Eliminating Poverty One Tree at a Time

Planting a tree is a simple thing. We plant them for their beauty, and maybe to create shade.  I haven’t thought about trees as a poverty elimination tool. 

Oil palm, teak, citrus, guava and mango seedlings are shielded from the hot sun.

Oil palm, teak, citrus, guava and mango seedlings are shielded from the hot sun in a tree nursery.

But this is what Paramount Chief Charles Caulker and the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation (CCET) have in mind for Bumpeh Chiefdom.  They plan to plant 15,000 trees in villages each year for five years. In doing so, they will provide economic empowerment for villagers to improve their own lives and escape poverty.

Bumpeh Chiefdom is one of the most rural areas of Sierra Leone and agriculture is their bread and butter.  It’s a subsistence agriculture area where people barely grow enough to eat, often falling short before the next harvest.  With most of the people living in small, remote villages, it’s a place that receives few government and NGO development programs.  The trickle down to their level is small and slow.

So, Paramount Chief Caulker is taking on poverty reduction himself by building on his chiefdom’s strengths of rich land, good water sources and agriculture know-how.  With the chief as their sponsor, CCET has started a tree nursery to raise trees with economic value.  Oil palms, coconuts, teak and a range of fruit trees – orange, grapefruit, lime, guava, mango, avocado, banana. 

Tree nursery now holds 8000 seedlings.

Tree nursery now holds 8000 seedlings.

They are purchasing small seedlings for trees that are more difficult to start, like oil palms, coconuts and teak.  Others they are starting themselves from seeds, seeds you literally spit out when eating an orange or grapefruit, or pits collected from avocado and mangoes.  They’re planted in deep polythene bags with rich swamp bottom compost, and they quickly germinate and thrive in the tropical heat and humidity.

The nursery is set up on land donated by the chief, made of local materials and set up with volunteer labor.  The ground was brushed with machetes and bamboo stakes cut to make long pergolas.  When covered with palm branches, the pergolas provide the right amount of filtered light for young seedlings. 

Arlene and CCET Volunteer, Foday Fofanah view oil palm seedlings.

Arlene and CCET Volunteer and teacher, Abdul Phoday view oil palm seedlings.

The plan is that each year for five years, 30 villages will set aside ten acres of community land for their own orchard. Come planting season with the start of the next rains in June, each of these villages will be given 600 trees to plant.  It’s their job to plant and maintain their community orchard.  In five years, 150 of the chiefdom’s 208 villages will be covered.

The village will get the income from selling the fruits of the trees, and eventually the teak lumber, to use for development projects of their own choice. 

I asked how much money is to be made with fruit trees like this.  I found it’s quite a lot.  Using an orange tree as an example, the tree will mature in about 4 years and it commonly produces at least 1000 oranges a year, often more. 

If 600 orange trees are planted and reach maturity, they will yield enough fruit to fetch in Freetown Le500,000 ($120) per tree – or Le 300,000,000 ($72,000) per year for the whole community orchard. Trees continue to bear fruit, so this is Le 300,000,000 for the community year after year.  Even if not 100% successful, or if fruit is sold at lower upcountry prices, the orchards will generate a lot of much needed cash for these communities.

Chief Caulker's father planted grapefruit trees fifty years ago that continue to bear a lot of fruit.

Chief Caulker’s father planted grapefruit trees fifty years ago that continue to bear a lot of fruit.

Multiply by 30 villages and the tree nursery’s first crop of seedlings and this is a big income stream that continues each year. Individual farmers can build small businesses. Money can also go to build village schools and health clinics, dig wells, start community cooperative stores and set up internal microfinance programs at little to no interest.  Villages choose what they each need. 

This is transformation from the grass roots level.  With self-managed programs and almost no overhead costs, it all goes to the community.

As the tree nursery program expands, more villages will get their trees and the net value of this program to the chiefdom will only grow. 

Newly planted coconut orchard a few months old.

Newly planted coconut orchard a few months old.

At an initial project cost that today equates to Le1000/seedling, or Le 600,000 per village orchard, this is a 500% return on investment within four years when trees reach mature fruit bearing capacity.  Not a bad return from polythene bags and bamboo shelters.

This return on investment – and the sustainability of the program – is possible because of a very important program element: local ownership.  This program is conceived and led from within the chiefdom.  No outside organization is coming to implement an outsider’s program. 

Chiefdom leaders and rank and file gather to hear about CCET projects, including the tree project.

Chiefdom leaders and rank and file gather to hear about CCET projects, including the tree project.

CCET identified their own community needs and designed the program to be managed across the chiefdom using existing chiefdom administration as the most reliable vehicle to reach the people.  By using traditional chiefdom leadership roles and communication systems, they can quickly cascade down to the small village level and be readily accepted.  

Village headmen are responsible to organize their own community orchard.  They get direction and oversight from their section chiefs.  These are traditional chiefs who are chiefs for life, and well known and trusted by their people. The paramount chief oversees the whole program in the course of his normal chiefdom business, and using his established chiefdom council.

I asked Chief Caulker how does he know the program will be managed as conceived.  We’ll write practices governing the planting and harvesting of trees into chiefdom and village bylaws, he said.  If people don’t follow them, they will be fined.  People have little extra cash, so they fear getting fines and abide by the bylaws.  The chief has also embarked on a formal and informal educational program to positively reinforce the value of trees and encourage people to plant their own.

Paramount Chief Charles Caulker

Paramount Chief Charles Caulker

The chiefdom bylaws will include environmental practices that designate water catchment areas where trees are to be planted to protect the water table.  People and the environment are inseparable, Chief Caulker said.  Any attempt to improve one at the expense of the other will ultimately fail.  We have a desire and responsibility to protect the environment, but our approach is different.  Instead of targeting an environmental program, we integrate environmental protection into everything we do.  The tree planting program will do our part to fight global warming and will protect our water resources.

Programs led by the chiefdom eliminate the need – and cost – of introducing new staff and bureaucratic systems subject to failure.  The pride of local ownership has stimulated people to participate and volunteer.  They want to be involved and to help each other.  And because these are simple, transparent programs, they can.  The work goes quickly, at low cost and with ready acceptance.  This is empowerment from the bottom up.

Many government and NGO led programs either take a long time or never reach the small village level where the need is the greatest. Within one year from its conception, CCET is doing this.  With a blend of modern technology and traditional practices, it is already paying dividends and promises to only lead to more success.  

Chiefdom men learn about the promise of planting trees.

Chiefdom men learn about the promise of planting trees.

I asked a young man what he learned from the launch meeting where the tree program was introduced to people in the chiefdom.  He said, young men learned about their future and what they can achieve with planting trees.  In five years, they can improve their future.   Planting trees is a common thing.  Anyone can brush their land and do this in one week.  Young men downriver have land to plant 10 to 20 trees for themselves.  Now they have the zeal to do it.

Using agriculture and planting trees is an interesting thing, he said.  A tree is your child and you must take care of it like a child.  It will give you its children – its fruit – to eat.  It’s not ungrateful like your own children.  A tree will always be there for you. Tree planting will be the support for all other programs we do – for our children, for education, for environmental protection.

I later heard the Paramount Chief telling a young section chief, I wasted my time as a young man without planning for my future.  You need to plant trees now for your retirement and for your children to inherit.  Every man and woman in Bumpeh Chiefdom should be planting trees.

Poverty elimination by planting trees.  At the program launch meeting Chief Caulker said to his chiefdom, I’m a farmer and I take this challenge personally.  I believe it will make a big difference in peoples lives.  By building on traditional agriculture practice and social norms, we can be proactive in empowering the vast majority of people down to the small village level and get started quickly.

Treating agriculture and tree orchards as a business is indeed a practical and achievable way for Bumpeh Chiefdom to lead its people out of poverty, and into a middle class existence in the not too distant future.

You can help accelerate the process by donating to buy tree seedlings for Bumpeh Chiefdom.  Only $10 will buy 50 citrus and guava seedings!  $20 will buy twenty coconut seedlings.  And you will do your part to fight global warming by helping plant trees.  To donate, go to the website’s Donate tab:  https://sherbrofoundation.org/donate/

Giving Tuesday: Make a Difference

Many organizations and businesses are promoting today as the second annual Giving Tuesday.  We have a day to give thanks.  Then we have two days to shop til we drop – Black Friday and Cyber Monday.  Why not treat today as a day to give back – to celebrate the American tradition of volunteerism and charitable giving.

Doing something for others has been shown to make you feel good yourself.  It gets those endorphins humming along.  Instead of feeling stressed about the busyness of the holidays and holiday shopping, make yourself feel good – and make a difference in someone else’s life at the same time. Give something to someone who needs it for the sheer pleasure of giving.

Here’s a test for you.  Can you even remember what you got for Christmas or Hanukkha last year?  Or what you gave someone else?  I have to confess, I can’t on either count.  I have what I need, and I don’t need more stuff.

I have been trying to convince family and friends that they will make me most happy by giving me the pleasure of giving to someone else. Don’t buy me a thing; buy me the experience of making a difference in someone else’s life.

Actually, I have been doing this in forming Sherbro Foundation and giving my time and money to help develop Bumpeh Chiefdom in rural Sierra Leone.  It has made me feel good – very good.

So, I’d like to give you the same opportunity to feel good.  First, why give to Sherbro Foundation?

  • Make a Difference:  Helping people living on $2/day or less move beyond poverty makes a huge difference.
  • The Girl Effect: Investing in girls – and women – gives one of the biggest returns on investment of charitable dollars you can get.
  • Strong Partnership:  We work closely with one community to understand their needs & priorities and collaborate directly on delivering projects.
  • Efficient:  100% of donations go to projects in the field; administrative costs are paid separately.
Father hands newborn baby to the pastor for blessing at Naming Ceremony.

Father hands newborn baby to the pastor for blessing at Naming Ceremony.

I’ll now shamelessly ask you to contribute to Sherbro Foundation. Our projects range from girls secondary school scholarships and adult literacy classes, to raising trees for community orchards that will generate much needed cash for local development projects and investment accounts for newborn babies for their future education.  https://sherbrofoundation.org/about-us/projects/

By the time you read this, you’ll probably be in the throes of holiday shopping.  Why not simplify by going to our Donate page for many stocking stuffer ideas that will make a difference for months to come – and larger gifts as well.  https://sherbrofoundation.org/what-we-do/

Thanks!  I wish you a joyful holiday season and a very happy new year.

Joining the Rest of the World – Rotifunk’s First Computer Students

Joining the rest of the world – this is how two of Rotifunk’s first computer literacy students described the way they feel about starting computer lessons.  They know the world is computerized, and they have, to date been left out of the opportunities and the knowledge afforded by computers.

Computer class at CCET office.

Computer class at CCET office.

Computer literacy and regular access to using a computer are among the most coveted resources in today’s Sierra Leone.  People know this is their link to gain valuable job skills, better manage their work, and communicate with the rest of the world.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation received 50 laptop computers in August from American donors Schneider Electric and TIP Capital. They lost no time in building tables and benches with local lumber and creating a practical manual for students who have never used a computer.  Lesson One started in Sept – October with how to turn it on and find the Word software.

The first students are community teachers and other adults with a need to use a computer.  They will form the core group to serve as trainers for high school students and others in the community. Only three or four of the 30+ secondary school teachers in area had any computer proficiency.  Some had been exposed in college to manuals with screen shots of computer monitors as introduction, but never had access to using one themselves.

Here’s a profile of some of Rotifunk’s first computer students.

Samuel Caulker at his computer lesson.

Samuel Caulker at his computer lesson.

Deputy Paramount Chief – Samuel Caulker stands in as the ranking chiefdom authority for his brother, the Paramount Chief when both the Chief and his Chiefdom Speaker are out of town.  Samuel says the world has gone computerized, but until now, Rotifunk was not part of this.  This is his first opportunity for computer lessons and he wanted to take advantage of it.

He was embarrassed when going to training workshops outside the chiefdom, and he had to say he did not know how to use a computer.

Soon he can see computers in the Chiefdom Administrative Office.  Records can be kept and accessed when needed on computers, like amount of taxes collected for the year and who paid in each Section.  They can maintain land transfer records and avoid land disputes; they can keep names of all 208 villages in the chiefdom and the responsible headmen. Importantly, they can maintain minutes of Chiefdom Council meetings and other key chiefdom events.

Samuel is not finding using a PC as difficult as he may have thought.  They have excellent tutors from CCET committed to teaching them.  It would go faster if they had more time to practice. They come at 5:00pm at the end of their work day.  Lack of electricity and cost of running a generator limit the time of the class to 6:30pm when it’s too dark to see.  Today they had to stop when the battery on the computer ran down.

Samuel wants to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for the opportunity to learn to use a computer and will make good use of his class. He also appreciates the low cost of CCET classes.  They are paying Le30,000 (~$7.50 USD) for classes that would cost Le150,000 in Freetown.

Secondary School Teacher – Emanuel Mbasy teaches at Walter Schutz Secondary School.  Emanuel sees technology quickly changing and wants to be part of it.  With computer literacy for himself, he can then also teach his children.  He can create his own documents and quickly find them, like class lessons, exams and other documents.  Files get missing at school, and he could better maintain them.

Practical computer instruction manual designed by CCET.

Practical instruction manual designed by CCET: how to boot a computer.

The CCET teachers are good and he’s not finding it too hard to learn, if you concentrate and practice.  Practice is unfortunately limited to a few hours of classroom time each week, and students like him do not have their own computer to practice on at home.  They do have a good manual CCET prepared for them they can take home and review.

Emanuel wants to give his special thanks to Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for allowing him to join the rest of the world with learning computers.  May God bless them.  More computers for their personal use would be great. 

Muslim Missionary and Imam – Osman Sesay is a young Imam with the Amaddiyah Islamic mission present in Rotifunk. Technology is improving, and the Amaddiyah mission has a computer, but he didn’t know how to use it.  He’s glad for the chance for lessons now.  He wants to be able to keep speeches on the computer, as well as lessons and exams for the Amaddiyah school.  They conduct marriages and need to issue marriage certificates. 

Imam Sesay really wants to learn to use a computer. It’s difficult, but he will learn.  He’s not fortunate to have his own personal computer, and would really like to have one.

Computer lesson.

Computer lesson: teachers give 1:1 help.

Construction Contractor – Abu Bakar Conteh is a contractor building new buildings at the Prosperity Girls High School.  As a contractor, he needs to give bids and estimates and keep them. Offices with files are a luxury in rural Sierra Leone, and his work keeps him on the move anyway.  A computer would help him organize his work and keep it available, as well as make calculations easier.

A computer would also allow him to advertise his business through the internet.

Abu Bakar enjoys computer lessons very much and is finding it easy, despite this being his first class.  He’s learned to write and save some documents, and he’s become familiar with the keyboard.

He would like to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital so much.  They find it difficult to get computer lessons in Sierra Leone, especially in a rural place, and these companies have made it so easy and inexpensive for him.

DSTV Satellite Dish Operator – Sembu Fallah maintains DSTV service for the area. We are living in a computerized world where knowledge has advanced, he says, and he would like to know it better.  He wants to be a perfect man and learn enough to teach others as an additional job.

He could also use a computer to join the DSTV signal to a computer for viewing sports games here in Rotifunk as an additional source of income.

Sembu wants to thank Schneider Electric and TIP Capital for what they’ve done for them.  He really appreciates it, and prays they will bring more.  If he had his own computer he would continue to practice at home and not be limited to three 90 minute classes a week at the CCET office.


August 28, 2014 update: I see people continue to read this post, so I wanted to direct you to the latest up on Rotifunk’s computer program.  We are turning a town tragedy into a triumph.  A community computer center is being built as I write this from the ashes of a rebel burned building. You can read about it here: https://sherbrofoundation.org/2014/08/25/computing-center-roof-is-up/


Back from a month in Sierra Leone

I’m back from a month in Sierra Leone with lots of news to share.  My main purpose in going was to be part of a meeting to publicly launch the Center for Community Empowerment & Transformation in Rotifunk.  Gov’t officials, journalists and chiefdom leaders were all impressed with CCET programs to reduce poverty through education and economic empowerment with village tree planting.  These programs were described as unique in Sierra Leone in being totally grassroots conceived and led. They do not come from Gov’t or NGO initiatives.  I was honored to give the keynote address, representing Sherbro Foundation and our role as a partner organization.

Adult Literacy students greet Arlene and thank Sherbro Foundation for the chance to start their education.

Adult Literacy students greet Arlene and thank Sherbro Foundation for the chance to start their education.

I see and learn new things on each trip to Sierra Leone.  This one was full of experiences for me. I witnessed newborn baby naming ceremonies and a traditional wedding, saw the rice harvest at one of the ten biggest rice farms in the country, and learned a lot about the role of paramount chiefs in contemporary Sierra Leone. I got project status updates, interviewed 37 new adult literacy students on their lives and hopes for the future, met families of girl scholarship students, watched the tree nursery grow to 8000 seedlings and work in progress to annually double that by planting season, and saw the computer lab running and adults taking their very first computer lessons so they can train others.

So, stay tuned to this blog at www.sherbrofoundation and Sherbro Foundation’s Facebook page to hear more.  The amount of work done in the last eight months is impressive.  You can see what’s possible with your donations and support.   It takes so little to make a very big difference in people’s lives in this small rural community in Sierra Leone.