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/

Tree Nursery – see them grow

CCET-SL volunteer and local teacher Mr. Sennessy (left, blue shirt) and Mr.s Kaimbay, CCET-SL Director and local principal, left, watch as a young volunteer prepares her seedling bag.

CCET-SL volunteer and local teacher Mr. Sennessy (left, blue shirt) and Mrs. Kaimbay, CCET-SL Director and local principal, right, watch as a young volunteer prepares her seedling bag.

It’s the rainy season now in Sierra Leone and planting time.  Rotifunk is busy planting tree seedlings to raise in their nursery for trees of economic value. 

Thanks to cell phone pictures and Facebook, we can all now see the nursery taking shape and seedlings growing.

The tree nursery is a project of Rotifunk’s home grown nonprofit organization, the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation.  CCET-SL’s aim is to empower their community in development with projects like the tree nursery.  With these projects, they hope to transform lives of the average person in Bumpeh Chiefdom.

I shouldn’t say they hope to transform lives.  They plan to transform lives. With simple, concrete projects like the tree nursery that will have clear payback, this isn’t a leap of faith.  Next year, the trees will be ready for people to plant in their own gardens and farms to improve their family’s diet and gain income by selling their surplus.   Citrus, coconut and oil palm trees, as well as teak trees for future lumber sale.

Bumpeh Chiefdom is a rural area rich in agriculture.  So, economic development here starts with agriculture projects. To read the whole story about the Economic Tree Nursery,  click here to see an earlier post.  Sherbro Foundation has supported the nursery project with money to buy farm tools and young oil palm seedlings bred for early fruiting.

Filling polythene bags with soil that will allow seedling to form deep roots.  This looks like rich silty soil from the Bumpeh River floodplain.

Filling polythene bags with soil that will allow seedling to form deep roots. This looks like rich silty soil from the Bumpeh River floodplain.

Rotifunk community gets involved with preparing the bags to hold seedlings.

Rotifunk community gets involved with preparing the bags to hold seedlings.

Seedlings will be nursed in the nursery, watered and protected from hot tropical sun in the dry season til ready to plant next year.

Seedlings will be nursed in the nursery, watered and protected from the dry season’s hot tropical sun til ready to plant next year.  Families across Bumpeh Chiefdom are eligible to get trees at a token cost.

CCET-SL volunteers and local teachers Osmun Kamara and Phillip Komoh.

CCET-SL volunteers and local teachers Osmun Kamara and Phillip Komoh.  I’d guess these are coconut seedlings.

Growing trees with economic value

Let’s talk about the another part of the Sherbro Foundation’s work – helping to spur economic development in a rural community.

On my last two trips to Sierra Leone an idea was percolating in my brain that finally crystalized.  I recognized I wanted to do something beyond the cycle of donations for traditional nonprofit work supporting education, health, community services and the like.  Don’t get me wrong.  These are important and much needed.  These are a lot of what Sherbro Foundation is doing, too.

But I also wanted to do something else.  Something more.

The more is giving the chiefdom a boost in economic development, and their main economic livelihood is agriculture.  This chiefdom is blessed with fertile land for agriculture and rivers with which to irrigate.  It is lacking the means for most people to develop and expand beyond subsistence agriculture, or to further develop agriculture as a business.

Doing more is helping people expand and diversify their family farm crops, increasing their own food security and allowing them to sell a little excess for much needed cash.

Doing more is also helping spur small farming business that can expand, and in doing so, create paid jobs where none now exist. Getting jobs with regular paid wages can help people join the “formal economy” where they can then pay their own children’s school fees and buy their own mosquito nets.

I was astounded when Bumpeh Chiefdom Paramount Chief Caulker told me what typical cash incomes are in many small villages.  It may be as small as 50,000 Leones/year.  This is little more than $10 USD.  $10 per year, that is.  This is the bottom of the subsistence scale, an informal economy of barter.  You locally trade or sell small amounts of what you grow.  Otherwise, you live off the land, and the fish in the rivers.  Or small game you may be able to hunt.  Bush beef we called it.  You may be able to raise a few goats and chickens.

Tending a vegetable garden.  Day care on your back.

Tending a vegetable garden. Day care on your back.

The most disadvantaged are young adults, eighteen and up, ready to start out on the own.  Also women divorced or separated from husbands, left to fend for themselves and their children.  The families of these groups literally do not have any excess money to loan them to start their farms and vegetable gardens.  With no money for tools, seed, and fertilizer, these groups are stuck. Stuck in extreme poverty.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation, Rotifunk’s all-volunteer group for community development is beginning to tackle this area by starting a tree nursery for trees of economic value.

The idea came up one day on my last trip when we needed to escape the heat of a tropical afternoon in the dry season.  Come on, said Chief Caulker, let’s go pick grapefruits.  We took chairs beyond his house and down a hill to an old citrus orchard started by his father fifty years ago.  I didn’t know citrus trees live 50+ years; maybe the non-hybridized kind.

Boys catch grapefruits being picked.

Boys catch grapefruits being picked in mature fruit orchard.

Picking fruit meant sending boys to shinny up a tree in their bare feet to drop grapefruits down to other waiting kids.  They hold out gunny sacks to break the fall of fruits and not squash them.  Then we divvy up the fruit so everyone gets some.  We sent someone to find bread and made “sandwiches” for the kids with groundnut paste – roasted peanuts you grind up with an empty bottle on a board.

We were enjoying the grapefruits and Chief Caulker reminisced about how he had had “his tree,” his birth tree, and how this is no longer being done.  Probably another casualty lost to the war. Your Tree is where your umbilical cord is planted after your birth together with a tree seedling.  It grows as you grow, and it’s Your Tree.  An old custom in many parts of Africa.

A charming and practical custom, I agreed.  We need more trees planted in this country.  I see fire wood being cut left and right.  How are trees being replanted?

This led to a conversation about how we should start planting trees and get the new community based organization – the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation, still an idea, but at least that day drafted on paper – to start this.

Four months later, as I write this, CCET volunteers are planting the Economic Tree Nursery.  The rainy season has started, and it’s time to plant trees.

CCET has started with fruit trees they are germinating from seed and growing themselves to seedlings.  Orange, grapefruit, lemon (we call lime) and mango.

CCET will transplant seedlings to small polythene bags and nurse them til next season, when local people can buy them at a small nominal cost for their farm or garden. Mr. Sonnah, agriculture teacher and CCET volunteer explained, people take things more seriously when they have to pay something for them.  Same thing at home, I said.  These small fees will go back to purchase materials to start new seedlings each year.

Mr. Sonnah said getting fruit trees will improve a family’s food security, giving them another food source and diversifying their diet.  Fruit trees are typically planted near rivers and streams, helping keep them watered.  As trees mature, they then protect the water catchment area. Trees are like sponges, taking up water, and their roots prevent run-off and erosion in the heavy tropical rains.  These water filled trees then help keep streams from easily drying up in the dry season.  People will need chiefdom permission to cut down economic trees and pay a small fee, as well as replant the tree.  This is to discourage trees being cut for firewood.  Acacia, a fast growing “weed tree” can be used for fire wood.

Village woman extracting oil from palm fruits in her canoe.

Village woman extracting oil from palm fruits in her canoe.

CCET is also starting to nurse oil palm seedlings they bought from Njala University’s agriculture school.  Oil palms are native to Sierra Leone, and the oil from the palm fruits is a mainstay of the local diet.  Palm oil is increasingly used globally for a variety of applications, and is a good cash crop.  The Njala seedlings are a new variety that will produce faster,  fruiting in about four years.

Nine hundred teak seedlings from another source have also been added to CCET’s tree nursery.  These need special care with careful pruning and cultivation as young seedlings.  Next rainy season they’ll be bigger and stronger, and ready to be sold and transplanted again for future lumber harvesting.

CCET will organize workshops and 1:1 training on how to plant and care for all the trees that will be sold.  With 60% of the country’s population under 24 years of age, these are skills that were lost in the war years and now needed for young adults and women needing to become farmers.

The custom of children getting “their tree” will start again, as well.  CCET will ensure each child has a tree planted at birth.  In this way, you will also be able to tell how many children were recently born in a village by counting the number of new trees.

This project is a good example of how a few people can make a big difference when they work together and just get going on a practical first step.

Many benefits follow this project: economic development, food security, environmental protection, protecting cultural traditions, empowering youth and women as farmers.

Sherbro Foundation is glad to have contributed the funding to buy farm tools for the tree nursery and the oil palm seedlings.

The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation – another bright star

Trying to do good in another country is not always straightforward.  First, you need to find well-defined projects you believe will “do good” in the area you want to serve.  Then you need a trusted partner on the ground who shares your objectives and can effectively deliver the nuts-and-bolts work, and do it with integrity.

The Sherbro Foundation is fortunate to have found such a partner in The Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation.  CCET is a grassroots, all-volunteer nonprofit group of Sierra Leoneans organized for the development of Rotifunk and Bumpeh Chiefdom.

It’s quite a name and tells you right off what the vision of this group is. It’s no less than the empowerment and transformation of their community.

I was fortunate to have had an early and impactful learning from my old days in the Peace Corps that I’ve carried with me all these years.  To make lasting change or improvements, don’t show up with your pre-cooked “solution” and try to give it to people who aren’t sold on – or maybe even aware of – the problem you’ve selected for them. This is generally true anywhere, and even more true when working with a rural community of another culture. 

Still today, I see too many NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) trying to solve the problems of the world with their own “programs”.  They may not spend enough time in the developing country communities they want to serve to jointly set priorities and agree on approaches to use.

It was a stroke of luck that found me back in Rotifunk for my third return trip right as the concept for the Center for Community Empowerment and Transformation was taking shape.  I was visiting more of the chiefdom and better understanding the extent of the needs there.   I arrived already frustrated in not finding existing nonprofit organizations in the U. S. interested in supporting the kind of small community projects I saw needed in Bumpeh Chiefdom.  Grant applications, even if successful, can take months if not a year or more to process. I was already toying with the idea of creating my own nonprofit.

At the same time Prosperity Girls High School had just started their first senior high class, and with that, hired several new teachers.  More competent and committed teachers joined those already at PGHS, ready to serve this rural community.   Within a month of their arrival, several of the new teachers joined up with existing teachers to form the concept for a community based organization.

The Center concept

I asked Mr. Sonnah and Mr. Kamara, PGHS teachers and thought leaders in the Center, how their concept had come about. Both relayed the same story.  Some old university friends of theirs representing an NGO had come to Rotifunk to do a survey.  They challenged them to create their own community-based organization.  Come on, they said.  You’re in this rural place with time on your hands; you have the education and potential to be doing more. 

Mr. Sonnah and his 7th grade class.

Mr. Sonnah and his 7th grade class.

The teachers had already seen how PGHS principal Rosaline Kaimbay was struggling to start adult literacy classes, holding intermittent lessons on the front porch of her house after school let out.  The majority of the adult students were women whose educations were interrupted, or maybe never started, because of the war.

The teachers agreed adult literacy would become the first core program for the Center to take on and they would do it on a volunteer basis.

Mr. Kamara in a moment of relaxing.

Mr. Kamara in a moment of relaxing.

More projects soon followed.  The Center’s current project portfolio includes:

  1. Adult literacy – starting with creating a curriculum of practical skills for small traders and farmers that are illiterate, mainly women.  
  2. Girls Scholarship program – paying school fees to keep teenage girls in Rotifunk’s four secondary schools at a time when drop out rates for girls climb and families have great difficulty paying for the cost of an education.
  3. Tree nursery for trees of economic value – nursing small teak tree and oil palm seedlings and starting citrus and avocado trees from seed to provide to the community at nominal cost.
  4. Computer literacy – building the computer skills of local teachers in preparation for organizing the community computer lab the Sherbro Foundation has facilitated with a donated shipment of fifty computers now on their way to Rotifunk.
  5.  Registration of chiefdom births and deathshelping set up a model process where none now exists in Bumpeh Chiefdom, or most of rural Sierra Leone.
  6.  Adult sports teams for women – organizing women’s football (soccer) teams to give women still traumatized from the war a physical outlet for stress and team building for a peer network.

Within five months of their initial conceptual discussion, the Center volunteers are busy planting trees, teaching computer skills, and developing lessons on basic computations for illiterate market women.

This is what I call empowerment.  They’re getting going on concrete, practical programs that can help transform their community using  the limited resources they have.

The Sherbro Foundation is proud to have helped with start-up costs for the Center.  We have donated money to pay fees for the Center to officially register as a nonprofit with several Sierra Leone ministries, making them eligible for local grant funds.  We have also provided money for classroom furniture to be locally built for the computer lab, and to purchase farming tools and oil palm seedlings for the tree nursery.  We will fund a one-day workshop where people will be taught how to complete the birth/death registrations.

More will follow on each of these projects.

Mr. Sonnah explained the Center’s logo to me and how it symbolizes what they plan to accomplish.  A man and a woman are together holding one torch light.  Light brings about transformation, and men and women are equally balanced in holding one light.  They are surrounded by olive branches depicting them rescuing the chiefdom from its past traumas.  They are transforming the chiefdom to be a better place.  Mr. Kamara said in his quietly confident manner, we are developing our brothers and sisters, and we know with our work today, tomorrow will be a brighter day.  We see our future as bright.

The Sherbro Foundation sees their future as bright, too, and we’re happy to be helping them on their way.