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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


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