After 20 years creating ad campaigns for a variety of commercial clients, Bill heard the call to help a different kind of client— those who need help the most. He joined Heifer International as Creative Director in 2007 and works with an incredible team of writers, designers and producers to develop materials to tell the Heifer story. A father of three, he enjoys reading books, playing guitar, and climbing rocks.
You might not guess it when you first meet him, but Mahmoud Conteh is a highly educated agronomist who teaches others how to improve their crop yields the sustainable way. In truth, Mahmoud grew up desperately poor and under-educated in the Port Loko District of Sierra Leone, like the vast majority of his countrymen. But he had the good fortune to join a Heifer International self help group that partners with the non-profit Mercy Ships.
While anchored near Freetown, Mercy Ships personnel, working with Heifer Sierra Leone staff, trained Mahmoud and others in sustainable farming techniques. Working with animals supplied by Heifer and local seeds and soils, Mahmoud and his group have abandoned the traditional slash-and-burn farming techniques that deplete soils, and adopted sustainable methods that restore nutrients to the soil and vastly improve the yields from their crops.
Listen as he teaches us why composting is better than fertilizer.
Chief Musa didn’t like animals messing up his village. “They compete with the farmers for their crops, they mess up the village. I don’t want them here.”
But that was before he met Rashid Sesay, Country Director for Heifer International in Sierra Leone. Rashid explained how Heifer emphasizes zero grazing, where animals inhabit pens that are safe, well ventilated and beneficial for the animals. Farmers bring fresh, nutritious food and water to the animals, and still allow them to get plenty of exercise outside the pen (without running rampant over Chief Musa’s nice, clean village).
Six months after goats were placed in Siama village, Rashid visited Chief Musa again. He found that the chief himself had been converted and kept goats of his own—in pens, of course. “I trust you; you are my best friend now,” the chief told Rashid.
It’s a simple thing, really, but this illustration demonstrates a much larger and more complex concept: working locally. Heifer realizes that it’s important to get the buy-in of a community before we go to work. In fact, we only go where we’re invited. And we insist that the communities themselves set goals and procedures. From there, we help the communities facilitate development themselves (there are a whole lot more of them than there are of us, after all).
And that’s really one of the great beauties of the Heifer model; we don’t just drop off a bag of rice or a few goats and leave a community to fend for itself. We give communities the training and the tools to bring themselves up out of poverty. We don’t just ask communities what they think; we involve them and make them part of the process—and the solution. The result is that people take ownership and pride in what they’re doing, and are able finally to feed themselves and restore their own human dignity.
Heifer Sierra Leone Country Director Rashid Sesay, Joseph Buckle, Roland Suluku, Foday Koroma (of Njala University), Heifer Senior Project Officer Val Koker and volunteer Dr. Luciano Gajutos hammer out the details (not pictured, West Africa Regional Director Elizabeth Bintliff).
At a long table in Heifer Sierra Leone’s headquarters, six men and one woman debate and discuss poultry mortality rates, the price for a bag of chicken manure (to be used as fertilizer), whether and how smallholder farmers can get high-quality feed, the cost of construction for housing chickens, coordination of farming schedules, veterinary care and access to medicines, marketing and far more details than I can get into here.
The occasion is a two-day “write shop” to develop and polish a $1.6 million proposal to the European Union for a project that would reduce food insecurity and increase resiliency among 5,000 vulnerable rural households in Kailahun and Koinadugu Districts of Sierra Leone. The project would target families with pregnant women or lactating mothers. Participants in the write shop include poultry experts from Njala University, a volunteer veterinarian, Heifer’s Senior Project Officer, Country Director and West Africa Area Director.
Heifer International doesn’t work extensively with poultry in Africa, but there is a great need and market for fresh eggs here. Besides addressing the immediate need, this project will also focus on sustainability by training trainers in the target populations. These women will provide technical training to subsequent families so that they may keep the program going and ultimately raise the income and nutrition levels of more families.
The proposal is due August 25, so keep your fingers crossed.
The weather always seems to affect the way I see locales. Our flight into Conakry, Guinea, was delayed about an hour as our big Air France jet from Paris circled, waiting for the rains to lift. The short (30 minutes) flight from Conakry to Freetown was uneventful, and the remains of the rain storm lay in puddles on the ground in Freetown when we arrived. While Elizabeth Bintliff, Heifer’s West Africa Area Director, commented on how much the airport had improved in the year since she had vsited, I thought it looked as if building or renovation had been started, then abandoned a decade ago. The gleaming new control tower stood in sharp contrast to the unfinished terminal buildings, with their rickety scaffolding and ripped blue tarps clinging to the unfinished concrete work, and all under scudding gray clouds.
Across the street from the airport, a shantytown of rundown shops and homes teemed with hundreds of people milling about, clearly with no place else to be or go. The drive to the hovercraft port from the airport couldn’t have been more than a mile and a half, but took some 20 minutes, as the driver gingerly negotiated the pock-marked road, avoiding the largest mud puddles left by the rain. The beach where the hovercraft “parked” would have been beautiful, had it not been for the ramshackle stick huts, and slapped-together dwellings where people lived without electricity or running water.
After a relatively smooth 30 minute ride on the hovercraft, we arrived at our final destination and home base for the next week or so: Freetown, Sierra Leone. It’s situated on the shoulder of a gently sloping mountain that angles down to the Atlantic Ocean. We had a brief welcome visit from the country director, Rashid Sesay and talked over plans for tomorrow: leave the hotel at 6 am and drive 5 hours to see projects in the field. Since we’ve been up for something like 36 hours now, I’ll end this post and hope to have more substantive observations later in the week.
In a little more than 12 hours, I’ll fly to Atlanta. Then to Paris. Then to Conakry, Gunea. Then to Freetown, Sierra Leone. I leave home on Saturday and arrive in another time, another place, another dimension. Excited, to be sure, but also a little nervous. Not about the travel so much– I’ve traveled internationally a fair bit before. But more about the technological luggage I’m bringing with me.
My team’s job is to spread the word for Heifer, by all means. Typically, I do that in traditional media– print, audio, video. While technology has certainly changed those mediums over the last few years, THIS medium is a new one for me. Sure, I facebook (like my kids), and e-mail and upload and download. But this is serious. So I hope you’ll indulge me while I practice on you a little. Think of it as a small investment. The payoff (I hope) will be much better, more worthy and thought-provoking posts from the field. I will be blogging in this space and tweeting (or “twitting,” as I like to call it), taking photos and video, and collecting information for longer-format pieces later on.
I will first inflict upon you a very short video taken at my desk.
My final dry run will be to upload a photo of some Heifer water bottles. I had hoped to take them with me to the field, but just couldn’t fit them. Well, that’s how I’m attempting to make this relevant, at least.
Thanks for your patience with me. I’m fortunate to be able to work in a place that embraces technology in our efforts to end hunger and poverty and care for the Earth.