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Rising to Meet the Need: Global Program Expansion

The following is a session transcript of a conversation hosted as part of our Online Global Conference originally aired on Friday, October 8, 2021. We are launching or expanding work in countries and watersheds around the world: Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Mexico, and even a new country! Meet our program team and learn about the next phase of impact in our environmental and poverty alleviation work.

Presenters: Robert Morikawa, Senior Director, Innovation Lab
Jared White, Regional Partnership Manager, Africa



(Robert Morikawa): Welcome to our discussion of program growth for the 2021 Gala. We are very excited about the phase of growth that we're in right now. Last year, in 2020, in spite of the pandemic, we had our best year ever. We're working now with more farmers than we ever have in the past. Jared, I want to share a little bit with you about how we arrived, where we are, who we are, some of the aspects of growth, and where we're going in the future.

My name is Bob Morikawa. I'm the director of the Innovation Lab.

(Jared White): I'm Jared White, the regional director for Africa. We're going to spend the next few minutes talking about who we are and how we got to where we are. We’d like to discuss some of the key elements that we feel have contributed to this phase of growth that we're in, and then share with you a couple of examples. We are a Christian nonprofit that works in three areas depicted here. Environmental restoration, economic empowerment and spiritual renewal, are particularly at the entire intersection of those three.

We work exclusively with smallholder farmers. Those are people who usually have less than two hectares of land. They're working on some of the most difficult land in some of the most difficult countries in the world.

Soils are easily eroded, and not very productive sometimes. In some of the most difficult parts of countries, they're often marginalized, and ignored by government leadership in environmentally degraded areas. Even worse, farmers are  often blamed for that environmental degradation.

Those are the kinds of folks we work with. We've had a lot of success in helping smallholder farmers actually transform their situation, feed their families better, restore their forests, and reach out to their communities in ways that they haven't been able to before.

As I mentioned before, we've been in a phase of growth. We've grown a lot in the past few years. Last year was our best year ever in spite of the restrictions of the pandemic. We want to share with you some of the key elements that we think have contributed to that success and to that growth. The first one is our participatory or interdependent approach to partnership. There are nine of us: four in Africa, three in Latin America and the Caribbean, one in Southeast Asia, and the United States. We really believe that we work together on planning, fundraising, and development and growth. We work on measuring what we do together, and know that we need each other to do that in the best way possible.

Now, it's easy to talk about that kind of principle. A lot of folks talk about being participatory. So I just want to give you a quick example of a practical way that has worked for us. The one we're going to talk about right now is the development of a training curriculum that we call “Seeds of Change”. Seeds of Change is an environmental restoration and regenerative agriculture curriculum. That has lots of great content on growing trees and restoring soils. The way we develop that curriculum, I think, is what illustrates this interdependent idea. In 2015, we all got together. We gathered experts in agriculture and environment from all of our countries, at a meeting. 

It happened to be in Thailand. We shared all our ideas, what we've learned, what works, what techniques and approaches we want to share with farmers around the world. We were at that meeting for a week and then for many months afterwards, collaboratively developing a curriculum that shares all of our best ideas and knowledge. We came up with this Seeds of Change material that is now shared in every country and taught to more than 50,000 farmers around the world. The content of that curriculum is great. It's transforming farms and transforming watersheds.

But just as important, I think, is the process that we used to get to that curriculum, that we all shared and we all contributed to. It's something that every partner is proud of and every partner is confident can impact the lives of the farmers that they’re partnering with.

A second key, and an important element that we believe has contributed to our growth so far is our focus on Premiere agency. Helping farmers to be empowered, independent, and to address the issues and challenges that they have in their own communities.

You see this photo on the right here that shows a savings group. What our role in this is, is to provide training to community members. We’re helping them learn about leadership, learn about how to manage meetings, and to conduct loans and to make savings. Then, the group takes it from there. You can see this group here has selected their own leadership. They've defined how much each member contributes. They set their own rules around credit, interest rates, and so on.

That allows these groups to become economically stable without really any intervention, beyond the training support from us. It goes beyond that. Many of these groups, once they've kind of achieved this economic stability, start to look beyond themselves and to their communities. They start to think about ways that they can reach out to others and impact their watersheds. For example, many of these groups will start their own trainers. Who collect their own seed, grow their own trees, plant their own trees and tree planting campaigns, and then target an area in their communities that they see as degraded, and plant those trees.

That's going on right now with Plant With Purpose. We plant millions of trees every year. But the truth is, you know, employees like Jared and myself do little or none of that tree planting. It's being done by these farmers completely voluntarily.

Thousands of our farmers are planting millions of trees. I think that was clearly demonstrated during the pandemic in the last couple of years. Last year we met or exceeded many of our targets for all of our countries, in spite of the fact that we couldn't travel and connect with farmers in the same way we usually do. Yet, these farmers are still out there saving money, planting trees, and restoring their farms. We met our goals because of that. I think in some ways, the pandemic was almost a natural experiment that kind of demonstrated the strength of this approach. This farmer and community driven, and not project driven approach. 

A third element that we believe is critical to the way we've grown so far is our watershed approach. A watershed is an area that's connected by a river system, and because that area is connected, people within that watershed are often connected economically and culturally. They often speak the same language. There are ecological connections within that area. If you look at these two photos here, the one on the top, you'll see the blue outline. That's a watershed boundary. You can see the white dots show a bunch of communities that have been randomly selected as a possible place to work. This is the way that we used to work in the past so we could work in one of these communities.

There's a benefit to us partnering with farmers there. But, if you look at the second slide, you see the same watersheds and now we've selected the same number of communities within that watershed area. Now all these communities have those connections that we've talked about: hydrological, ecological, cultural, and economic connections.

If something beneficial happens in a community, it has a synergistic or a domino effect to those surrounding communities. Not only is there benefit to each individual community, but now it's multiplied to those connected communities in that watershed area.

It allows us to focus our resources better, and creates a “greater than the sum of the whole” type of benefit to the watershed. Another thing about watersheds that's really important, is the way that that watershed model is replicable.

You can see here an example we started in one watershed in Congo. As a result of the success of that project and partnership, we've been fortunate enough to be able to multiply that work to now seven watersheds in that area.

Using that watershed approach, we can look at each of these units individually. We can estimate how many people there are, how many groups we might form, and what our targets might be in terms of restoration for those watersheds.

We can think about management of those watersheds as an individual unit. It becomes something like a building block that we can use to multiply, to this case, seven watersheds or 15 watersheds or 40 watersheds, whatever the case may be (as the resources become available to scale to that level). 

Finally, the fourth element that we want to talk about in terms of contributing to growth, is the way that we measure and understand the change that happens in these watersheds (also known as our monitoring and evaluation systems).

It's one thing to collect good indicators, and we do collect great indicators. Like more girls are attending secondary school, people are gaining access to education, especially women, which is really important in many of the countries where we work.

The indicators are great, and that's one thing. But a kind of a hidden thing behind that is the way that that data is collected. We've adopted a system called a sampling method called D.I.D. or difference in differences.

I'll explain very quickly what that means. You can see here in this graph that we collected information in 2015, and that was the year we started in this particular area. Then we collected data again in 2017, the same kind of data on education, 2 years later. However, the sampling goes to another level. That's where you can see those two bars, the green bar is showing households within the target watershed, where we started working in 2015. The yellow bar shows households in a similar watershed nearby, a comparison of watershed, where we did not start working that same year. Then we can compare those two groups of two watersheds again in 2017. We get a sense of not only the change over time, but the change that's related to the project area.

That just gives us a lot more confidence in understanding change. Change is a  part that's attributable to the work that we do. That gives us more confidence about what we do. It allows us to address and make any improvements that we might want to make to the program.

It also allows us to go to our supporters and donors and say, look, we can actually attribute this change in education or in restoration to what's happening in the project area. That's kind of an under the hood kind of thing, so to speak. That kind of a difference in strategy in the way we collect and understand information has been really critical to supporting our growth. That was a real quick overview of some of the factors that we think have contributed to our success and to our growth.

There are many more, but we just highlighted those four. Now we want to move on to just talk very practically about a couple of our partners and the way that growth is taking place in some of the countries we work in.

I just want to preface this by saying that all of our partners, all eight countries, are primed and ready for growth, excited about growth, and are growing. We just want to highlight a couple. 

The first one is Thailand. Northern Thailand especially, where we work is a place that has many marginalized ethnic minorities. These are people who often don't have access to land. They don't have access to jobs. They don't have access to some of the same legal rights that other people do in Thailand.

We've been working with Thailand for many years to help address that and help those same communities to restore their environments, restore their watersheds, feed their families, and reach out to their communities.

One unique thing that I want to highlight in Thailand is community forestry. You see here a map done by the community itself. We work with those communities to train them in how to collect GPS points, how to do mapping, and how to develop community forestry plans.

They're able to develop these plans, go to local authorities and say, look, we are not part of the problem here. We are actually part of the solution. This plan that we're presenting to you is something that will help to not only protect the forests, but to actually increase forest area, and to sustain these watersheds in a way that's healthy for the forest and for our communities as well. This is something that I think we're particularly proud of in Thailand and it’s something we want to continue to promote in northern Thailand.

This map here shows the dark green of the two watersheds where we have been working up until now. The blue and the light green watershed is a new watershed that we've expanded into in this current fiscal year.

We're currently in three watersheds in northern Thailand. You can see that series of other polygons in this map that are prospective candidate watersheds where we're currently collecting data, and trying to understand the situation. These are potential areas where we can grow.

In fact, the ones in Dark Brown are watersheds that we've targeted for the next fiscal year 2023, if resources allow. I will say that our partner in Thailand has invested a lot in the past two years to strengthen systems, strengthen human resource systems, financial systems, and reporting systems.

They're in a place now where they know the opportunity is there. They know the impact they can have. They're ready to grow as the opportunity permits. Now passing over to Jared, who will talk a little bit about an example in Africa.

(Jared): Thanks, Bob. I just want to emphasize the key elements that Bob just talked about. All of them are key contributing factors to the ability and really the objective to grow our program. I think the most important aspect that I can re-emphasize is the fact that stewardship is one of our organizational values. One of the ways that we go about being good stewards or trying to be good stewards of the funds that we receive is to be able to work with the smallholder farmers. It really comes down to evidence based decisions.

The way that we measure, the way that we look at existing research, the way that we do our own measurement of the program and the results that we get, has really enabled us to to look at how our program is actually impacting the population.

It's impacting people like Monica, who's a female farmer in Burundi who was having difficulty before joining a group to access financial services. Maybe she feels a bit ostracized from her community or is having difficulties at home, or having trouble feeding her kids.

By joining this group, she learns new skills. She's able to access financial services and learn leadership skills like conflict resolution. All of these things go into what they're learning. That is at the individual level, and one of the things that makes us motivated to do the work that we do. We get to see the work being done and the practical change it creates, not just at a watershed level or even at a community level, but at an individual level.

We can say smallholder farmer, we can talk about farmers. You have a picture in your mind of who these people are, what they do, and the challenges they face. Really, the reality that they face in conditions of poverty and their environment, (which has been segregated) is one of these things that kind of mars their identity and keeps it quite difficult for them to get an upper hand. It’s difficult for them to see that they can make a change among their group, within their community, and really at large for the environment.

For us to be good stewards of the funds that we receive to work with these smallholder farmers, is a key part of who we are as Plant With Purpose. As we move forward looking at growth, we really want to be good stewards of the funds that have allowed us to grow.

Looking at the data and evidence that says we are impacting the lives of these individuals, who are impacting the lives of their neighbors who may not be participating in the program. They're impacting the environment at large, whether it's by reforestation, by protecting their own land, by experimenting with their group members, and learning new technology for farming. One of the most exciting examples we have, as Bob already highlighted, is our program in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where last year, we had an opportunity to take all that we had learned in a three year period and apply that at a much larger scale. 

Going from working in one watershed, to working in two watersheds, to now working in seven watersheds. For me, as a development practitioner, when I think about seven watersheds, I get really excited. That’s because, for me, what that actually shows are these households, individuals, the farmers themselves, the number of women that are participating in the program, and the benefits that trickle down or roll out to their children. It trickles down to their daughters, who Bob highlighted earlier about being more likely to go to school.

All of these benefits come out of what we do and why we're doing it. What's really exciting about the D.R. Congo program is because of the success we've had there. We've actually been able to see a lot of opportunity for growth in all of our other country programs where we've seen that the watershed model is working.

People's lives are changing. They're eating more food, their land is being restored, and protected. They're planting. I can't even count the number of trees to protect their land and their environments. Looking at other countries that we work in, like Burundi, Tanzania and Ethiopia, all of them are now experiencing growth in the program because of this change. We've seen this because of the watershed model and because of the stewardship that we want to hold tightly to, and being able to see the evidence of the change that's taking place. Even in this year alone or really the past two years in Burundi, we've doubled the size of the program there. We went from working in four watersheds to now working in eight. For us, this is significant and it seems like a lot to us. However, we know the amount of opportunities that still exist, not just in Burundi, not just in the D.R. Congo, but also in other countries that we are currently exploring and looking at.

How can we also extend this program to other places where we know there are opportunities where smallholder farmers are experiencing the same challenges? It's exciting to be able to talk about this, to talk about why growth is happening and all of these key elements that Bob has already highlighted. Our newest program in Ethiopia that started about three years ago had a lot of success. Recently, we were able to look at how this program can also grow. We are currently embarking on really exciting growth.

Instead of hearing me talk about it, we've got a really cool video for you to watch. 

*Video was shown*

As you could see from the video, we're really excited about the growth that's going on in the Ethiopia program, and you’ve probably heard a lot of things in the news recently about Ethiopia.

It may be close to your heart, and it's really an exciting time to get involved. With the work that we’re doing and the impact that it's having on the communities of the smallholder farmers, we are looking for people to partner with us.

If you're interested in supporting the Ethiopia program, we invite you to log on to and partner with us in this ambition. Thank you so much for being with us, for your interest in the growth that's happening at Plant With Purpose and for wanting to partner with us.

We really look forward to any questions you may have. Thank you so much. God bless.

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