We start by collecting a geospatial polygon of the restoration site, along with an “attribute table” that includes the site’s name, the date that work started, its country and the restoration interventions employed. This information helps the team understand the scale and scope of each project, as well as the ecological context of the surrounding landscape.

The quality of each polygon is thoroughly assessed because it reveals the exact location and size of each restoration site. If it’s drawn incorrectly, it will render all further analysis incorrect.

Restoration site monitoring using polygons.
The site is located in Mzuzu, Northern Malawi. Photo by Edward Saenz.

Ingredient #2: Independent Satellite Monitoring Data

Once we have assessed the quality of each geospatial polygon, we combine four types of satellite data to compile baseline information about the land – before planting begins:

  1. We count the number of hectares under restoration within the polygon.
  2. We count the number of trees on the site, using high-resolution imagery.
  3. We assess the percentage of tree cover, using WRI’s tropical tree cover dataset.
  4. We analyze imagery from the past 10 years, noting down the significance and dates of historical losses in tree cover, fires in the area and other disturbances.

Establishing an independent baseline allows us to check the data that project developers submit in their reports and to understand the ecology of the landscape. Then, we conduct that same analysis after 3 years, and then 6 years to assess how the project is improving the landscape over time, for example, by increasing the number of trees. We can also detect threats to a project, such as a large fire that burned down freshly planted trees.

When we combine these types of satellite data (and bring in our intimate personal knowledge of each project), we add some “spice” to our recipe. For example, in the Wells for Zoë site shown below, we know that the team built contour berms and natural dams that divert and collect runoff water to prevent soil erosion, protecting newly planted saplings that live on the steeper slopes of the hills. With these details, WRI’s analysts can then adapt their techniques to each situation.

Looking at this polygon, we calculated that Wells for Zoë is restoring 203 hectares on this site, outlined below. If the number of hectares in the polygon differs from what the project developer originally indicated, we consider the polygon the source of truth. The file also tells us that this project is restoring the land using enrichment planting, or adding trees to an existing degraded forest. Because Wells for Zoë included all the land that is under restoration in the polygon – not just the areas where people planted trees – we count and give credit to all the work that local communities do to restore the landscape.

Then, we counted 28,636 trees on the site thanks to high-resolution satellite imagery. Those trees covered 10.3% of the site. This low number reflects the degraded state of the landscape, where charcoal harvesting, fire, flood, hurricanes, uncontrolled grazing, pest outbreaks and agricultural expansion have brought deforestation. While some disturbances are natural and some are human-driven, both can jeopardize major tree restoration projects if not managed effectively.

Tree density map and shapefile.
On the left, you can see the areas of the site with few (red) and many (green) dots. Red represents areas with sparse trees whereas green is denser. On the right, you can see the percentage of tree cover on the site in 2020. Left image by Vielca and right image from Global Forest Watch.

Our disturbance analysis told us that some of this degradation happened in the past decade. Of the site’s 203 total hectares, 2.4 hectares have lost vegetation, shown in pink below. These insights can help project developers lower the risk of the most common disturbances by developing risk mitigation plans in advance. If fires ravaged a site in the past, for example, a project developer can mobilize local fire brigades to put out the flames, if they return.

View of degradation with vegetation loss in pink.
Each of the pink squares represents an area that has lost tree cover. Image from Global Forest Watch.

Ingredient #3: Progress Reports From the Field

Independent data only gives the “what” of restoration, not the “why.” The information we collect on WRI’s TerraMatch platform helps us understand the specific challenges and successes of each project. First, project developers upload their socioeconomic and environmental impact targets, as stated in their contracts with TerraFund. Then, every six months, they submit a progress report for each of the nurseries that they operate, each site that they are restoring and for their entire project.

We collect information on ecological data, like the number of seedlings of each species grown in each nursery and planted on each site. And we collect socioeconomic data on the number and type of new jobs created and people whose livelihoods were improved, broken down into demographic categories like gender and youth. Each year, projects also submit detailed financial reports, telling us how they spend their funding and verifying that information with employment records and other documentation.

Once these reports are submitted, TerraFund’s project managers assess the quality of each number and narrative against the project’s goals and timeline. These checks help project managers guide projects through challenging moments, like a fire on a site, a staff transition or a sudden dip in revenue.

Progress report for Wells for Zoe.
TerraMatch collects reports every six months from every project.

After the project manager approves each six-month report, WRI’s analysts compile the results for every indicator, providing a view of progress across the entire portfolio. Adding this data to the tally every six months helps us give credit to projects as they restore land and allows us to report back to our funders. The team also takes the insights from this analysis to improve our reporting forms – and gather even better data over time.

Wells for Zoe impact.

Ingredient #4: Verification of Submitted Data

WRI is pioneering a practical approach that empowers locally led restoration projects to provide reliable and robust data throughout their entire project lifecycle. In the first 2-3 years that a sapling is growing into a tree, even the latest algorithms that employ high-resolution satellite imagery can’t show progress in enough detail to verify that projects are doing what they say. Our verification method complements satellite monitoring with field measurements, geotagged photos and drone images to verify what’s truly happening in a project’s early years. 

When Wells for Zoë submits a polygon, that indicates that the team has selected a site and begun to dig holes and berms. Then, when the rain comes, they plant trees in the holes to improve their survival. A few months later, Wells for Zoë submits a progress report on TerraMatch, which in this case, showed that they planted 12 native tree species on the site. Geotagged photos and drone images confirm this progress by tying what’s in the report to other sources of data.

Drone imagery and geotagged photos.
A combination of 1-cm-resolution drone imagery across the landscapes (left two images) and geotagged photos (right) help us see change in the landscape. Photo: africaDrone

WRI also visited the site in Malawi to measure tree biomass and carbon sequestered at baseline. In partnership with Michigan State University (MSU), we measured tree count, diameter at breast height and crown projected area. We also wrote down the site’s coordinates, the tree species and a description of the landscape. By repeating this process five years later and comparing those results to the baseline, we can measure how much carbon the trees have stored over time.

WRI and MSU are rolling out this work to 35 TerraFund projects this year, and MSU will train experts in the area to conduct this work themselves. Combined with assessments of the landscapes that surround each of the projects, we can understand exactly how trees are improving the environment and livelihoods.

Wells for Zoe restoration implementation.
MSU and WRI are training a generation of local experts to conduct this analysis. Photo: Edward Saenz/WRI

Improving the Recipe for Restoration Monitoring

The results of this hard work serve three audiences: Our TerraFund restoration champions can use the package of satellite imagery of their land, geotagged photos, drone images and independently gathered evidence to showcase their progress and impact. Wells for Zoë reported that they noticed a mentality change on the team and with local workers because completed work is seen, and drone and geotagged images are used to quickly identify damaged contour berms that need attention, allowing the team to fix issues faster. Our donors can understand the impact of their investment for each organization and for the whole portfolio. And WRI, Realize Impact and One Tree Planted can use that data to manage risks and share capacity with project developers.

This year, our team is working to package this data for each project developer, bringing together reports, the results of satellite analyses and verification data to tell TerraFund champions’ impact story. At the same time, we will closely track the costs of researching, developing and carrying out this analysis. Scale goes hand-in-hand with reducing costs.

We will also look to expand our framework to measure even more complicated socioeconomic and ecosystem services, such as water quality, biodiversity, soil health or crop productivity. Together with government agencies, we could even adapt these techniques to track change across entire landscapes.

By the end of 2024, we will have tried and tested our carbon measurement approach and collected baseline data for 185 TerraFund projects. We also plan to assess the value of the progress data we have, reassessing the replicability, cost-effectiveness and scalability of our methods. Can we lower the costs through partnerships and enable African organizations to improve our methods? 

Our vision for 2030 is to demonstrate progress and impact with evidence, showing verified baselines and change overtime. We hope to do this alongside our TerraFund champions, building our relationships. Although WRI will start by training project developers to collect geotagged photos and draw polygons, and derive meaningful insights from the data, we hope that leading project developers will adopt these methods on their own.

Hundreds of organizations are embracing this vision of a practical, cost-effective and scalable recipe for monitoring, reporting on and verifying the impact of restoration projects. Will you join us?