Growing trees in Africa? Local solutions are best

[About the author: Tony Mulvahil is a project manager who enjoys writing. He was a student on the City, University of London Writing for Business short course in April-July 2019. Tony wrote this blog as part of a homework/in-class exercise on that course.]

Feeling lost amongst the noise of climate disaster stories? These charities focus on making an extraordinary difference to local people.

Your social media feed pops up another horror story of a forest fire consuming a vast tract of pristine forest. Or a monstrous cyclone drowning an entire city. You feel a rising sense of fear and panic combined with despair that nothing you do will solve this man-made climate disaster.

Yet, hidden away from view are many organisations working with local people who are on the battlefront of the climate crisis. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), not to be confused with the UN Environment organisation, focuses on addressing drought and soil degradation. The UNCCD supplies resources and action plans aiming to halt the loss of productive land.

On their website, the UNCCD provides extracts titled Actions Around the World. These tell the stories of the many small groups of people making a tremendous contribution to their local area. The UNCCD highlights how women are taking an increasingly significant role in setting up groups that tackle climate change by giving them the authority to decide their priorities. Tree Aid establishes enterprise groups in countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali, and this activity helps women improve their lives. Over in Kenya’s Mau Forest, Green Grants supports the Indigenous Information Network enabling local women to reclaim degraded land.

Separately, the Forest Peoples charity supports indigenous forest people to continue living in their traditional homes by working with them to tackle the political challenges these people face.

Tree Aid – an ambitious charity that deserves your attention

Tree Aid is a charity based in Bristol, a port city in the west of the United Kingdom. They provide education and support for communities in Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Ethiopia. These states are part of the Drylands of Africa.

Tree Aid focuses on building land management skills within communities. It also develops cooperatives that create money and works with governments to establish land rights. Taken together, this innovative approach builds confidence and ownership in tackling the climate crisis.

In 2018 Tree Aid helped 656,320 people, planted 905,085 trees, and worked to protect over 54,000 hectares of land. By 2022, Tree Aid’s strategy is to help 2.5 million people, plant 8 million trees and restore 250,000 hectares of degraded land. When you consider their income in 2018 was £3.1 million, this ambitious charity really deserves a lot more attention.

How training and education tackle climate change

People living in remote rural communities are extremely poor and the struggle to survive is part of daily life. In the Drylands, clearing of forests and overuse of land for agriculture continue to drive soil degradation that leads to desertification. This combines with erratic rainfall due to the climate crisis. Consequently people living in these areas are at the very edge of survival when it comes to finding food to feed their families.

Tree Aid provides training that enables local people to learn how to care for their local environment. Although planting trees and nurturing them to maturity is a key part of their mission, Tree Aid aims to create jobs and improve the diet and nutrition of people in these areas as part of their mission.

Another area where Tree Aid provides support is working with villagers and local government officials to establish charters. These define the villagers’ rights to the forest and how they will care for their trees. To set up these charters, Tree Aid provides training to all parties on topics such as forest management law and negotiating skills. Results from a Tree Aid survey show that once a community is responsible for managing their trees, and starts to sustainably harvest the seeds and nuts, there is a marked increase in income and a corresponding decrease in food insecurity.

Where it makes sense for a community, Tree Aid assist with the establishment of Village Tree Enterprises (VTEs). These structures generate a sense of common purpose and encourage people to share the rewards of their collective efforts. To create greater exposure for their VTEs, Tree Aid also arrange trade fairs with buyers interested in sourcing locally produced goods.

Trees increase income and nutrition for local families

Tree Aid dramatically altered Awa’s circumstances by establishing a VTE in her village. Awa lives in Torem, a tiny village in landlocked Burkina Faso. Villagers in the Drylands are completely dependent on good rains to grow enough crops for food each year. When the rains are poor, crops fail, and people go hungry. Two years after the creation of her VTE, Awa no longer relies on the rain or has to worry if her family will have enough to eat.

With the knowledge gained from Tree Aid, Awa understands that picking ripe shea nuts produces the best shea butter and in turn, this results in a bigger profit at the local village market. Awa now earns enough money to comfortably feed her family during the dry season and sufficient spare cash to pay for her children’s education. Watch Awa tell her story via Tree Aid’s YouTube channel.

In neighbouring Mali, a combination of clearing land for agriculture and unsustainable tree felling saw the country lose over 30% of its forests. Tree Aid provides local communities with the skills to start regenerating the Sutebwo and Duwa forests. A combination of training in agroforestry and supporting regeneration aims to increase tree cover. It also provides cash crops from trees such as mangos, locust beans and cashews that will increase incomes. During the dry season, bushfires are a constant threat to the Drylands. They can very quickly wipe out trees and crops. Tree Aid worked with villagers to create firebreaks that prevent the rapid spread of fire and reduce the risk of fires spreading unchecked.

Does local knowledge matter?

The Global Greengrants Fund works to tackle climate change by identifying local communities that need funding. It then lets them use their local knowledge to resolve their local environmental issues. The Fund is particularly keen to support women and spends around 70% of its budget helping women tackle climate challenges.

In Africa, Global Greengrants aims to reduce deforestation and reduce the need for burning wood for charcoal. In Kenya, they partner with organisations such as the Indigenous Information Network (IIN) to develop and deliver local solutions to tackle the loss of trees and biodiversity in the Mau Forest.

Reclaiming degraded land to revive Kenya’s Mau forest

Land clearing is a global problem where farming practices rely on clearing ground and then irrigating and fertilising the soil to keep it productive. These farmlands rely on areas of land with good supplies of water that are easily attainable. The Mau Forest is the largest catchment area in Kenya. It is now just 25% of its original size thanks to the clearing of land for timber and agriculture.

This loss of forest covers means that people struggle for food and firewood and often resort to the illegal clearing of trees to provide cash and fuel for cooking. There is a larger environmental impact when the rainy season starts. The reduced forest footprint results in the forest absorbing lower quantities of rainwater; this leads to large volumes of water flowing straight into the Mara River. The result of this increased flow of water is erosion of the banks of the Mara into wider and deeper channels.

IIN supports local women in Narok County, Kenya, to grow seedlings and to begin the slow work of expanding the Mau Forest. The benefits of this project are an increase in biodiversity as well as sustainable sources of food for people living in the forest. Knowing their food supply is more reliable, the women can sell the surplus for extra income that supports education for their children. Supporting their families inspires women to be more confident in their communities and more active in decision making.

Where do forest people live?

If you’re a government with a rich seam of minerals and oil under your forests or with a reliable source of water that would be useful for raising cattle, then the forest is the last place you want to see people living. Often governments implement a standard colonial approach to deal with the issue. Dispossess the people of their lands and disperse them to unfamiliar places that leave them disconnected from their heritage.

The Forest Peoples Programme supports forest people and works to protect them in order to retain the intimate knowledge these people have of their forest homes. The programme supports indigenous populations who want to live and manage their traditional homes. Forest people are attuned to their environment and spiritually connected to where they live; they know the forests nurture them and give them life. Breaking these cherished bonds destroys their culture and their heritage. The impact on the forests is just as severe; deforestation accelerates after the forcible removal of the indigenous owners.

Being unfamiliar in dealing with political systems that treat them like criminals, forest people are also unaware of their rights and how to assert them. The programme works closely with forest people to support their human rights and help them access complaint processes. In addition, the programme continues to promote policies that support sustainable forest use by governments and businesses.

Supporting the charity of your choice

This blog highlights just four organisations doing their part by adding more drops to the ocean of change needed to avert a climate disaster. If you like what you see, you can do your part in fighting climate change by helping these organisations put more drops in the bucket. As David Mitchell wrote in Cloud Atlas, “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops”.



UN Environment Organisation:
Tree Aid:
Global Green Grants:
Indigenous people:
Forest Peoples Programme:


Lucy Mulenki, Executive Director, Indigenous Information Network