Authors: Julian Mocine-McQueen
The email from Uganda seemed urgent.
"My name is John Kaganga and I am very inspired by Green For All and am creating similar initiatives in Uganda. I want to bring Green For All to Uganda, please contact me to discuss this effort."
I sat there staring at the email. I couldn’t believe it had just arrived in my inbox. I’d just confirmed a three-month leave of absence from Green For All to pursue related work through the Million Person Project in Vietnam, South Africa and – wait for it – Uganda. I emailed John back - not knowing what to expect, but knowing that this was clearly a sign to heed.
Two months later, Heather (my partner in the Million Person Project) and I were bumping around in a cab looking for John’s house in the suburbs of Kampala. John lives part time in Kampala and part time in his home village of Casajerre in the Kikandwa Sub-county. We met him in Kampala and began to learn how he’s creating a vision of green for all in Uganda.
His work in the environment and economy started in 2000 when he reflected on the fact that his home county was lagging far behind the rest of the country in education, health, and jobs - and that the forest that he grew up in was disappearing fast. He founded the Kinkandwa Environmental Association to help address these issues.
The first issue they took on was the deforestation issue. This issue affects much of Africa. The vast majority of cook stoves in Uganda are charcoal/wood-burning stoves; this means that millions of residents are cutting down trees to feed their families. Compounding this problem is the fact that the Government came in and clear-cut several thousand acres to sell for timber.
John knew that his community could not flourish if they could not save the forest that had been their home for generations. As he thought about what he could do, he reflected on the giant mango tree in his yard. “We didn’t used to have mango trees here, but in the 1930’s one man walked all the way to Entebbe (a Ugandan town about 150 miles from Kikandwa) to get mango seedlings and gave them to villagers all over here.” He continued, “I sit here under this tree and I think, if he could do that in the 30’s when there are no roads, it must have taken months, then I can help my community grow its forests back.” This was the beginning of the Kikandwa Environmental Association (KEA). By 2003, John had rallied his community to advocate for the replanting of their forests. Now he looks proudly over acres that have been replanted and are almost 10 years old.
The reforestation work was only the beginning for John. For many years, he has exemplified the Green For All belief that the environment and the economy are connected, and that we must address the needs of both to lift up our communities. John does this by encouraging innovations and spreading them throughout the area.
Our first meeting in Kampala allowed us to see just how much John is able to do with very little financial support. He introduced us to James and George, who are two members of KEA and are working on innovations of their own. We took a walk through the Kamapla neighborhood, dodging chickens and the many children pointing and laughing with (at least we told ourselves) us. We came upon a cow in a shed and James explained that this cow was central to his project because the cow helped make the soil rich. We rounded the corner and saw a huge pile of compost that was rich and dark. James had for several years been working to educate his neighbors about organic and in-organic material and the potential for his community if everyone separates their trash and starts participating in the community compost project. While we stood learning about his plans for the compost, a woman came and separated her trash, leaving the food waste on the pile. James knows that this compost pile is good for the neighborhood. He gives the rich compost to his neighbors for their gardens, but has a dream of working with the city to use it in their parks as well. “The soil is very poor in some places, this is exactly what they need.”
James’ innovation was one of many we were to see when we traveled to John’s village a few days later. Casajerre is a 3.5 mile walk from the closest paved road. We walked through original forests and stopped for a rest in front of the many acres that John and the KEA rallied to restore several years ago. We were scheduled to spend the day and night in his village and he created a packed schedule for us.
Before the day was out, we met Eleth, who created and now sells an organic pesticide. A true entrepreneur, she is now getting ready to produce and sell fire-less cookers, and while we talked, she gave us a taste of her banana wine, which was sweet and delicious. Eleth shared her story with us. She said that she struggled to pay school fees for her children, a situation that we heard a shocking number of times in our month here, and was having a pest problem with her matooke (plantain) farm. She started to experiment with peppers and ash, and after killing a few plants along with the pests, she found the right mix. She beamed as she told us of selling up to 100 liters of pesticide a week to her neighbors. The extra income has made all the difference and her children continue their education. John has worked to spread this innovation to neighboring villages as well, and through workshops he organizes for farmers, educates about the dangers of chemical pesticides and the benefits of the cheap organic alternative. “We cannot afford to poison our land, our land is the only thing that we have to support ourselves.”
Next we met Margaret who had stumbled on a super food, amarantheus, and now uses it to support herself and her children, including twins who were left on her front porch three years ago. She is innovating new ways to use this plant that grows everywhere in her village. We left her home having been fed a nourishing and delicious lunch of amarantheus porridge, snack cakes, coffee, posho (a local staple similar to grits) and, my personal favorite, pancakes. Margaret provides Amerantheus treats for her daughter Esther to sell for pocket money at her school. She’s now working on marketing the goods as healthy and vitamin rich. Margaret explains, “we should never have a problem with food security, we can grow so much here, we just have to educate our neighbors so they know.”
I was struck by how much John’s efforts in Kikandwa mirror the strategy of Green For All. The innovations are shared amongst farmers, much like our Community of Practice. The farmers are working on environmentally friendly alternatives, and working to monetize them as well. And just as the communities in the US that we work with create opportunities in difficult financial situations, John is not letting a lack of money get in the way of progress. John knows that all of these issues are related and he uses his seemingly endless energy, and his unwavering commitment to his community to identify and share innovations and connect his neighbors with resources. Throughout our time, he repeated his refrain about what he’s doing. “I don’t have money, too many people let this stop them. None of us have money, but we still have to address the problems and work to fix them.”
With my return to Green For All to carry on our mission, I come inspired and encouraged by what John has been able to do with little more than perseverance and a belief in the abilities of his community. The issues faced by Ugandans are not dissimilar to those faced by communities in the States, and the solutions are the same. We must follow John’s lead and let our belief in ourselves; our pursuit of innovation and a dedication to the community lead our efforts.
After all, if one man is responsible for all the mango trees in western Uganda, then we can all plant the seeds of an inclusive green economy wherever we are.