Planting the Seeds for Development

By John Kahekwa, Founder, The Pole Pole Foundation

Planting the Seeds for Development

It has been eight years since Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work planting trees in Kenya. During that period, the Rio+ 20 conference has been and gone, Climate Change has finally come to be recognised as a serious worldwide threat, and terms such as ‘Green Growth’ have started to emerge. In spite of all these developments, environmental and humanitarian work are still often seen as two very distinct elements. This needs to change.

Just over twenty years ago, I founded the Pole Pole Foundation with the aim of working to conserve Kahusi-Biega National Park (in South Kivu Province, Democratic Republic of Congo) and the gorillas living within it by working with the surrounding communities. As lead gorilla tracker in the park, I had often come into contact with poachers, and always talked to them about why they poached. Time and again I heard the same reply, ‘Hungry stomach got no ears’. I realised that they were only poaching through desperation, not maliciousness. I had started a small business selling t-shirts to tourists, so I decided to use the $6,000 profit I had earned to start up the foundation.

Both the name of the foundation and the logo captured the ethos of our work from day one. ‘Pole Pole’ means ‘slowly’ in Swahili, and we aim to use small amounts of funding to start projects that grow steadily over time, and that we can monitor to ensure they do no inadvertent harm. The logo also encapsulates our holistic approach, which sees conservation and humanitarian development as inextricably intertwined. The foundation runs a primary and secondary school and offers funds and assistance to start livelihood programmes that then enable the beneficiaries to gain economic independence.

Whether it be giving a pig to the wife of the widow of a park ranger to enable her to start a small livestock business to support her and her family, or training ex-poachers to become skilled craftsmen, we use business principles at all stages of our work; the Pole Pole Foundation is very much about giving ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.

All the projects we run are designed to be ‘Eco-Man Friendly’ – that is to say that they simultaneously benefit both the environment and the local communities. This is perhaps best illustrated by our tree planting scheme; by getting communities to plant trees, they gain easier access to fuel-wood and building material, while at the same time protecting the national park and the gorillas within it. To date we have planted over 1.5 million trees, and in doing so we have simultaneously protected the environment and helped to alleviate poverty.

The key lesson I draw out of this is that not only are business principles critical to development – which everyone reading this blog of course already knows – but that an appreciation of the environment is equally important. Put simply; we eat food, we drink water, we breathe air, therefore the environment is the fundamental foundation of life.

More crucially still, by using business principles in eco-man friendly projects, we can achieve real sustainable development. Not just development that meets the needs of the current generation without adversely affecting future generations, but a step further where we meet the needs of the current generation and IMPROVE the prospects of future generations, establishing positive cycles of environmental and humanitarian development.

This eco-man friendly approach is one that I feel should have a far wider usage in not only development, but also business circles. Fairtrade products already command a premium in world markets, so producing products that are not only fairtrade, but also ‘gorilla friendly’ could attract a larger premium still. Social entrepreneurs who take this eco-man friendly approach therefore have the chance to make a positive difference to the world, and to make a profit in the process. If we are to save the gorillas in the long term, and if we are to achieve genuine sustainable development, this is the approach I feel we must take – conservation and poverty alleviation cannot be seen as just charity projects, but need to be seen as business opportunities.

Here at POPOF we do what we can to apply these principles to make a positive difference to the gorillas and the communities, but more is needed – investment, business expertise, and public relations and marketing to improve the image of Congo and promote the return of tourism, among other things. It is a big task, but not an insurmountable one.

There is an old African saying, ‘The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, but the second best time to plant a tree is now.’ If anyone reading this agrees and feels they could help, please do get in touch, I would love to here from you.

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