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Grow-Trees co-founder Karan Shah ’09 (right) plants a mangrove sapling near the Rukshmani Temple in Dwarka, Gujarat, India.
Grow-Trees co-founder Karan Shah ’09 (right) plants a mangrove sapling near the Rukshmani Temple in Dwarka, Gujarat, India.

Seeing the Trees for the Forest

(This article first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Haverford magazine.)

Who doesn’t like trees? Who wouldn’t like to see more trees planted— particularly in places where deforestation has devastated the environment? The answer for Karan Shah ’09 was obvious: Plenty of people.

So Shah, a web-savvy economics major, came up with an ingenious way to help people support tree planting with just the click of a mouse. Since its launch just under two years ago, Shah’s Grow-Trees.com has helped plant more than 251,000 trees in India, where nearly 50 percent of the land has been degraded by deforestation, destructive agricultural practices and other environmental challenges.

“The motivation for Grow-Trees was twofold,” says Shah, a resident of Mumbai. “Firstly, a lot of people want to plant trees, but lack the resources, time or ability. I wanted to create a solution for them. Secondly, I wanted to create a positive substitute to a conventional greeting card. By planting trees to celebrate festivals, birthdays, anniversaries and other special occasions, you can achieve the private purpose of greeting someone and also do social good.”

At Grow-Trees.com, which Shah cofounded with his father Pradip Shah, it costs $1 to plant one tree. The site touts the idea of planting a tree to honor a birth, a marriage or an anniversary. (They’ll even send an emailed greeting to whomever you designate.) And they promote corporate programs, selling companies on the idea of using tree plantings as a way to thank customers or honor star employees.

Currently, Grow-Trees.com partners with local organizations in seven planting locations in six Indian states, where tree-planting projects also create jobs for the poor. Plantings are only done on community or public land, including the peripheries of wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, at holy sites and around rural villages whose residents are being trained to nurture the replanted forests so that they can continue to provide fruit, fuel and fodder in the future. And Grow-Trees.com submits to independent auditing in all of these locations to certify that the number of trees the organization says are being planted really are.

Shah credits his Haverford education under the Honor Code with instilling the compassion and concern that motivated him to develop Grow-Trees.com. “My liberal arts education also taught me to think creatively,” he says. “Conceptualizing and implementing an idea that provided a market-based solution to address global warming, deforestation and rural poverty, and improve wildlife habitat and water catchment areas, really appealed to me. And going to school on an arboretum campus with over 2,500 labeled trees made me appreciate the beauty of trees every day!”

Shah says Grow-Trees.com aims to launch new projects outside India in the next year, starting with countries in South Asia, such as Bangladesh. “I really have a dream,” says Shah. “My goal is to go global and plant millions of trees a year.”

—Eils Lotozo

The ramp from Magill Library with Ryan Gym and Sharpless Hall in the background.

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