Category Archives: VSLA

Party in Sanya Juu (concluded)

At last it was time for the awards. Richard, the director of Floresta Tanzania, Pastor Mosha, our board chair, and I took the stage to hand out the awards.

Anticipation was in the air. Sixty-five hundred people crowded closer… Then one of them apparently tripped over a cord, because suddenly we were without sound.

Ten minutes went by, then fifteen, while technicians fiddled with cords and cables. The MC briefly tried shouting.

They decided to break for lunch, which was catered by several savings groups.

As I ate in one of the tents with some of the other pastors and VIPs, a local commercial bank which was set up in the same tent was taking photos of new account holders right behind us.

Forty-five minutes later we were ready to try again.

Since our first competition in 2013, I have been amazed at the way it has energized people. Often times in East Africa, nonprofits like ours, use subsidies to get things done. If you hold a conference or a workshop, attendance goes up if you give people a free lunch and pay them per diem or a stipend. If you have training – pay a stipend. I have even heard of people who make their living on per diems as they go from one training or workshop to the next. Similarly, if you want to have people plant trees you will certainly need to pay a stipend.

But Richard, who was working on his MBA at the time, had the idea to incorporate friendly competition instead. As I shared earlier, the results were dramatic and immediate, with groups planting nearly four times as many trees the following year.dsc_0844.jpgDSC_0713.JPG

dsc_0816A trophy, some tools and some recognition have created genuine excitement. There are several awards for every district. There are individual awards and group awards, awards for the best composting and most trees planted, and even awards for people who have persevered in planting trees in drier more challenging climates. Thirty-four in all, starting with certificates, and then awards that included tools like hoses and irrigation equipment. Each was greeted with joyous dancing and celebration. Often times group members would come running from all over the crowd before uniting in celebration in front of the stage.dsc_0802.jpg


Then finally the grand prize trophy. The group ENJOM from Siha took it home this year.dsc_0920

dsc_0957Almost ten hours after the initial parade the celebration was drawing down. The gospel singers and choir members were still singing and dancing up on the stage, being filmed by a drone, as we made our way to the exit. Each of the savings groups was finding their own busses, and based on previous conversations, each was leaving with a renewed commitment to win the grand prize home next year.

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Filed under Tanzania, VSLA

Savings Group Names in Haiti

Espwa pou Demen–Hope for Tomorrow
Kenbela–Stand Firm
Kris Kapab–Christ is Able
Lamesi–Thanks [more like Give Thanks]
Limye2–Light II
Map Lite–I’m fighting [more like I’m making my way]
Soley–the Sun
Viv Ansanm–Live Together

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Relief vs. Development

Although many people confuse the two, Hurricane Matthew has reminded us that there are huge differences between relief and development. We ordinarily do not engage in relief work, but as we learned after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when disaster strikes our partners, our deep and longstanding local connections make us uniquely positioned to respond. However, while relief work helps people to stay alive, it does nothing to change their overall situation or improve their long-term conditions. Continued too long, it can actually be harmful.img-20161011-wa0018

It has the potential to undercut development work, as people become accustomed to handouts. This is tremendously disempowering. Recipients grow passive, since what they may have to offer is not valued. In time they will be dependent on the one offering assistance. On one of my earliest trips to Haiti, I met farmers who couldn’t sell their produce because food was being given away as part of an aid program. Many of them didn’t even bother to plant that year because competing with giveaways seemed futile.

Furthermore, relief can never help people to grow out of poverty, no matter how much money you put into it. One of the most common questions I get is, “why, with all the money that was spent on Haiti after the earthquake, is it still poor?” The answer to that is complicated, but the simplest answer is that putting money into relief and expecting an end to poverty is expecting the impossible.

Effective development, on the other hand, can actually help people to move beyond poverty. In fact we see it happening every day amongst our partners. However, unlike relief, it requires the active participation of the people themselves.

All of the elements of the Plant With Purpose model encourage that participation: Bible study curriculum that helps people to understand that work is a gift and that they have talents and a calling; savings groups that depend not on outside donations, but on the savings of the participants; agricultural experiments that farmers themselves run. Efforts to help the poor that don’t enlist them as leaders and employ their talents and resources are missing the most potent ingredient.

Once people become active participants in change, they can both discover and contribute their own gifts. Possibly the most tangible example of this is the savings that people contribute. New participants frequently don’t believe they have money to save, and truth be told; I didn’t really believe it when we started either. However, groups that didn’t think they could save fifty cents a week have saved thousands of dollars, and collectively they have saved and invested millions of dollars into their own communities.

But there are other, less tangible, ways that they have contributed as well, digging up and employing amazing talents in the process of ending extreme poverty. For example, tree planting and watershed restoration are done on a voluntary basis. People begin to serve and care for their neighbors as an expression of their generosity. They become true partners in the effort to redeem communities and creation. We look forward to transitioning out of the relief and recovery mode in Haiti, and back into a mode where we are better able to free people to use their God-given talents and respond to one another in generosity.

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Filed under Development, haiti, hurricane relief, VSLA

Drought and Deforestation

Lost in all the news of our own first-world problems is the ongoing drought that has stricken Haiti for the last three years. This article does a good job of describing the connection between this drought and deforestation, from the perspective of the people who are living it everyday.

As I have often said, the problem is not one of ignorance, but rather desperation. The farmer in this story talks about cutting trees as a survival mechanism. Without the safety net that Plant With Purpose savings groups provide, the few remaining trees become the safety net.

The farmers we work with are suffering from the same drought, but that far have been able to turn to the members of their savings groups for mutual support, and to their savings accounts for emergency funds.

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Filed under environment, haiti, VSLA

Unexpected Peace


Our long-time Technical Director, Bob Morikawa and I agreed we had never been on a trip like this one. Combined, we have over forty years of traveling for Plant With Purpose, and quite a few years of trips before that, yet this visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo stood out. It was amazing in every way. I might have thought it was because this was my first trip to the DRC, but Bob had been there four times previously. And it wasn’t just us. Local villagers felt something special was happening as well, saying to one another, “Is this a dream?”

Plant With Purpose has been working in the Kakumba watershed south of Uvira, in South Kivu, since July, offering the transformational Plant With Purpose package: agricultural training, reforestation, savings groups, and Christian outreach focused on empowerment and reconciliation. We have established a total of ten savings groups in four different villages and farmer field schools are working on locally chosen agricultural experiments all over the valley. Fifty thousand trees have been planted and farmer-managed natural regeneration of forest is being taught.

A number of things make Kakumba unique however. The DRC is our first new country program since we refined our watershed approach a few years ago. Focusing on the whole ecological unit has brought together communities that have been linked by conflict as much as geography. Indeed the history of conflict in the region is deeper and more horrible than is easily imagined making reconciliation a key element of our work. Our local partner, with employees and participating pastors from seven different tribes, is a living demonstration of this reconciliation.

A key part of this trip was a multiple day hike from the bottom of the watershed to the top. We would spend the first night at our field office in the town of Gomba near the midpoint, then visit another one of our participating communities before ultimately camping on the edge of the forest at the top of the watershed. As we learned in the baseline study last year, the higher you go in the watershed the poorer and more malnourished people tend to be.

The main “road” linking the top to the bottom is a six-inch wide trail that climbs 6600 feet alongside sheer cliffs and over rocky ledges and until recently, through several unofficial militia checkpoints. When hiking in the US we often curse endless switchbacks, but I quickly grew to miss them, since this road tended toward a much more direct approach.

We had hoped to visit all of our communities with savings groups, and then evaluate ecotourism opportunities in the Kirwa forest, where many of the locals have stories of mountain gorillas. However, it turned out the trip had a far deeper meaning than we had suspected. Community members saw it as a sign of a new day of peace. By the time we reached our campsite in the forest, 46 people were hiking with us, representing six or seven ethnic groups. There were ex-combatants, five village chiefs, government officials, several pastors and four wazungu.

In each community along the way, we were received with joyous welcomes. People would tell us about the changes they were beginning to see through the savings groups and the increased yields from the new farming techniques. Men spontaneously shared how our Biblical teaching on work had inspired them to get out of their houses and begin helping their wives with the farming. “Maybe if we work together we can do something great,” one man told me. And over and over, people remarked on what a miracle it was that such diverse people could sleep in the forest without fear. “Perhaps peace has really come.”

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Filed under Congo, reconciliation, VSLA

The Unhappiest Place on Earth

The place where jogging is against the law…

The UN World Happiness Report 2016 recently classified one of my favorite places as the unhappiest country on earth. Burundi, where Plant With Purpose has been working since 2008, is, according to the report, unhappier than even Syria. This is in due in part to the political crisis which is profiled in an article from Outside Magazine, entitled How Jogging Became an Act of War .

Burundi has been locked in an intense political stalemate, which has further weakened the economy of what is possibly the most malnourished country on earth, while rendering daily activities exceedingly dangerous.

However, in the midst of this, our local staff has persevered – risking intimidation, fuel shortages, and occasional gun battles to serve the poor farmers in the countryside.  In fact they have more than persevered.  They have excelled.

Nearly 300,000 trees have been planted in the last six months – a sure sign of hope for the future, while 25 new churches have signed on to learn about their identity in Christ and understand the vocation and calling God has for them.  They join 65 churches who are already participating in our theology of work curriculum.

New savings groups are being added, and perhaps most remarkably, savings rates are increasing, as people see the savings groups as their one secure refuge in a time of great uncertainty.  In the last year the average savings per family per week has increased from forty cents to nearly one dollar. The savings groups are not just an economic opportunity, but they are the core of community, and we have placed a great deal of emphasis on making them places of reconciliation and mutual support.

As the political crisis puts new strains on communities and threatens to revive decades of civil war, I am thankful to our team for bravely continuing to share hope and opportunity.

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Filed under Burundi, reconciliation, Uncategorized, VSLA


We just finished our fiscal year, so we have been summarizing annual program reports this week. I knew that we were exceeding our goals in several areas, but the final numbers were a bit of a surprise.

We had planned to plant 2.1 million trees during the year – we exceeded that by 50%.  Our partnering farmers planted 3.3 million trees this year!  (To give some perspective, I still remember in 1995 having to sheepishly tell Tony Campolo that after 11 years we had planted a TOTAL of 600K trees. It took us until 2007 to cumulatively plant 3.3 million trees.)

Of course in 1997 we were serving 150 families in 3 or 4 villages, and today we are serving 133,000 people in 411 villages in 7 countries.

This past year we also started partnerships with over 100 new churches and now have active partnerships with 388 local churches.

Finally, we launched 206 new Village Savings and Loan Associations. We are now working with 841 VSLAs, nearly 10 times as many as we were working with just 4 years ago. These groups have a combined net worth of $1.65 million. That is $1.65M that belongs to the villagers, that they themselves have generated. That money is growing and being continually reinvested in their communities in the ways that they choose (There are currently over $1M in loans out, while savers are earning an average of 20% on their accounts.)

As exciting as these numbers are, they still only tell a partial story, because the real “magic” occurs when these three elements: environmental restoration, economic empowerment and spiritual renewal are integrated, and reinforce one another. People often focus on only one of the elements, but there are other organizations that plant more trees than we do. There are other organizations with larger savings and loan programs than the one we operate. And there are certainly programs that share the Gospel more broadly. But what excites me is when all three of those come together, and people not only become more prosperous, but also become better stewards of God’s creation and better neighbors to one another. We are seeing more and more direct evidence of this transformation.

One outside evaluator and savings group expert observed that with our long-term commitment to the groups and our ocus on equipping them with agricultural and spiritual tools, we were “starting a movement.”

All of this is cause for celebration.  God is truly multiplying our work.

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