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Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab: The point of germination

Our social enterprise coops grow economies in/among villages, generate income, and regenerate connectedness with history, people & the earth

Photo of Vidhya Shanker
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*Please Upload User Experience Map (as attachment) and any additional insights gathered from Beneficiary Feedback in this field

Mondema villagers are not just beneficiaries or users. They are producers of knowledge and agents of change who decided to build on their existing skills, relationships, and values by co-creating Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab. Unlike programming that prescribes linear reduction to root causes, Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy’s Experience Map honors villagers’ understanding of their problems as having multiple causes and exponential effects, and showing mutual causality.

Why does the target community define this problem as urgent and/or a priority? How is the idea leveraging and empowering community assets to help create an environment for success? (1000 characters)

A year ago exactly, a massive landslide slipped into the Babadorie River Valley, exacerbating existing flooding in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It affected 6,000 people; 1,141 are declared dead or missing. Between March 2014 and March 2016, Sierra Leone had 14,124 total cases of Ebola, resulting in 3,956 deaths. From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone experienced a civil war that displaced 2.6 million people and resulted in 70,000 casualties. Mondema villagers understand these various sources of trauma as both related and unjust: Considering its minerals, plants, and human thirst for knowledge—illustrated by the moniker “the Athens of West Africa”—Sierra Leone is one of the most resource-full countries. Because the trauma Sierra Leone faces is part of a larger ecosystem, Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy’s idea is as well. Drawing on ancestral values of interdependence, villagers said SLFND’s response must challenge extractive, exploitative dynamics of domination and subordination.

How does the idea fit within the larger ecosystem that surrounds it? Urgent needs are usually a symptom of a larger issue that rests within multiple interrelated symptoms - share what you know about the context surrounding the problem you are aiming to solve. (500 characters)

Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab fits in rural Sierra Leone, where agriculture is the largest source of subsistence and petty trade is next. Rural poverty, violence, and disease are linked to neocolonialism, military dictatorship, the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and IMF—which mandate small government and free trade for countries receiving aid—the war, and rural out-migration. These foster extractive and exploitative relationships among peoples and with the earth.

How does the idea affect or change the fundamental nature of the larger ecosystem that surrounds it (as described above) in a new and/or far-reaching way? (500 characters)

Our Social Enterprise Coops disrupt extractive, exploitative patterns by: * documenting and employing sustainable use of local materials and knowledge * producing and selling items locally to generate income and reduce the cost of living * growing inter- and intra-village economies * practicing and modeling non-adversarial relationships and decision making * rotating roles and integrating critical reflection about power dynamics * growing pride, investment & advocacy on behalf of villages

What will be different within the target community as a result of implementing the idea? What is the scope and scale of that difference? How long will it take to see that difference and how will it be sustained beyond BridgeBuilder support? (500 characters)

Within 10 years, we expect to see an economically, politically, culturally, and environmentally sustainable cooperative economy within Mondema and across its 4 neighboring villages. SLFND’s commitment against extractive and exploitative relationships involves ensuring that the Social Enterprise Coops can sustain themselves in 5 years. Within 3 years, each coop is expected to feed—literally and figuratively—its members, other coops, Dovalema Early Childhood Coop, and the village more broadly.

How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

SLFND’s user research reiterated to us the systemic nature of village poverty: Even when supplies and equipment are available for the bakery to feed Dovalema children and staff, for example, expanding distribution more broadly to satisfy increased demand necessitates transportation: To transport the bread, the bakery needs more members, appropriate containers, and appropriate vehicles. Because permaculture ethics require that we avoid thinking about benefiting some people at the expense of others—including future generations—or the earth (and vice versa), we thought deeply and critically about what that may look like. We remembered vendors traveling on bicycles and banana-leaf packaging. During this phase, we also realized that we were not necessarily clear in our articulation of who is doing the instruction in our early childhood and vocational education programs, nor was the role of the social enterprise coops in relation to the farm and early childhood coop obvious.

What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years? (You can attach a timeline or GANTT chart in place of a written plan, if desired.) (1000 characters)

Please see attached Gantt chart

Describe the individual or team that will implement this idea (if a partnership, please explain breakdown of roles and responsibilities for each entity). (Feel free to share an organizational chart or visual description of your team). (500 characters)

One-third of our team is vocationally trained and professionally engaged in the trades for which we are building coops. These 8 villagers will act as instructors and the first rotation of leaders representing their respective SECs on the Coop Council. They have a deep familiarity not only with their craft but also with the sourcing, marketing, and sustainability issues related to it. Additionally, they retain deep connections with Mondema’s history, people, and land. Details are attached.

What aspects of the idea would potential BridgeBuilder funds primarily support? (500 characters)

Funds would support Social Enterprise Start-up Costs * 4 in 2018 (bread bakery, carpentry/woodwork, community supported agriculture, rice milling) * 4 in 2019 (metal/welding, arts & culture, grocer, textile/tailoring) * Weekly SEC meetings during which members will reflect on the week, reviewing accounts, research/ evaluation data, and 1 topic for discussion * Monthly Coop Council meetings during which representatives from each SEC make decisions about pressing issues and allocate resources

In preparation for our Expert Feedback Phase: What are three unanswered questions or challenges that you could use support on in your project? These questions will be answered directly by experts matched specifically to your idea and needs.

Because the Founder & Executive Director and many of the board members and volunteers come out of the nonprofit/ nongovernmental industry—their critique of which informed this alternative approach—the project is low on expertise from the for-profit sector. Furthermore, the Founder & Executive Director, board members, and volunteers share a critique of business practices that exploit or extract labor or nature. As such, we have many questions and challenges with respect to running the social enterprises sustainably. 1) How can we refine (or access resources/ assistance to refine) a no waste/ emissions paradigm that generates income locally and draws sustainably from local knowledge, skills, labor, and materials? 2) How can we identify or develop (or access resources/ assistance to identify and develop) social impact investing strategies (especially for one-time capital investments), including grants and other financing focused on social enterprise, circular economies, and environmental health? 3) How can we determine (or access resources/ assistance to determine) the viability and sustainability of various product lines in relation to each other and our other work? This would include market research/ analysis as well as market development and relationship building in addition to supply chain analysis (particularly considering the state of transportation, etc. throughout Africa), cross-cultural branding expertise, etc. We have started with the enterprises that fulfilled a function for Dovalema Early Childhood Center and/ or that already had workers, materials, and market ready. We would like to be intentional about the way we proceed—ensuring that enterprises that can make a profit soon are the ones we start with in an attempt to fund the others.

Final Updates (*Please do not complete until we reach the Improve Phase*): How has the idea evolved or responded to your user research during the Beneficiary Feedback Phase and any further insights provided if you participated in the Expert Feedback Phase? (1000 characters)

The expert feedback amplified our attempts to focus on low-input, low-energy enterprises primarily oriented to local needs, using the SDGs to help us tell our story. The reviewer noted that aspiring to circular economy principles does not mean Ta-Valema aspires to be a subsistence economy disconnected from local, national, and international markets. Community members do currently use products created far away, depend on fossil fuels, and transport their wares to other towns and cities for sale. As light as our “footprint” is relative to the extractive industries that dominate Sierra Leone’s economy, we have not achieved zero waste/zero emissions, and some of the cooperative enterprises we proposed will create waste or emissions. We decided to remove or postpone some social enterprise cooperatives until we engage local researchers in reviewing literature and practice internationally with respect to minimizing negative ecological impact.

During this Improve Phase, please use the space below to add any additional information to your proposal.

Often when we think about communities coming together to heal from trauma of all forms, build their capacities, and generate community prosperity, the assumption is that the communities have little or no skills of their own. Usually, the idea is that the solutions to community problems must be managed by outsiders. On the contrary, the day to day management of affairs in places like Mondema rests with the villagers themselves. The communities are the ones left with the problem, and they are also the ones with the solutions. Africa and Sierra Leone specifically are now dominated by an influx of foreign-funded and -led NGOs that may have good intentions but are generally not trying to challenge this structure. In fact, what Arundhati Roy calls “the NGOization” of social change has contributed to the woeful failure of national governments to fulfil the most basic conditions for their people’s well-being—food, healthcare, and education among them. Mondema villagers have set up Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab Social Enterprise Cooperatives to address the extractive and exploitative nature of this dynamic. Imagine a village community like Mondema receiving a relatively modest amount of funding with no conditions beyond fiduciary accountability attached. Imagine the village coming together to hear the good news, and to prepare for the work ahead. Now, imagine the problems have been mapped and action steps have been identified. Where do you think they will start and what would it look like? By tradition in villages like Mondema, community members would first develop a consultative planning process. In the case of SLFND’s Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab, we would convene the entire village as SLFND did when we contemplated establishing an early childhood center for the village. Having already approved the idea of social enterprise cooperatives, villagers would learn about the requirements involved and air any concerns or provisions. Next, each Social Enterprise Cooperative would make decisions about production levels and quality, markets, and sourcing of raw materials for their work. The SECs will begin to see themselves as a power base-–doing good on their own terms and conditions. Representatives from each SEC would then form a Cooperative Council. Representatives would serve on a rotational basis. The SECs will begin to see themselves as teams learning from each other. SEC members would meet for a half day every Saturday (Fridays are the off day in this majority-Muslim community). Facilitated by the rotating leaders, these meetings would allow SEC members to share successes, failures, and the results of experimentation or attempts at innovation that may have occurred the preceding week. Together, they would review financial and other accounts—including monitoring and evaluation data to answer their own questions about the larger effects of their work—and make plans for the future week. And they would raise any other challenges, feedback, or questions they may have for the following week’s meeting or for the Coop Council. These Saturday meetings where all cooperative members are present would be the main platform for SEC members to practice their ancestral tradition of deliberation. Equally important, the meetings would also fill a gap for SEC members who have generally not completed primary let alone secondary school. Through critical pedagogy, SEC members will gain political awareness and understanding that many of us who have experienced poverty, war, and disease find healing. Other villages throughout Sierra Leone (e.g., Bama) and in other parts of West Africa (e.g., Nigeria) have heard about our efforts already underway and asked us to work in partnership with them to develop the same deep democratic relationships among their people and between their people and their land. We are hopeful that as we continue to generate relationships and resources, we can document our journey—perhaps even in real time—to inspire and inform other communities to heal and grow themselves, whether by partnering with us or by engaging in efforts directed at their own people and land.

Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

SLFND’s challenge is to shift rather than reproduce extractive and exploitative relationships. Our solutions include: *Relying exclusively—thus far—on individual donations, mass mobilization, volunteers, and partnerships to ensure that villagers rather than outsiders deliberate on all decisions. *Designing social enterprises not only to generate income for cooperative members but also to: +Feed the bodies, minds, and spirits of children at Dovalema Early Childhood Coop; +Generate income and supplies for Dovalema Early Childhood Coop and Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm; +Provide the village with locally- and sustainably-sourced and -produced goods and services; +Regenerate villagers’ connections with their history, each other, and the land. Specifically, Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab serves as a laboratory for all village children, adults, and elders to resurrect, learn, and cultivate new ways of sustaining themselves and the village as a whole through cooperatively-led social enterprises that manifest non-adversarial interaction with each other, with institutions, and with the environment. Integrating cooperatively-led social enterprises with early childhood programming should build reflective, collaborative leaders and catalyze a sustainable village economy. These will provide viable opportunities for villagers to stay in—and advocate on behalf of—the village rather than fleeing to over-crowded cities, only to experience unemployment and poverty. We minimize our environmental impact by doing things like installing solar energy for water pumping and lighting, focusing on enterprises with low resource impact (bakery, etc.), and working to regenerate natural systems through permaculture farming, which reduces deforestation and carbon emissions. Through the beneficiary feedback process, we decided to reconsider some of our Social Enterprise Cooperatives. For example, we are postponing Livestock and delaying by just one year Textiles/ Tailoring.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Because the Social Enterprise Coops will produce goods locally and sustainably—beyond supporting Dovalema—about 500 individuals in the rural village of Mondema will benefit from Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab: About 70 villagers representing a range of genders, religions, and ability statuses have started to benefit directly by serving as coop trainers, rotating leaders, and members of 8 SECs. Farming is the source of 90% of rural Sierra Leoneans’ subsistence, but villagers experience high levels of food scarcity today. Deforestation from the war and from mining has decreased the soil quality. Extractive industries prey on rural land and residents. Residents of all ages work in toxic conditions on the mines. Youth flee to overcrowded cities in search of income, as few opportunities exist for income generation and education at any level. The chiefdom surrounding Mondema is among the most impoverished of the 16 in Kenema, and Mondema was significantly affected by Ebola.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Our Social Enterprise Coops not only generate learning, income, and products for individuals in while regenerating connections with their history, each other, and their land, but they are also designed to work together AND with Dovalema Early Childhood Coop to end individual and national dependence on development aid and philanthropy, neither of which advances local communities’ long-term interests. Food, healthcare, education, and livelihoods are basic, but in Sierra Leone—70% of whose budget comes from international aid—they are subject to conditions imposed by foreign governments whose economies prosper from the unsustainable exploitation and extraction of labor, timber, and minerals. SLFND starves that dynamic: It was originated and is led by a Sierra Leonean; local Sierra Leoneans are the only paid staff; villagers make all decisions deliberatively; and decision making and programming arise from African traditions of deliberative democracy, systems thinking, and critical praxis.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Pilot: I have started to implement the idea as a whole with a first set of real users.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy dreams of connectedness among peoples and the earth, wounds healing, and creativity flowing. Its purpose is to work in partnership with communities to build the foundation for citizens of all ages to deliberate and enact new, non-adversarial alternatives that nurture democratic relationships and decision making among and across individuals, families, institutions, and the environment.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Like many Sierra Leonean parents whose own educations were disrupted by the war or more recent ravages of Ebola and mudslides, SLFND’s founder was unaware that 2-year-olds can name their feelings, countries on a map, or photosynthesis until his own child did so. He realized sustainable democracy can manifest among adults in public institutions if it has been modeled within families and communities. Our Social Enterprise Coops provide opportunities to practice and model democratic relationships.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

PEACE: Sierra Leone’s civil war was tied to the exploitative and extractive diamond industry. PLANET: The recent Ebola epidemic and mudslide are both linked to deforestation from the war and extraction of minerals used in cell phones and other products. PROSPERITY: Decreased access to clean air, water, and fertile land arise from deforestation and mining. Villagers must supplement farming to foster their families’ well-being. While villagers have always produced and traded goods, generating income is difficult when the market is flooded with items imported or donated from abroad—often made of pollutants that add to the problem. Villagers lack the capital, tools, and marketing to compete. Education imposed by colonial and capitalist interests has disconnected them from traditions of sustainably using natural materials and disrupted the interdependence required for trading to thrive. Our Social Enterprise Coops—rooted in reciprocity and regeneration—address all 3 topic areas.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

SLFND’s purpose is to work in partnership. Partnership with villages as well as educators, health professionals, and permaculturists internationally allowed Dovalema Coop and surrounding Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm to be built without philanthropic or government funding. SLFND is also growing partnerships with others addressing soil resilience, food sovereignty, and access to clean water, air, and sanitation facilities. For example, Dovalema purchased a smoke-free stove and received a second from WestWind Energy—Sierra Leone-owned, -manufactured, and -developed. Similarly, locally-operated Biofil Technology and Minerals installed Dovalema’s sanitation facilities. Minneapolis College of Art & Design has committed to a 5-year arrangement in which students will assist our SECs in marketing their products and telling their story more broadly. Through the BridgeBuilder Challenge, OASIIS initiated a conversation about the possibility of our work being featured on their digital platform.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

At initial convenings, villagers responded to the idea of starting with 50 children in an existing building, participants by drawing from ancestral collectivist values: A woman said that doing so would require excluding some families. “How do we choose? We will all have access or none will, and we will all learn together.” 150 villagers built Dovalema Early Childhood Coop and surrounding Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm. They enrolled nearly all 250 children aged 2-5, showing their commitment.

Geographic Focus

Mondema village, Eastern Province, Sierra Leone, W. Africa. Survivors of extraction/ exploitation.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)


Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Instruments Delhi

Superbly written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place.

Photo of Niharika Singh

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Photo of Rahul Singh

Great post, I have seen excellent expression in your writing. Being at the top for so many years is not as simple to do as it looks.

Photo of Rahul  Sharma

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Photo of Mun Jun

I really appreciate the kind of topics you post here. Thanks for sharing us a great information that is actually helpful. Good day!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

I'm glad you found it useful!

Photo of Niharica Bawa

I think this is a great, simple solution to bring in a change! I really hope you take this forward and get the full support!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thank you so much! This challenge is over, but hopefully the ideas will gain footing soon enough.

Photo of Marnie Glazier

Yes, I see that you are collaborating with MCAD. Excellent!

Photo of Marnie Glazier

Great project and excellent focus on inter- and intra- village economies. This is such a simple and yet such a complex 21st century challenge and it is inspiring to see the efforts under way to help bring real change!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for your note--the response has been overwhelming! And like you, we believe in the power of the arts in this process.

Photo of Sofía Unanue

Hi Vidhya! I think this is a fascinating project and approach, We too are constantly challenged by Puerto Rico's philanthropic landscape or lack thereof. One of our long-term goals is to disrupt or challenge who funds are distributed post a disaster hence our efforts to provide micro-grants to give directly to community leaders for implementation of a social impact project of their choice. Take a look at our work and model (phase 5 and 6 is where the community grants are distributed) and let us know if you have any ideas on how to evolve the model. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

In Community,

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks so much for your feedback! I'm glad to hear it resonates. My sister-in-law mentioned your proposal in particular but I did not get to reach out to you until I saw your note--thanks for writing. I'm sorry I was not able to be as collaborative as I would like because I'm just volunteering while working, going to school, and raising a child! The folks in Mondema do not have electricity or internet, etc., so a lot of my time was just spent dealing with all of that. I know none of this is surprising to you!

I need to take a more careful look at the grant distribution to see if I can offer any specific suggestions. The nutshell is to make it as simple and accessible as possible for prospective applicants. I only read through briefly because I have a presentation for work (will definitely re-read), so forgive me if you've already addressed this, but consider multiple modes of conveying their idea. I think you said you already got feedback about the complexity of the language. Can I assume that people can submit in more than one language? (Not in Sierra Leone--which is supposedly independent now but has to do all this in English!) Will they get technical assistance? Not just applying for funds but managing any funds they get (this is not necessarily a question of integrity--they may not have the infrastructure to suddenly handle a relatively large amount of money). Will they get technical assistance in telling their story--again, not from the mainstream "communications" or "PR" perspective but from the perspective of community engagement and inspiring more bottom-up movements?

Let's be in touch because my personal background is in research and evaluation and I would love to support this work, also, somehow or other--even if it's just a short phone conversation.

Photo of Kathleen Rommel

Hi Vidhya,

Congrats on making it to the Improve Phase! It's been truly inspiring to be part of such a great group of organizations.

As I was reading through your updated summaries, it struck me that it may be helpful to give a brief summary—perhaps just a phrase or two—about the structure of the program in the opening question or two (i.e. perhaps you could work the "what/how" into "Drawing on ancestral values of interdependence and restoration, villagers realized that SLFND's response to the trauma must be integrated and challenge the underlying dynamics of domination and subordination"). This integration could provide clarity and more information about what you mean by "grow[ing] nonviolent democracy from sustainable economies, food sovereignty & early childhood education," which as a first time reader I found a little abstract. This can then set the stage for all the good and complex work you do!

Of course, please feel free to take my suggestions with a grain of salt. I'm here to help, and don't want to overcomplicate things. :)

Keep up the good work,

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for being so generous with your time and thinking--we see that as a sign of solidarity (or love, at an interpersonal level), so no worries there.

We are revising our tagline based on feedback like yours, that it's too abstract. This is what we're thinking now: "We use social enterprise cooperatives to grow economic, political, and environmental sustainability within and across Sierra Leone's villages." (Haven't counted characters yet.) What do you think? We are hearing that the focus of this specific effort is getting lost in/ confused with the overall purpose of the organization. They ARE related in that a large purpose of the social enterprise coops is to fund the other work--and minimize dependency on external sources.

We are also thinking of revising the language around the ecosystem so as not to focus on trauma, which we think might be misleading. Again, we DO believe it is (re)traumatizing to infantalize local communities through the power imbalance of prevailing relationships between NGO-community/ nonprofit-client/ colonial power-colony and we DO believe that collective self-determination is a way to shift that dynamic and resolve the trauma (as it is with traumatized individuals). But we think it may be confusing to others. Perhaps we should just do a better job of articulating it.

We will take the suggestion you gave (and any others you may have!) seriously as we continue to revise our responses--we are doing so without necessarily publishing each iteration. It is so helpful to hear how they are read/ understood by those who are not as intimately involved as we are--thank you. And even I am not as intimately involved, but rather a volunteer who just tries to listen deeply.

Thanks again,

Photo of Kathleen Rommel

Hi Vidhya,

Thanks for your response and I quite like the way you're revising the tagline! It's often difficult to convey such complicated work and context within such small areas, but I think your process of refinement is definitely moving it towards a direction that a first-time reader can understand the urgency and the way the program addresses challenges.

I'm happy to help as things progress, and great work on this round of edits!

Photo of Tabi Ewing

Dear Vidhya Shanker and Ta-Valema Permaculture Farm & Learning Lab: The point of germination 
Great to read through the additional information on the proposal and we're really excited to be part of the team.
We would like to have a conversation on how we can add value to the project via OASIIS. Please drop us an email at and perhaps we can schedule a call to discuss!
All the very best

Photo of Anthony Gleason

I appreciate the holistic aspects of your project and like how the three foci can be mutually supporting. I must admit I had a difficult time understanding your 3 questions and wonder what types of answers you are hoping to achieve. Although I’ve helped implement cooperative and social enterprise projects, we utilized a very business (for-profit) focused methodology including substantial enterprise development training for beneficiaries. It might be worthwhile to articulate your goals utilizing the UN’s SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) framework as well in order to speak more to the language of potential donors.

Question #1:

Achieving ‘No Waste’ / ‘No Emissions’ are difficult goals, particularly as you’ve identified a current project need of vehicles to transport products. Moreover, welding, tie-dye and tailoring processes all tend to produce at least minimal by-product waste even with hyper-efficient processes. I’m thrilled to see your intention to institute a perma-culture mindset, but it’s harder to implement those principles outside of agricultural processes.

That being said, perhaps if you undertake basic research to identify how other similar projects may be completely redefining productive enterprise paradigms you might find some positive examples. Can you recruit / enlist / enroll any local or regional students to help conduct internet research? If so, it would help if you were able to better articulate the questions you hope to answer.

Question #2

Research how others have done this. Recruit students to help conduct research, but make sure to give them clear guidance, especially clear questions and what you’re hoping to find out through that research. If you intend to identify additional donors, you need to find those donors with particular interest in your activities (early childhood education, permaculture, vocational training, social enterprise development, business training, etc.), and often tailor the grant language to that donor’s interest. Again, it would be helpful to try and redefine your goals utilizing the UN’s SDG framework, which might help donors better understand your program goals and activities.

Question #3

Beneficiaries should self-select based on their interest in the different co-operative functions, in other words – they should have an inherent interest in the types of income generating activities that they will become involved with. Those beneficiaries should undergo fundamental business training that includes an active market research component where a part of the training involves sending the students / beneficiaries out into the community (and other communities) to assess the market for that particular product or service. This component should require Students / Beneficiaries to hit the ground and investigate sourcing channels and costs as well as marketing channels and prices, in addition to other logistic costs such as transportation, warehousing, spoilage, etc.

An important part of strategy is to understand what production or services areas you should get involved with, and which ones you should not get involved with. It’s important to say “no” to opportunities that are outside of your capacity or bandwidth as they can pull your organization too far apart. It seems you have already chosen a few production / service areas (welding, tailoring, construction, tie-dying, agriculture); how did you come up with those particular areas? Again, when self-selected students / beneficiaries identify their interest to pursue those particular areas, you should provide them with enterprise training that includes an active component requiring them to go out into the communities to conduct on-the-ground market research on both sourcing and marketing sides.

I hope this helps!

Tony Gleason

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thank you--this is very helpful. We have in the past, depending on our audience, explained our goals in terms of the SDGs and can do so again. And we started with the areas listed because we had we already had the vocational trainers, interested students, and much of the most immediate facilities, supplies, etc. We also had a need for the products at the school and within the village. Our intention was just as you said, for the students to be a part of the entire cycle, including sourcing and market research. It's good to hear your thoughts on that.

Yes, we do need vehicles and will in the short term need to use fossil fuels, but SLFND also has a reforestation component--not mentioned in this proposal, but as part of its Land and Nature programming--that we plan to offset the emissions resulting from our work. Perhaps we should say "low" rather than "no," and explain our plans for offsetting. Like you said, we plan to research and resurrect less (if not non) toxic dying and printing, etc. as well.

Thanks again for your help, especially considering the lack of clarity of the questions--I wrote the answers to first two phases as a volunteer while the team was on the ground in Sierra Leone with limited electricity and internet access, so I appreciate your doing the best with what you understood.

Photo of Anubha Sharma

Dear Vidhya,
Wonderful to see efforts at creating self sufficiency through citizens cooperative movements. Focus on early childhood education is also very apt, we do tend to become people we are taught to be at this stage. Do have a look at our project which is encourages citizens to take initiative for social good. Perhaps there is scope for the educated affluent locals to also pitch in to help bridge the gap.

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for writing. There is definitely a place for locals! 55% of our following is in Sierra Leone, Sierra Leoneans comprise our entire paid staff, and are represented on our board. West Wind energy--a locally owned and operated company--donated one smoke-free stove to the early childhood center. (SLFND raised the funds for the other, and was happy to pay other Sierra Leoneans for their innovation and craftsmanship.)

SLFND recognizes that education and affluence are not simple terms. Formal schooling as we see it today in Sierra Leone--like India--is generally a colonial imposition, created to support colonial rule over people and land. Affluence has come to some and not others not just by hard work, but through systemic injustices--after all, many of the hardest working people on the planet will never become affluent simply because of when and where they were born. But neither is education/ affluence our aim. Our aim is a citizenry that can advocate on its own behalf and on behalf of the people and land and water and air and wildlife who cannot do so for themselves.

We embrace the formally schooled and the affluent--local and international--to the extent that they embrace these aims and are willing to practice the humility necessary to be educated by villagers on why the water runs this way rather than that, and what mining run-off into that water means for all the beings that depend on it, and how that affects all the beings that depend on those beings. What did we used to do to ensure we did not exhaust the soil? How did we used to prepare those crops to feed our families?

That education can only come from villagers honoring the teachings of their elders and ancestors--reaffirming for their children that learning does not come from outsiders. As a community, they know plenty and they only need to practice that ancestral knowledge that the rest of the world does not know; the rest of the world needs to learn what poor, "uneducated" villagers (and townspeople) know so we can stop exploiting and extracting from people and the planet in the name of prosperity.

Photo of Janet Ilott

Hello Vidhya, what a wonderful project! It's really impressive. I actually don't have any questions about your project but wanted to make you aware of an organization I thought you might be interested in called Future Generations. We work with them here in Haiti and I know there is also a Future Generations University. They teach a methodology that sounds very similar to what you are using called SEED-scale that involves identifying and building on local resources. Ithought you might find them interesting. Good luck with your project!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thank you so much! It is amazing--the level of overlap! We will look into it!

Photo of Allison Pinto

What an exquisite example of a truly resident-initiated and led effort! You state, "It was originated and is led by a Sierra Leonean; local Sierra Leoneans are the only paid staff; villagers make all decisions deliberatively; and decision making and programming arise from African traditions of democracy, systems thinking, and critical praxis." This is profound, and still uncommon. We are cultivating efforts that are similar in many ways, by following the lead of neighborkids who are coming together around babies in Florida, United States. A recent summary of these efforts was produced in the form of a "neighborhood baby book," which you can take a look at here:
Might be fun to find ways to connect villagers of Sierra Leone with neighbors of Central-Cocoanut and Lake Maggiore Shores here in Florida, to explore possible ways to collaborate...

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thank you--our projects have something else (related) in common, which we did not discuss much here so far but I am calling "epistemic justice." By that I mean justice with respect to knowledge generation, critical literacy, and self-representation. If we can create opportunities for marginalized groups to cultivate the skills involved in making meaning out of data (stories included), we can change prevailing narratives and subsequently change asymmetrically structured dynamics.

Photo of Allison Pinto

"Epistemic justice" - that is a great term. Yes, the "who" really matters when knowledge is being generated and sensemaking is occurring. Such different narratives emerge depending on the perspectives in the mix, and the perspectives that are foregrounded. We've explored the work of CIRAD and Cognitive Edge, and more recently Streetwyze, in terms of methods and technologies that can help to cultivate resident / neighborhood knowledge and skills regarding community data. Are there any you have found particularly useful in relation to your efforts?

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

I'm sorry I missed a few comments while I was visiting my ailing mother and am only realizing now. But while I (personally, prior to this particular project) have used Sensemaker previously, we do not currently have the financial or other resources to use it in rural Sierra Leone, where there is no electricity, let alone internet. We are using low-tech and low-learning-curve methodologies to encourage everyone--regardless of language, functional literacy, or formal education--to engage in critical, systematic inquiry. From my experience in South Asia, sometimes this is just making marks on the ground for more quantitative measures. We will continue to explore, however, and appreciate the chance to bounce ideas around with you.

Photo of Tabi Ewing

Fantastic approach and we're really excited to see the use of social enterprise/coops.
We're interested to connect and see if our platform OASIIS can add value to SLFND and the local socioeconomy. OASIIS aims to connect and make visible social entrepreneurs and their positive contribution towards a more sustainable global society. The platform hosts networks of networks, resources, and, in time, will funnel social investment to help support and grow resilient and just local and global economies. We are working on the new specification of OASIIS but here is a link to the first report published in March of our approach and some of the social entrepreneurs we work with:
Link to our OpenIDEO:

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

I'm so sorry I didn't see this somehow, or respond sooner. (I was visiting my ailing mother at the time and must have missed it.) Yes, we would love to connect--see lots of potential. Please see our website at in the meanwhile, we will see of we can find contact information for you.

Photo of Proterra

Vidhya Shanker you have a very unique holistic project that reflects and addresses beautifully the necessities of the community. I have a small question, who leads the formation processes with the children and the activities at the lab.
Congratulations on a wonderful idea!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for your comments and question. If I'm understanding correctly, you are wondering who leads and is involved in the early childhood education? We have recruited, selected, and begun training 9 young adults (slightly more than half men) who have a passion for children and who have completed secondary school but have no other educational or income generation opportunities within the village. They are the teachers. Sierra Leone Foundation for New Democracy is underwriting their post-secondary education in early childhood education. They are supported by staff and elders in each classroom, and supervised by a woman with the necessary background locally.

Two volunteers and two board members who have backgrounds in early childhood education--including with children who have experienced trauma and who have special needs--have contributed much to this effort. Still, our curriculum is emerging from the villagers themselves and involves much time interacting nonviolently with each other and the natural environment. While we have been reviewing literature and associating ourselves with international bodies like OMEP, we are relying on locals to help us make the relevant connections among--for example--the sustainable use of plant fibers through the cultural practice of basket weaving, which is bring lost thanks to the availability of (toxic) plastics. It is a single activity that involves botany, math, art (color/ pattern/ texture/ shape), fine motor skills, etc. In addition to being meditative and communal, basket weaving can generate containers that can be used and/ or that can be sold to generate income. Elders would lead the basket weaving instruction.

Let me know if this answers your question, if you have any others, and if you have any ideas./ resources/ etc.

Photo of Ellen Davis

"grows nonviolent democracy via early childhood education," this is wonderful! thank you for elevating the voices and local knowledge that exists in the communities you want to work along side.

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thank you for your kind words--our environmentally-, culturally-, and healing-focused early childhood education would not be sustainable without the farm and coops, nor would either of them be sustainable without the early childhood education!

Photo of Nazly Catalina Ortiz

Excellent! Idea, you should include other ways to finance the sustainability different from donations. It could be a part of the earnings of entrepreneurships! I'm from Colombia and I am leading a similar but not equal project named Satellite Captains! Please check it if you can, we are in this platform too!

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

Thanks for writing! In case it wasn't clear, that is precisely our idea. While our initial phase was driven by individual donations, strategic partnerships, and volunteer labor, the school and farm--now built--will be sustained through the co-op earnings. We don't want to siphon off staff time and positions into professionalized, full-time fundraising/ development/ advancement work--we want the time to be channeled into the real work of educating people of all ages, rebuilding soil, growing food, recycling waste, and creating products that people can use and from which locals can generate income. We will make this more clear if/ when we have an opportunity to revise.

Can't wait to read more about your work--excited to hear that there are similarities!

Photo of Genoveva Rodriguez-Castaneda

Vidhya this is a great project. We have done something similar , volunteer based in Cosanga in the Napo Valley of Ecuador and the effects on the community have been very transformative, you can check out some of the ideas we have tried at I particularly like the classes that teach them how unique the place where they live is... most rural people take for granted the special place they call home.

Photo of Vidhya Shanker

This is beautiful! One of our intended social enterprises is indeed a variation of eco-tourism. We have not found or coined an alternative term, but again, we are frankly interested in shifting the dynamic such that local communities are equipped to act as stewards of their culture and their nature, accounting for the contributions and value of human, animal, plant, and mineral beings. We'd love to learn from your efforts.

Photo of Dr. Jin Lee

As a child psychologist, I really like your idea of promoting early child development. BabyNoggin helps screen for potential delays in kids under age 8. Here’s our submission: We would love your feedback.