Ripple Africa is a charity that aims to support local communities in Malawi which are facing many environmental challenges, a major one being deforestation. One of Ripple Africa’s projects focuses on tree planting, aiming to support local communities by introducing an alternative source of income and food, and to mitigate climate change by increasing the size of the carbon store which is being diminished.
I would say that the charity emphasizes sustainability more from a social stance, rather than the focus on carbon sequestration that many other tree planting projects have. You are given the option to pay 25p for an individual tree or to donate towards a package which plants trees as well as protecting existing trees within the forests. £5 per month plants 20 trees and protects 60 trees within the forest and this donation can be scaled up.
The key to the programme’s success is the heavy involvement of local communities. Local farmers plant and take care of the trees, and the charity itself only employs Malawian nationals to work in Malawi. More than 95% household energy in Malawi is derived from fuelwood and charcoal, making firewood essential to communities’ livelihood, but also placing a pressure on indigenous forests. This scheme attempts to alleviate this pressure by providing trees to be used for timber while the charity’s other projects protect indigenous woodland and educate communities on the importance of conservation. The tree planting scheme has the needs of the community at its core, so most of the trees are either coppiced for firewood or used as a source of food. Therefore, it is not the best choice if wanting to sequester large quantities of carbon quickly but it great for helping communities support themselves in the long-term. Action is very localised, operating only in Malawi, so while the benefits are not widespread they are very thought through and specific.
The trees are chosen based on the communities’ needs so are mainly fast growing frees for timber and firewood, such as pine and eucalyptus, or fruit trees, with Ripple Africa growing fruit orchards. This means that native forests do not need to be deforested. Since 2004, 17 million trees have been planted. The charity quotes that for every 10 trees planted 1 tonne of carbon is absorbed, however I find this figure questionable, and even the charity acknowledges it is a generalisation. Firstly, the statistic has not been checked officially as the scheme is not a verified carbon offsetting project. Secondly, it relies on the trees standing for a set period of time, which may not be guaranteed, especially since many of the trees planted are specifically for the purpose of being cut down for timber. External figures suggest a mature tree absorbs around 21kg carbon per year, so the quoted figure here assumed that the trees are around for around 5 years once matured.
Some of the trees planted are also not native and have been introduced into Malawi, such as pine trees. There is little information available about the impact this has on local biodiversity, but it can be assumed that by reducing the amount of deforestation of indigenous forests, by providing an alternative wood supply, the overall impact on native biodiversity is positive. This may not be best scheme in terms of carbon sequestration due to the trees chosen and how they are utilised, but in terms of supporting local communities allowing them to become self-reliant, the scheme is very sustainable.
The tree planting process is simple and revolves around the local community, with farmers and local authorities being involved. The tech used is very simple, giving out seeds in tubes and covering seedlings with basic covers as they grow. Despite the farmers being in charge, Ripple Africa still has a long-term commitment to the process, monitoring the seeds closely by keeping track of how many germinate and grow. After 1.5 years the risk of failure is deemed minimal and involvement lessens. The monitoring also allows the locations chosen etc. to be optimised. For example, commercial trees planted in the Mzimba District did not grow well due to the soil quality and water availability, so these trees are now concentrated in other districts. However, although the transparency and flexibility is great, this dynamic nature of the tree planting scheme is a further reason as to why the claimed “10 trees planted = 1 tonne of carbon” is not necessarily true, but simply based on broad assumptions.
The charity was founded by two Brits, so it could be easy for the white saviour complex to be prevalent throughout the organisation due to its leadership, however Ripple Africa has managed to avoid this through its focus on empowering and involving local communities, as well as only giving paid positions in Malawi to nationals. No local jobs are taken due to overseas involvement being limited to volunteering, although offices in the UK do not have these rules. The focus on providing services specific to what the community needs, alongside the provision of knowledge allowing long-term impacts, is what makes this scheme so good. They say they “offer a hand up, not a handout” and that really rings true. There is a lot of transparency in the company, both with the environmental and social impacts of their replanting projects, but also financially, with an annual report being published online. Ripple Africa’s tree planting scheme really appears to have the local community at its heart, and not just be planting trees randomly with little thought.