Luke - Vanessa, welcome. It's lovely to see and speak to you again. Would you mind giving us a very brief introduction to you and what you're doing at the moment?
Vanessa - I’m Vanessa Wade, I’m based in Belgium. And I am a board member for Graine de Vie, which is the purpose of our conversation today. And I’ve known you for many years! Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about Graine de Vie.
Luke - Could you tell us a little bit about Graine de Vie, what its purpose is, what its objectives are, and a little bit of the backstory?
Vanessa - So the organisation itself was founded in 2009, by a private individual, Frédéric Debouche, who is a notary public here in Belgium. He was travelling in a plane above Madagascar and what got to him was the view of Madagascar from above, and how much territory has been burned and how much nature has disappeared. And it was just horrific. He came back home and got on the subject of reforestation activities and said “ what can I do? I'm not an environmentalist, not yet. But I have to do something.”
Our objective has always been to fight the effects of climate change. And we started by planting trees. We spent a year or two planting and discovered that a month later or a year later, most of the trees that we planted were gone. So we said, well, the only way that we're going to be able to achieve something is if we find a way of involving the local people in our projects. You know, planting trees is not only about planting, but it's also about protecting. And we can do that only if the locals can derive value from the trees. We plant in Africa, in the most impoverished areas in the world. What really matters to these people is survival. Survival is food. They burn and they cut down trees because they need to eat. They burn because they need charcoal to heat their food or to sell it. They cut trees because they need to repurpose the grounds from forest to farms.
What do we do? We establish relationships with local communities and we create tree nurseries in those communities. In nurseries, we plant mainly cash crop trees, i.e. trees that can be used by the communities to derive income, like coffee or trees that will provide food, like fruit trees. In these communities their diet consists mostly of fruit and vegetables. Hence the nurseries create a source of food.
The nurseries are created and managed by locals. We employ local men to build and maintain the nurseries and we employ women as seasonal workers for planting seeds and help distribute the seedlings. The cash crop seedlings are distributed to villagers for free, they plant them in their own farms or gardens. We manage our projects A-Z, from sourcing seeds to planting and protecting trees. We do it all with local staff. So by engaging with the community, by creating employment and providing a source of income and food we are improving their livelihoods. And what we ask in exchange is that they help us plant in reforestation zones and help us protect what is planted.
Luke - So there's a two fold benefit to the work that you do, which is combating climate change through reforestation, but also helping those local communities. Do you partner with anybody else on the ground in the countries that you work with?
Vanessa - The most important partnership for us is the local villagers, but clearly we also need the support of national, local and village governments, with whom we partner as well. We partner with local governmental and environmental authorities for the purposes of national projects. In Madagascar, for example, we work with the National Army to help us access the reforestation areas which are very remote. We're very limited as to what we can afford in terms of transportation. In the past, we transported seedlings in the old way - on our backs! And as you can imagine there’s a limited number of seedlings you can transport 20 kilometres uphill, in the middle of nowhere. We partner with national park authorities, particularly in Madagascar, where we were assigned large reforestation areas in the 14 national parks.
Our activities include awareness raising about the critical impact of nature on our lives. We deliver sensibilisation sessions in the villages. We also partner extensively with educational authorities in all countries. Why is that important for us? Because reforestation is about longevity which requires understanding of the value of nature and the respect for nature. So we work with local educational authorities, the Ministry of Education in Madagascar as an example , to enable us to go to schools and do nature sessions. And part of these nature sessions is establishing tree nurseries in schools, together with the children. The children create nurseries, they plant trees, each one of them has one or two trees and when the seedlings become large enough, they plant in their gardens, those seedlings become their trees.
Luke - What other kind of help have you been able to provide to the communities you work with and in?
Vanessa - We do many things. As an example, every year at the beginning of the school year, we have particular activities and actions to help with the school supplies. We use some of our donations for buying notebooks, books and pencils, etc. During COVID we created survival food bags and partnered with local associations to help distribute them. There was a period of a couple of months where people just couldn't get out, couldn’t work and were hungry. Luckily the lockdown didn't last as long as it did here.
Luke - Aside from Madagascar, what other countries do you work in?
Vanessa - Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cameroon and this year we started our activities in Burkina Faso
Luke - And I assume that the process that you follow in those other countries is very much according to the template that you've developed in Madagascar.
Vanessa - Totally. As you know in terms of scaling, you start in a market and you develop your efficiencies, you develop your know-how, and then you move on to the other markets, so that's exactly what we do. After Madagascar, our first country was Togo. We shipped our local talent from Madagascar to Togo for a couple of months for knowledge transfer, and then we used the individuals from Togo to help us in Benin. We have a model, it’s not complicated and it works.
Luke - So 13 years since Graine de Vie was founded, you've expanded into multiple countries with more to come. Could you give us a sense of the impact you’ve had?
Vanessa - So far we’ve planted around 45 million trees and in the process we have created 385 tree nurseries. We employ around 500 people in Africa and we hire 1500, if not more, seasonal workers every year. We have almost 900 reforestation sites. The larger ones are in national parks, but the smaller ones are very close to the communities which means we plant in the areas surrounding villages and even in the villages. The villagers tell us “we need trees here” so we plant trees where they need them to provide shade, to help stop flooding, around roads. We also have 13 mangrove projects. We all know how important mangroves are to nature. The villagers go there now to look for food, because crabs are coming back. Crabs disappeared for 5-10 years and now they're coming back in the restored zones. I think the biggest impact we really have is the improvement of the livelihoods of the communities we work in.
Luke - Could you tell us a little bit about the funding part so, how you work with individuals and the corporate sector to provide financial support for Graine de Vie,
Vanessa - The majority of funding happens in Europe. We have two organisations, one in Belgium and one in Luxembourg. We have six board members in each country and each one of us is responsible for looking for sponsors. We provide donation opportunities for individuals via our website. We have people who make donations for themselves or do fundraisers for birthdays and weddings. For companies, we have a Partnership Programme, where we partner with corporations of all sizes. You can get involved with as little as 500 euros a year. If your company has a large footprint and the budget to offset it we have various partnership possibilities or if needed we’ll create a customised offset partnership for your specific needs.
Luke - Could you finish by giving us a sense of what the future holds for Graine de Vie?
Vanessa - Where we need to focus for at least for the next two to three years is scale and growth. We’ll look for more efficiencies in each of the countries we work and we’ll enter the carbon credit market. We hadn’t previously entered this market because it’s complex and the business model requires a lot of expertise and you need very, very large reforestation zones, which are challenging to come by. There have been some changes in terms of that latter requirement and certifying bodies will now take smaller zones which it’s music to our ears. Because smaller and medium-sized zones, we can find everywhere.
Luke - When you say small, medium and large what are you talking about in terms of hectares?
Vanessa - 10,000 hectares would qualify as a large reforestation zone. 2000 hectares would be medium, And then all the way down to 1 hectare.
Luke - Final question - how did you come to be involved with Graine de Vie?
Vanessa - Well, I know the founder as a friend for a very, very long time. So I've been involved on the outside as a donor, and an active supporter of the organisation for more than 10 years, I got involved as an active board member three years ago.
Luke - What an amazing story Vanessa, thank you for sharing it with us. Looking forward to the next 45m trees.