“This problem isn’t just about containing elephants to the park borders. When farmers lose their crops, they go into the forest and cut down trees for charcoal. So now, there’s a forest conservation problem to address,” says Felician, one of Rural Action’s most recent Community Solutions Program fellows. He is working with our Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry programs, and though he may be speaking about issues specific to his home community here, he is looking forward to gaining experience here that could lead to innovative solutions back home.
Community Solutions Program (CSP) is a four-month fellowship program designed to pair organizations around the world to learn and grow from each other and apply new skills within their communities. This year two fellows joined the Rural Action team – Darlington Mafa from Zimbabwe and Felician Ezekiel from Tanzania. According to Tom Redfern, Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture director, the CSP partnership has been a tradition since 2016. After a forced hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Rural Action is hosting their first fellows since 2019.
“Starting in 2016, we’ve hosted CSP fellows with Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, Zero Waste Program, and now the Sustainable Forestry program,” says Tom.
“We’ve hosted fellows from Malaysia, Brazil, Rwanda, two from Peru, and now Zimbabwe and Tanzania. As a part of this partnership, we’ve been able to send Rural Action staff members to visit the fellows afterward in their home countries and see how the skills we learned from each other are reflected in their communities.”
Darlington Mafa is a founding member, and now national program manager, for RimaAfrika – a nonprofit organization headquartered in Harare, Zimbabwe – that focuses on empowering and teaching rural women how to farm and working to alleviate malnutrition in vulnerable communities.
By providing seeds to women and orphans in rural communities and advising on Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and climate change mitigation, RimaAfrika is working to provide support in vulnerable communities while also teaching how to adapt farming practices in a changing climate. Their work, which has resulted in over fifty nutrition garden programs in rural communities, mushroom inoculation classes in both urban and rural communities that teach both indoor and outdoor agricultural practices, uses unique methods of outreach to provide support to the farmers they serve.
“We connect with farmers through WhatsApp,” Darlington says. “Through there we can host events like question and answer sessions, sometimes we connect with the farmers through Zoom calls or Google Meet as well.”
Darlington also says that RimaAfrika allows for alternative income streams through the use of alternative agricultural systems. The work that they are doing in Zimbabwe gained international recognition when they were chosen as one of the ten social ventures for the United Nations’ Accelerate 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Competition.
Felician’s social enterprise, Environmental Conservation for Wildlife and Community Enterprise (ECOWICE) in Tanzania, focuses on working with farmers, particularly those who live on the borders of Mikumi National Park, to not only help develop their sustainable agricultural practices, but also mitigate elephant-community conflicts.
“Elephants need a lot of space to live. Sometimes, they will wander out of national park borders and into neighboring villages. They will go into people’s farms, eat their food, and destroy crops. It’s a huge financial loss to the communities, and not safe for the elephants. So, what we’re trying to do is find practical solutions that benefit the farmers and the communities, and keep the elephants safe,” Felician says.
Felician, who created ECOWICE in 2014 during his sophomore year of college, started working with communities in Mikumi National Park in 2016 following his degree project, which focused on elephant conservation and anti-poaching. Felician says that his work exposed him to multiple sides of the elephant-community conflicts.
“This problem isn’t just about containing elephants to the park borders. When farmers lose their crops, they go into the forest and cut down trees for charcoal. So now, there’s a forest conservation problem to address,” says Felician, “So part of our work is teaching farmers how to protect their crops from elephants, but another part of our work focuses on community-based forest conservation and management. We then have a business side of our enterprise, where we sell the crops grown by the farmers we serve.”
Both Darlington and Felician are eager to learn about practices and programs that Rural Action implements in Appalachian communities and bring it back to help improve their own organizations. Darlington is interested in learning more about the livestock and agroforestry practices that Rural Action uses and finding alternative ways to fund RimaAfrika. For Felician, he says that he is excited to learn about the Chesterhill Produce Auction, a practice he says is “very new” to him. He also mentioned that he is eager to learn more about growing his knowledge of community-based forest restoration, to implement in the forests back in Tanzania.
Tom Redfern recognizes the importance of these fellowships and how global learning is the way to global success in environmental work.
“This fellowship is a celebration of the old phrase, ‘think globally, act locally.’ It’s putting that whole concept into direct implementation at the program level and has really broadened our understanding and our networks of sustainable agriculture at the global level. It’s been a great chance to understand how people in rural development share a lot of the same trials and tribulations. The fellows we’ve hosted have really delved right into our work and become a part of our Rural Action family, and it’s exciting to be able to bring their stories to our Rural Action members and to really learn from them and their experiences.”