Sometimes, what we don’t know can set us free. Visiting a foreign nation — and seeing local people struggle to eke out a living on arid and unforgiving land — can certainly move and inspire a bright young man, who has never heard “all the reasons things cannot change here,” to come up with a clever plan that may or may not work.
One need look no further than the example of the renowned economist Jeffrey Sachs (whose biography I recently finished) to see both sides of that story. Sachs had an ambitious plan to eradicate extreme poverty in Africa, which he threw himself into with all the considerable passion, talent and fundraising he could muster. And while his Millennium Villages Project did improve the lives of numerous families, it ultimately fell short of its ambitious goals for a number of reasons. Most notably it lacked a sustainable business model.
Tevis Howard traveled to Kenya and saw what Sachs saw, and he too became determined to do something about it. After coming up with numerous business plans, Howard settled on the idea of planting trees and founded Komaza, a Swahili word that means “to encourage growth.” This was a fortunate choice, likely inspired by Wangari Maathai, the founder of the Green Belt movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai championed for human rights, democracy and conservation, all organized around the planting of trees.
Maathai’s work was also echoed in the Great Green Wall initiative — an effort on the part of 11 countries to erect a wall of trees, 10 miles wide and 5,000 miles long, across the entire continent, to keep the Sahara desert from advancing southward.
Trees are inherently more resilient than field crops. Howard, who graduated from Brown with a neuroscience degree, chose to use drought-resistant eucalyptus, an astute choice. These trees provide marketable commodities, which can allow the farmers to participate in the cash economy. Planting them also helps to reverse the rampant deforestation which has been taking place as poor people cut down trees for firewood. Since 1963, forest cover in Kenya has declined from 10 percent to 1.7 percent of the total land area.
Here’s how Komaza’s nonprofit business model works. Farmers are recruited, told that they can make money planting trees. Then they are given training and inputs, in the form of seedlings and fertilizer, and tools. It takes several years for the trees to mature, but Komaza waits for the farmer to repay the initial outlay. In 6-10 years, seedlings that cost $1 each can be sold for $30. Komaza helps connect the farmers to the marketplace where the wood can be sold as charcoal, poles & posts, sawn lumber, manufactured boards, biomass energy, and more
This microforestry approach has provided a threefold increase in income among participating farmers. This has lead to widespread improvements in quality of life, from education, to health care, and access to improved infrastructure. The project also hopes to improve environmental conditions, with a target of 20 million trees planted by 2020. To date they have planted 1.5 million.
The project is organized in a pyramidal structure called the Field Extension Network consisting of multiple cells. Each cell contains a central office and a tree processing facility sufficient to serve 9,000 farmers. Field Directors, manage multiple Field Managers, who manage multiple Field Officers, who manage Facilitators. This allows for a high level of interaction while creating 125 jobs for the team.
Like the trees the enterprise depends on, this whole endeavor, which started in 2008, will take a while to come to fruition. In the meantime, as the roots deepen, the hopes continue to rise. And while Howard’s aspirations may not be as lofty as those of Sachs, he is making a difference that is growing every day.
Image courtesy of Komaza.
RP Siegel, PE, is an author, inventor and consultant. RP, who is a regular contributor to Triple Pundit and Justmeans, sees it as his mission to help articulate and clarify the problems and challenges confronting our planet at this time, as well as the steadily emerging list of proposed solutions. His uniquely combined engineering and humanities background help to bring both global perspective and analytical detail to bear on the questions at hand. He recently traveled to Kenya to cover a water purification initiative byVestergaard.
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