Katrell Christie stands behind the counter of her tea and coffee shop in Atlanta. Threadbare oriental carpets cover the marred concrete floor. Bookshelves line the walls, and secondhand tables with ancient lamps are scattered around. Sumptuous cakes and thick cookies are displayed under glass.
In this shop, known as Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party, Ms. Christie launched her dream of making college possible for a group of young women in India. Four years after starting, her project now supports the university education of 11 women, gradually adding students each year. In October, she will double that number.
It's not that hard to help people, she says. "I sell cupcakes for $3."
It all began in 2009, two years after Ms. Christie opened Dr. Bombay’s. A student from the nearby Georgia Institute of Technology came into the shop and began pestering her to go to India and help with a handicraft project.
At first Ms. Christie said she was too busy running her business, but eventually agreed. Once there, she took a side trip to Darjeeling, India, to look at tea plantations, thinking she’d find a new source of tea for the shop.
There she met three girls from an orphanage. They told her they would be forced to leave their orphanage within a year, since it only serves children up to age 16. Their futures seemed grim. Having no parents and nowhere to go, they could end up living on the street, where sex trafficking is one of the few avenues to making money, and where AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) are a big risk.
“I made a bunch of promises,” Christie says. She told them she’d come back in six months and help. Then she had to figure out a way to make it happen. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Back in Atlanta, she put a jar on the counter, asking for money to help. Her shop was filled with used books solicited from customers and others in the surrounding Candler Park neighborhood. Sold for $1 apiece, the books raised money for the local Mary Lin Elementary School. Ms. Christie redirected the book funds toward India.
In six months, she had several thousand dollars – enough to fly to India, rent an apartment for the girls, pay for their tuition at a college prep high school, and get them school uniforms and immunizations.
“They knew what an amazing opportunity it was,” she says.
Since the landlord in Darjeeling would not rent solely to a young woman, Ms. Christie persuaded her father to co-sign the lease.
To keep the project afloat, Ms. Christie began selling packets of tea from Darjeeling, with a notice that the profit went for tuition. She called it The Learning Tea. Her shop also began sponsoring a four-course Indian dinner once a month to raise money.
Every six months, she went back to India. Her plane ticket was one of the biggest expenses. She was struck by how she was able to “do something for someone with so little.”
Each trip she would hear about another girl who needed shelter and wanted to go to college. She added students and the group moved into a larger space – eventually into a free-standing building that has dormitory-style bedrooms with bunk beds. A housemother now lives with them and the accommodations include a kitchen with a refrigerator. The house also has a computer.
Among the girls who live there is one who had medical problems because of malnutrition. Another lost both her parents to TB. Two were sex-trafficked to Nepal, rescued, and brought back.
Ms. Christie knows that big organizations help a larger number of people. But her project is a specialized one. She focuses on college educations for women.
She believes vocational training helps only one generation, she says. A college education allows a woman to pursue a career and, in turn, provide higher education her own children.
“It is the only way I see that you can stop the vicious cycle of intensive poverty in India,” Christie says.
The project has grown steadily. This fall, she will open a residence in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and provide scholarships and a home for 12 more young women.
• To learn more visit http://thelearningtea.com and http://www.drbombays.com.
Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates are not your average backyard gardeners. They call themselves plant geeks, and they’re not kidding.
Toensmeier sustained a serious head injury in 1994, and to heal, he memorized thousands of Latin plant names, families, orders, and superorders. He also cross-indexed a tome of edible plants with references listing cold-hardy varieties and perennials. Bates studied biology and ecology and spends a lot of time poring over Plants for a Future, an online database of useful plants. Not surprisingly, when the two friends bought a duplex together in 2004, they didn’t build your average garden.
They set out with a list of ambitious goals. They wanted to transform their yard into a permaculture oasis by planting “a mega-diverse living ark of useful and multifunctional plants” from their bioregion and around the world. They hoped to harvest “two handfuls of fresh fruit every day for everybody in the house, including guests, for as long a season as possible,” and also to attract birds, beneficial insects, and a couple of bachelorettes.
Toensmeier, the main author of "Paradise Lot," who also wrote "Perennial Vegetables" and co-wrote "Edible Forest Gardens," doesn’t skimp on details about how he and Bates turned a “dead and blighted” one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in a “biologically impoverished neighborhood” of Holyoke, Mass., into Food Forest Farm, an Eden for edibles. Although it is more memoir than how-to, "Paradise Lot" outlines the basics of sheet mulching, raising silkworms, keeping chickens, and growing mushrooms. Readers will gain an understanding of the principles and objectives of permaculture, a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s. It combines indigenous land management practices, ecological design, and sustainable methods to create low-maintenance gardens that function like natural ecosystems.
It’s inspiring and a little daunting to read about what Toensmeier and Bates achieved on their small plot in eight years. They managed to transform their Massachusetts front yard into a tropical garden. In their backyard, they installed a pond, shed, and greenhouse, and they grow about 160 edible perennials, many of which you’ve likely never heard of before. Here’s an inventory of the berries they harvest each season: honeyberries, strawberries, goumi cherries, Gerardi dwarf mulberries, four kinds of currants, gooseberries, jostas, blueberries, wild raspberries, golden Anne raspberries, ground-cherries, wintergreen berries, juneberries, and lingonberries.
Toensmeier hopes the complexity and diversity of Food Forest Farm won’t dissuade beginners from experimenting with permaculture in their backyards, since part of the reason they undertook the project in an urban area with typical inner-city problems was to make it a relevant example for amateurs to emulate.
“Our desire to try many new things—new models of production, hundreds of new and interesting species—meant that we put a lot more time into a garden of this size than any reasonable person would ever do,” he writes. It’s helpful that the book shares the friends’ ample mistakes, setbacks, and revisions, making it clear that the most important thing a gardener needs if embarking on a similar project is a dedication to experimentation.
"Paradise Lot" offers gardeners more than inspiration and instruction. Toensmeier and Bates present an unconventional alternative to the American dream: two single men committed to a friendship and to making their backyard and neighborhood better.
“Trusting each other with such a responsibility felt especially rare in this world,” Bates writes in one of the short essays he contributes to Toensmeier’s text. The friends’ dedication to each other and to a patch of land paid off. “We made our little paradise here,” Toensmeier writes.
Moreover, "Paradise Lot" is permeated by an incredibly hopeful and compelling vision of humans’ place in nature. Toensmeier is critical of the environmental movement’s emphasis on minimizing footprints, because he thinks that permaculture and indigenous land management practices offer us ways to affect ecosystems for the better. After all, he and Bates turned a barren lot into a habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms.
And the wildlife actually helps them manage the garden. The birds eat insects. The opossums eat rotten fruit when it drops. The squirrels eat unwanted Norway maple seedlings. Some permaculture farmers even employ squirrels as labor by setting out buckets near their nut trees, letting the squirrels fill them, and swapping the nuts for corn.
Toensmeier is convinced it’s time for us to re-evaluate our ideas of “nature,” “agriculture,” and “wilderness” and embrace the potential to transform our communities into beautiful, healthy ecosystems like Food Forest Farm.
“Imagine what would happen,” he writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”
A group of three impassioned friends, all under the age of 30, started Boulder Food Rescue in August of 2011 with the goal of introducing the problems of waste and want to one another, and with the help of a little logistical muddling on our part, letting them solve each other.
It’s a shocking fact that 40% of all food produced in the US goes to waste at some point in production. The EPA estimates that every grocery store in the country generates about 1 ton of waste per day, which doesn’t even touch waste in the field or in transport. This (almost inconceivably) occurs at the same time at 1 in 6 Americans are considered “food insecure” and do not have access to adequate and reliable nutrition.
We set about addressing this lunacy in our own community of Boulder, Colo., by starting an organization that picks up food, primarily fresh fruits and veggies, from local grocers and transports it by bike to 50 agencies that serve hungry, homeless, and low-income folks in Boulder. We use 90% bicycle transportation because our food system is incredibly energy intensive, and it makes no sense to put more fossil fuels into trying to rescue food that slips though the cracks.
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Over the past 20 months, Boulder Food Rescue has amassed a volunteer base of 150, saved nearly 325,000 lbs. of fresh, healthy food, and is in the process of becoming a national nonprofit. This last point has been our focus over the past several months as we began to export our bike-powered food rescue model to 5 different cities. Due to some national press coverage, we had people from 25 different cities around the globe from Dublin to San Francisco contact us to ask for support in rescuing food.
In March, with the help of a Shareable seed grant, we decided to focus our work to replicate the program on an inspiring group of people in Fort Collins, Colo. An already close-knit group of friends and community members came to us and asked for some help establishing a food rescue organization with bikes in Fort Collins, which is just an hour and a half by car from Boulder. This initial ask was followed by meetings and long email chains and countless hours of community-based research. We became a primary resource for them, and in our weekly correspondence answered questions about how to best approach community partners, access nonprofit status, and recruit volunteers.
We also wrote and produced bound copies of the “BFR Package Deal,” a step-by-step guide to starting a food rescue, which proved to be invaluable to them as they could refer to it for local and national resources, and feel a greater degree of independence. We encouraged lots of inquiry and communication with organizations that were already working with food in Fort Collins. This led to many conversations with the local food bank, gleaning project, food coop, and network of community gardens about the role a potential food rescue would fill in their operations.
Once the organizers were confident that a bike-powered food rescue was timely and appropriate for Fort Collins, we together set about creating the beginnings of an organization: bylaws, a board of directors, and a mission statement. One Fort Collins organizer said of this initial stage, “It is a genuinely beautiful act of strength to get something like this going, and I can’t wait to be a part of this beginning.”
The Fort Collins Food Rescue crew was filled with enthusiasm and energy, but had the same problem we did at our inception: the issue of how to become a nonprofit, since the project relies on tax deductible donations. We at Boulder Food Rescue were working hard to become nationally tax exempt so that we might extend out 501c3 status to Fort Collins and several other cities, but had run into frustrating road blocks internally and with the IRS.
In a display of resourcefulness, one of the Fort Collins organizers, Dana Guber, suggested that food rescue in Fort Collins be housed under the nonprofit status of the Growing Project, a local organization that promotes the value of a strong, diverse, and just local food system for all residents of northern Colorado through direct agricultural experiences, education, and advocacy.
The group carefully weighed their options, and decided that the best way to serve their community and rescue food was to become a project of the Growing Project. They adopted the name Food Finders and completed their first pickup by bicycle last week, which was a whole bunch of fresh, healthy greens!
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The past few months have been an intense learning process for both Boulder Food Rescue and the newly christened Food Finders. We learned to be an incubator for a fledgling organization and help it create a vision for the future. We have gained a greater understanding that federal paperwork doesn’t happen on our schedule and learned how we can balance sharing our model and providing support with granting full autonomy to the people who use it.
The folks in Fort Collins have learned a great deal about patience and persistence in starting a new project, and have experienced sweet success as a result of their work. A Fort Collins organizer reflected: “We are capable of preventing food waste and, more universally, spreading knowledge to strengthen the community. Being a part of Fort Collins Food Rescue has given me an empowerment that I don’t feel is leaving any time soon.”
As the Millennial Trains Project (MTP) enters the two-week countdown for applications, the nation is responding to its provocative idea: Let’s use 150-year-old railways to inspire 21st century change.
Over the span of 10 days, 40 Millennials will cross the country by train, each rider with a specific, crowdfunded project to help build a better nation. Riders won’t be alone: They will count on the dialogue and involvement of onboard mentors and station-side cities.
We Millennials [Editor's note: Millennials, roughly speaking, are teens and adults under 30 years of age] don’t have an easy future up ahead of us, and it seems that we’ve been dubbed with some tough-to-swallow labels, like narcissism and laziness. 25-year-old Patrick Dowd, MTP’s founder and CEO, insists that the jury is still out on our generation – and that maybe Millennials are ready to step up to the plate.
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In our conversation, Dowd shares the challenges that Millennials face, the inspiration behind the project, and the stories MTP is uncovering through its applicants and stakeholders.
I thought that the TIME article was, like many others, not that impressive or accurate. It takes a slice of data and makes sweeping generalizations about what this generation is or isn’t.
I’m not saying that Millennials are one thing or another. I’m just creating a platform that will help people to explore their passions. Applications are proving that there’s a lot of talent in our generation. That’s a big asset.
MTP says that Millennials are living in a United States that is more divided that at any time since the Civil War.
It’s true. Just look at the exit maps from the last election – look at the red and blue states. There are a lot of disagreements, and a lot of polarizations. With the way the media has evolved, people can now build silos around themselves, surrounding themselves with information sources that reaffirm only their beliefs.
But there is no political litmus test to get on this train, and we are bringing really diverse people together. This is building new relationships based on shared aspirations for a better future – that aren’t constrained by existing political fault lines.
Yes. I studied Hindi and read and learned about India for three years, and I lived in India for five months – but traveling across the breadth of the country gave me so much more than what I could gleam from academic study or living in one place.
It also helped me to imagine what it’s like to do something on a big scale; to think of what the opportunities could be. You feel the diversity – the geographical diversity, the human diversity, and even the spiritual diversity as well. There’s something about feeling the bumps of the country as you go across it – highways and airplanes can’t offer that.
When I came back from India, I was working with JP Morgan when the Occupy Wall Street movement began to gain traction. I thought there was a better way to channel the frustration that my generation has with the challenges we face.
How does MTP’s compare to Jagriti Yatra?
They are both built on the concept that journeys build leaders, and they share the mission of building trans-regional perspectives and experiential learning.
The biggest difference is that MTP is very user-generated. Riders are designing their own projects, and doing their own crowdfunding. In India, we didn’t have the opportunity to develop our own projects.
An India-inspired idea, taking root in the United States. Any hopes it will continue to spread?
Expansion could happen. Maybe people will want to copy it – and that’s fine! We can help with capacity building if other people wanted to do this somewhere else. I think the most important component is that the location needs to have a geographically diverse innovation ecosystem.
You’re making a big bet on Millennials. Have you seen any adversity from that?
We had some surprising responses to my piece in GOOD. Some people from older generations were complaining about the project being only for Millennials, saying that older people shouldn’t be left out of the project. I certainly understand, but I think we need to create a safe space for our generation to create ideas of our own.
I was joking with my team that for every seat in Congress – which is making decisions that will affect our future – that’s occupied by a Millennial, we’ll offer a seat for older people on the train!
Ha! I bet the comment wouldn’t sit well with a lot of non-Millennials.
I don’t know about that. For every one snide comment I’ve gotten, there have been 100 people saying, “This is great,” “I want my daughter or son to get involved,” or “How can I support you….”
Older people are generally very supportive of MTP. People want to rebuild a sense of America, and that’s cross-generational.
What other stakeholders have been in dialog with MTP?
On the one hand, we’re working with the entrepreneurial, design-thinking community – but it’s been fascinating to connect with the old-school train community. The train guys are like land sailors. They have this amazing oral history about seeing cities being built across the country, but it’s not very well-documented or accessible online – you have to talk to them to discover their stories.
We also hosted a delegation of native Americans that had gone on a walk from Kansas to DC. We both connected with the idea that journeys build leaders. We had a very long discussion about the history of their people, their beliefs, and what it’s like to be a native American. The meeting was three hours long, and for the first 90 minutes, I just listened to the storytelling of their history and culture.
They reminded us that in popular culture, the idea of trains represents adventure and the pioneering spirit that we want to revive. But for them, it represents an instrument of extreme terror that was used as a vessel to desolate their populations. It was good to be made aware of that. They also recognized that we are using the train for a different purpose, and both sides hoped to see participation from their tribes.
Are you learning anything new about Millennials through this process?
Very diverse groups of people are gravitating toward the opportunity. It’s just this kaleidoscopic look at where the generation might be headed. There are projects about alternative education, wearable technologies, music, poetry, computer science, health, local governance….
I’m learning about things I didn’t even know existed. There is one project about citizen science. They are using technology to connect outdoor athletes, conservation scientists, and policymakers. For example, a rock climber sees an eagle’s nest, takes a picture with her cell phone, tags it, and sends the data to an eagle conservatory.
Another project works with community wireless networks. They use free open-source software to build community mesh intranets. One applicant, Stephanie, is using Google Glass to identify opportunities for wearable technology.
So are you seeing a tech-heavy balance of projects?
There are a lot of projects that are only possible because of new technologies – but it’s not really about technology. It’s about passion, principles, and ideas.
Cameron wants to digitally share her street installations of poetry, but for her, [MTP] is about the magic and beauty of poetry. Stephanie is working with “techy” Google Glass, but it’s also about honoring and connecting with her immigrant parent’s pioneering journey to the United States. Lindsea from Hawaii is integrating technologies into local governance, but I think it’s also about being part of a country even when you’re from an outlying part of it. I imagine her connecting with inspiring friends from the mainland as a result of this.
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At a time when we have so much ability to connect through technological innovations, we have physical connections that can be much more powerful. It’s worth the time and effort of people to unplug and connect in that way.
This will be MTP’s first trip. What are MTP’s expectations?
This first journey is an experiment, and we’ll learn from it. Some stops and forms of engagement will be more successful than others, and everybody getting onboard knows that. It’s the start of something great and a learning experience for everybody involved. We’ll reinvest that knowledge.
Does that mean we can count on more trips in the future?
(Laughs) Let’s just see how this goes. I think it’ll be great – and if that’s the case, there are more places to go.
Salma's fate wasn’t meant to be any different to that of millions of girls in rural India: You’re born to the huge disappointment of your parents who were desperate for a boy; you're sent to school for a few years; you're married off in your teens and have children of your own. Eventually, you die.
The prospect of such a life haunted Salma when she was a young girl growing up in an ultra-conservative Muslim village in southern India. The thought of puberty filled her with dread, for that was when young girls got locked up inside their homes, forbidden to study, play, or do any of the things children do.
This was and still is the destiny of so many girls in her community – until they get married, sometimes only to be imprisoned inside four walls again, but this time in their husband’s home.
Salma's life, however, took another turn and quite an extraordinary one. So extraordinary that it was a story that had to be told, says British director Kim Longinotto.
Ms. Longinotto turned Salma’s life story into a film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, at the Berlin International Film Festival, and at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest. [Editor's note: Click here for the "Salma" film's website.]
Salma is now the most famous female poet in southern India. She is also a politician.
After she was born, Salma’s family gave her away.
"I guess I was too young to care," her mother says in the film, recounting how her husband had told her she must give birth to a boy or she would be sterilized.
When she was returned to her parents years later, Salma attended school until she reached puberty, when she was locked in a small room in the basement of her family home. She was 13.
In the documentary, she recalls how she and her sister would fight over who was going to sit at the tiny barred window, the only point of contact with the outside world.
"I had no dreams anymore, no desires," Salma says in the film. "All you have is time but no life. It's crazy."
She used to write poems as a way of letting her thoughts out into a world where she couldn't go.
When she was finally allowed outside her basement, it was to be forced into marriage as a teenager to a much older man.
In Muslim communities in southern India, so-called minority laws make it impossible for authorities to intervene and stop child marriages, Salma told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Sheffield.
"I have stopped many [child] marriages – Hindu's only," she said. "I couldn't intervene in Muslim communities' child marriages."
Salma's husband beat her up and once again she was forbidden to leave home.
He didn't want her to write and he threw her notebooks away so Salma began to scribble her poems on tiny pieces of paper she ripped off a calendar, while hiding inside a filthy toilet.
Eventually, her mother started smuggling out her poems under piles of laundry and her father mailed them.
Despite previous disagreements and hard feelings, her mother wanted to help her. "Secretly I wanted her to write poetry," she says in the film.
After 20 years inside her husband's house, Salma's poems were published, to the outrage of fellow villagers. She had exposed their life and their sacred traditions to the world. Her poetry candidly speaks of sex, fierce fights with her husband, and it gives a voice to women who are expected to remain silent.
"Her writing calls for social awakening in the Muslim world. Woman deserves a better treatment, she says, but says it without offending the religion and establishment," a local reporter wrote about her poetry.
Salma now lives in Chennai – the capital of Tamil Nadu state – with her two sons. She moved there after she was elected chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.
Her husband and their sons, who were raised in a deeply Muslim conservative environment, still disapprove of her writing, of the fact that she doesn't wear a burqa, and of her fiercely egalitarian spirit that trumped culture and tradition.
"Children, mother-in-law, father: It's all ties and knots, you can't undo them or everything will unravel," reads one of her poems.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
But when New Jersey native Scott Zabelski saw it for his own eyes, the destruction became more real, and more personal.
He "looked around and saw things I would never have expected to see,” he says. “That’s when it was the most heartbreaking and devastating.”
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Mr. Zabelski is a resident of Toms River, N.J., just a short drive from a portion of the coast that received significant damage in the October 2012 hurricane. During his visit to a nearby barrier island, where he had spent time growing up and visiting friends, he couldn’t help but think that most of the places he remembers would be forever changed.
In the hours following the storm, Zabelski wanted to find a way to help.
The owner of Blue Wave Printing, a screen-printing company, Zabelski was tossing around ideas when his father suggested creating a T-shirt. Scott dreamed up the motto “Restore the Shore,” and quickly printed a handful to share with friends and family.
“Once I saw people’s reactions, then it kind of hit me,” he says.
Zabelski decided to create and sell T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts with "Restore the Shore" and donate part of the proceeds to hurricane recovery and relief.
The first day of sales was a much greater success than he had ever imagined. By the end of the day, he was able to spend $1,200 in donations to buy gift cards for those impacted by the storm.
He printed more shirts through the night, and sales boomed the next day as well – allowing him to raise $5,000 in donations.
“The biggest thing that we did differently from anyone else,” he says, “is that we really gave a significant portion of the [money away].” Zabelski set his prices so that they would cover his expenses, with the rest going to charity.
The idea rapidly blossomed and demand grew, he says, enough so that he decided to shut down his screen-printing business for six months to handle the T-shirt orders and continue to raise as much for hurricane recovery as possible.
His business went from a staff of three to 21 – a number that included family members and friends, as well as some victims of the storm who had lost their homes.
“I hired my mom, I hired my brother, I hired friends from my beach area,” he says. “These are all, like, my buddies.
As the sales piled up, Zabelski researched what help was needed where and then helped fill that need – whether it was for chopped wood, portable restroom facilities, equipment for first responders and law enforcement officials, or gift cards for displaced families.
The recovery process was personal for Zabelski, whose parents’ home sustained a great deal of damage. While his own home was relatively untouched, he saw the rigors of the recovery process through his parents' eyes – and turned that knowledge into finding ways to help.
“I could see all the challenges the people on the island and in Toms River were going to face through what my parents were facing,” he says.
Whether it was selling shirts and hoodies from his storefront, or at makeshift stands in parking lots that he announced on Facebook, Zabelski spent months producing more T-shirts and selling them throughout the region.
And the donations continued to climb – in the end surpassing $517,000.
“It was totally overwhelming,” he says. “It took over my whole life.”
Zabelski has since returned to his normal printing business, but the adventure is one he will never forget.
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“It was just totally mind-blowing,” he says. “I feel lucky that I was able to make a little bit of a difference, the way I knew was needed. I feel lucky that I could be the one to see what was missing and provide that need.”
Zabelski attributes some of the movement’s success to his fundraising and distribution model, which took into consideration the skepticism some people have about donating to causes. He wanted to make sure people knew exactly how much of the sale price would be donated and where that donation would go – and that the funds would be put to use immediately.
“We showed people where the money was going,” he says. “We used Facebook to post every time we purchased something and gave it away. People could literally see, that moment, where the money went and who it was given to.”
What if we could harness the limitless power of the sun to carry water to the crops of millions of small poor farmers around the world?
If I want to water my petunias, I turn on the tap outside my house, hold my thumb over the end of a battered green hose, and water away.
If a small farmer in Ghana or China wants to water a small patch of vegetables he’s growing to sell in the local market, he breaks his back hauling water in two buckets or sprinkling cans from a nearby stream. It takes six hours a day every other day for three months to water a tenth of an acre of vegetables which might sell for $100 at the most.
The 1 billion of the world’s rural poor want out of poverty.
But to escape poverty they need to grow more cash crops to increase their income. The only way to grow more cash crops is to pump water. The current ways of doing it don’t work very well.
Foot pumps, diesel pumps, and solar pumps
A foot-operated pump that costs $25 will irrigate as much as half an acre with about four hours a day of work to earn a transformative $100 or more in profit. But it’s hard work, and anybody in his right mind would prefer to use a mechanized pump if he were able to afford it.
A five-horsepower diesel pump irrigates two-and-a-half acres of vegetables, but costs $350. And $450 a year for diesel [fuel], plus another $150 a year for repairs means $2,100 over the course of three years, not counting the cost of crop damage when the diesel pump requires repair.
It’s just too expensive for poor farmers.
But what if the same farmer could use a 2-kilowatt electric pump powered by solar photovoltaic panels instead? The fuel costs and operating costs would be close to zero, but there’s a big catch. It would cost about $7,000.
What if we could find a way to cut the cost of a 2-kilowatt solar pump system from$7,000 to $2,500? And what if we added a $1,400, 2.5-acre low-cost drip system and used the solar pump/drip system to grow 2.5 acres of diversified off-season fruits, vegetables, and spices? If done correctly, farmers could clear at least $4,500.
That’s enough to make payments on a three-year loan or lease and make a profit.
The SunWater project aims to achieve breakthrough affordability for photovoltaic pumping and irrigation, enabling small farmers all over the world to move out of poverty. Farmers using these pumps will also provide jobs for their neighbors to plant, weed, harvest, and market the crops they grow.
Today, 19 million diesel engines are being used to pump irrigation water from shallow wells in India alone, spewing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. If marketplace forces could replace a quarter of them with radically affordable photovoltaic-powered pump systems, we could transform small farmer livelihoods and radically reduce rural carbon emissions.
The team is developing a two-kilowatt solar-powered pumping system that can do the same job as a five-horsepower diesel pump, the most commonly used size. We’re taking a whole-systems approach, for example, using mirrors to concentrate the sun and bring down the cost of the solar cell.
The pumped water cools the solar cells, which increases their efficiency. An inverter is hooked up so it can use AC pump motors, which are widely available and cheap. Then we tune the mirrors, solar cells, cooling system, and pump so that it gives the right output for the right cost.
These pumps only pump during the day, but they don’t use diesel fuel, and they rarely break down. The SunWater system also has very low operating costs compared to a diesel pump.
The system will cost $2,500 instead of $7,000, and when paired with a low-cost, efficient drip-irrigation system, a farmer can pay it off in two years. The quick payback time makes all the difference for those living in poverty. What’s more, once the system is paid off, there is no fuel to buy.
At this price, the solar pumping systems should fly off the shelves.
In India, the government has a 20 percent subsidy on these systems, so the cost for farmers is actually closer to $2,000.
SunWater will transform water pumping for farmers in developing nations by bringing electricity to a billion people who will never connect to the grid.
To learn more about SunWater technology, visit the team's Indiegogo SunWater site.
Drought and high food prices in 2012 threatened the food security of more than 18 million people in the Sahel region of Africa, which includes parts of Chad, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon, and northern Nigeria.
The Sahel is prone to drought, and is becoming increasingly so with climate change. Consequently the people in this region are experiencing more frequent bouts of food insecurity and malnutrition.
Fortunately, organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP) and Care are joining forces to create all-women-managed cereal banks in villages throughout the Sahel that not only help protect against seasonal famine, but also empower women as agents of food security in their communities.
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Cereal banks are community-led grain distribution projects that store grain after harvests and then loan grain when food is scarce during what is known as the "lean season."
In 2009, WFP and Care established exclusively women-operated cereal banks to help ensure the availability of grain supplies year round. These community cereal banks loan grain below market price, helping protect against market speculation and enabling even the poorest women to purchase food for their families during times of scarcity. The women are expected to repay the loans, but at very low interest rates and only after they have harvested their own crops.
WFP and Care also fund educational enrichment programs that give lessons to women in arithmetic, reading, and writing, which give women the skills needed to manage the village granaries, including bookkeeping, monitoring stocks, and administering loans.
Education is of critical importance for the advancement of women in the developing world. As the Girl Effect reports, an extra year of primary school results in an increase in women’s eventual wages by 10 to 20 percent, while an extra year of secondary school increases potential wages by 15 to 25 percent.
Given women’s traditional role as primary caregivers who invest 90 percent of their incomes into their families (as compared to the 30 to 40 percent invested by men), it makes sense to employ them as managers of community cereal banks.
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“Women traditionally feed the village; we know when our children and neighbors are hungry,” says cereal bank treasurer Sakina Hassan, “Our intimate knowledge of hunger drives our management of the cereal bank.”
Cereal banks decrease communities’ dependence on unpredictable weather and provide villages with a much needed safety net during times of drought and famine. In addition to emergency food relief programs, these cereal banks helped save thousands of families throughout the region from hunger and malnutrition during the most recent food crisis in the Sahel.
These community granaries have also led to improved educational opportunities for women, empowering them to better provide for their families and their communities.
• Caitlin Aylward is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.
Ever notice how the gadgets of science fiction – the personal communications devices, the 3-D copy machines, the killer drones – become reality in time? Putting an idea out in the public imagination is the first step to making it real, says Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Prize-winning founder of the microcredit movement.
“Every day, we see what used to be impossible become possible, and routine,” he says.
So why is social change harder to achieve than technological change? In part because there are fewer visions available of what a better future would look like, he argues.
“Science follow science fiction, but we don’t have social fiction, so society doesn’t move as much,” he noted while receiving an award for his life’s achievements at the Skoll World Forum gathering in Oxford, England, this week [April 10]. If more movies, television series, and other media could be created to help people envision better future societies, “I bet we’ll create the societies,” he said.
He urged people trying to improve society to follow their instincts, to notice small chanced-upon things that spur ideas, and not to be afraid to move forward with half-baked ideas.
His microcredit revolution – providing tiny loans at market interest rates to the world’s poorest, helping them escape what he termed a “slavery” relationship with loan sharks – came about by accident when he discovered, while talking to a bamboo weaver in a village in his native Bangladesh, that he could pay off the debts that were crushing her and limiting her income to 2 cents a day with the change in his pocket.
That day he paid the debts of 43 village women – a total of $27 – and his idea was born.
Many great social enterprises come from such moments, not from careful business plans, he said.
“You persuade yourself along the way that what you do is right,” he said.
He pointed to the example of another honoree, Salman Amid Khan, who spent two years in a closet in California creating video lectures for students on math topics, science, and history, then putting them all online, free, under the name Khan Academy.
Today his lectures, translated into dozens of languages, are used by everyone from Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates’ children to orphans in Mongolia, giving everyone in the world with Internet access the possibility of having the same high-quality education.
Now “we need only one global university – the best,” Yunus said.
In trying to improve technology – or societies – “if we imagine it, it will happen,” he promised.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
When people are in extreme need, their ability to help themselves may be severely limited. Finding food and shelter alone may be an overwhelming task. In these cases, outside aid groups must take the lead and offer a vital helping hand.
But most poor people in the United States aren't in crisis; they're struggling, but they have a capacity and desire to help themselves. The Torchlight Prize, a project of the Family Independence Initiative now in its second year, recognizes homegrown groups that are finding their own unique ways of solving community problems.
“Too often in this country, low-income families are stereotyped as shiftless swindlers or helpless victims,” says Mia Birdsong, vice president of the Family Independence Initiative (FII), in announcing this year's winners. “The Torchlight Prize is changing this narrative. It showcases the knowledge, skills, and initiative that exists in under-resourced communities, and the tremendous contributions they make to our country as innovators, entrepreneurs, and leaders.”
Four grass-roots community groups around the US will each receive a no-strings-attached prize of $10,000 over the next two years.
"The Torchlight Prize really shows us that there are solutions being developed and tested in communities," Ms. Birdsong said in a Monitor interview last week. The idea, she says, is to inspire other communities to act by showing, "Hey, look what's possible if we work together."
For a dozen years the nonprofit FII has emphasized this grass-roots, family-led approach to improving the lives of low-income families.
The idea? The movers and shakers should be those in need themselves, with the FII acting only as a resource. If a charitable group such as the FII announces that it will "invite the community to the table," that sounds like the community members are still only guests at the party, Birdsong says. "They really should be the hosts. It's not about including them, or asking them. It's about the leadership that exists in families and communities, and us following them."
In the dance with FII, the community group takes the lead. "Over and over again, what we find is that if you stop directing people, and you create space for their own leadership to emerge, they move forward," she says. "We've demonstrated this in four cities across the country with probably a thousand families … thousands of folks."
This year's Torchlight Prize winners, announced today, are Camp Congo Square in New Orleans; Freedom Inc., in Madison, Wis., Somos Tuskaloosa, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.; and VietUnity, in Oakland, Calif.
Shaka Zulu cofounded Camp Congo Square with his wife, Naimah Zulu. The summer camp program opened in 2006 after hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. The camp meets in New Orleans' historic Congo Square, a place where centuries ago native Americans and African-American slaves would gather on Sundays.
The campers learn about their heritage and the city's history, as well. They study art, reading, writing, and math, and learn respect for the city's many cultural and ethnic traditions.
“One of our students … has really used the camp experience to make a very positive impact on his life…," Shaka Zulu writes in an email. "Ngozi McCormick has now become an example of what can come from the positive experience of the Camp … he has purchased land for a business and a home, and he also teaches what he learned at Camp Congo Square to his nephews and started his own performance group. (And he’s only in his early 20s!) He has become a role model in his community among young people and we are proud to say that we at Camp Congo Square along with his parents played a role in giving him the confidence and information to be an impressive young adult.”
The FII's founder, Mauricio Lim Miller, was honored in 2012 with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's "genius award" for his work in helping low-income working families – who often struggle in isolation – join together to build self-sufficiency.
The Torchlight Prize received its name from the Freedman’s Torchlight, an early African-American newspaper published in New York before slavery was abolished.
Of this year's four winners, only Freedom Inc. has registered itself as an official nonprofit organization. The others are still operating as small informal groups. Some of their minuscule budgets can be measured in the hundreds of dollars, Birdsong says.
That's one reason the $10,000 prize is given over a two-year period, she says. "We don't want to mess them up" with too much money all at once, she says. The groups want to keep close to their roots "of, for, and by the community."
• For more on the Family Independence Initiative, visit http://www.fiinet.org.