What is TIST:
TIST - THE INTERNATIONAL SMALL GROUP & TREE PLANTING PROGRAM is a carbon offset project that supports poor farmers across four countries — including Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and India — to restore their landscapes and improve their lives through tree planting. TIST enables smallholders to earn carbon pre-payments from trees they plant and maintain on their own land, and the program guarantees farmers 70% of the profits from the sale of carbon credits on the voluntary market.
For the past four years, I have been looking for ways to support solutions to Africa’s climate crisis. In 2013, I set up this foundation with the goal of investing in enterprises that would not only help stem the rapid deforestation of African landscapes, but also bring lasting, and scalable, improvements to people’s lives. I have focused much of my attention on the charcoal problem, providing early-stage funding to companies that distribute alternative fuels and improved cookstoves to low-income African households. TIST presented a different opportunity—a chance to support the restoration of degraded lands, by empowering smallholder farmers with the necessary knowledge and incentives to plant and maintain millions of trees.
When I first visited TIST in Kenya in 2014, I had already spent time with a range of environmental NGOs and businesses working in Africa. TIST did not resemble any of the familiar models. In Meru, a town on Mt. Kenya’s northeast slopes, where TIST has its strongest presence, I found no project office or company vehicle, no posters or logo-emblazoned t-shirts. Instead, I discovered a group of farmers— “cluster leaders” —gathered in a meeting hall of a run-down convent, sharing advice on how to organize groups to construct tree nurseries and practice conservation farming techniques. I learned that the attendees do not receive payment or lunch for their participation; rather they come voluntarily, by public transport, taking time from jobs and home obligations. “We participate because the benefits are very clear to us,” Dorothy Naitore, an early organizer of TIST’s Kenya program and now a member of its leadership council, explained to me, “on our farms, in the new income opportunities we have, and in the changes we are seeing in our environment.”
To understand what Dorothy was talking about, I set out, with Agnes, a cluster leader, to visit a few TIST farmers’ homes. We traveled by crowed minibus (matatu) several miles northeast of town, and then by boda boda (motorcycle taxi) along the sandy dirt paths to Kawiru village, where more than 20 TIST small groups (of 6-12 farmers) are active. We met Tabitha, a widow in middle age, who showed me around her modest shamba—a verdant, shady oasis—pointing out her fruit trees and the swollen maize crop she attributed to the no-till method she learned at TIST meetings. She had a newly built pen for her goats, purchased with money from the carbon prepayments on her trees, and she described plans to build a second room on her house with savings from her sale of avocados. Her neighbor, James, spoke of similar gains, such as, using tree payments to complete a slate roof and having enough money from improved crop yields to afford his daughter’s high school fees. James’ mother pointed out the family’s newly constructed chimney stove that reduced kitchen smoke, and she told me how the trees her son planted through TIST had created a wind-break, protecting the drying laundry and the roof during storms.
While TIST is not the first program to initiate a tree planting scheme in the Mount Kenya area, previous efforts have faced management challenges and a lack of long-term buy-in from farmers. NGOs have either paid people to grow seedlings or paid them to plant seedlings in forest areas, providing little incentive for them to maintain the trees once in the ground. Additionally, project managers have often failed to remunerate accurately the time and labor of individual participants (paying little attention to who planted which trees), leading to inevitable conflict and disaffection. By contrast, TIST has succeeded in attracting and retaining members by placing farmers—their interests and their human potential—at the center of the program. Participants benefit monetarily from trees they plant and care for on their own land, but to do so they must organize themselves into groups, collect their own seeds, grow seedlings and share best practices with each other. A high level of transparency ensures that farmers understand the system of carbon payments; TIST “quantifiers” count, identify and measure trees across tens of thousands of individual groves and upload the data to a public website. When questions or complaints arise, they are openly discussed. At a cluster meeting I attended in a relatively new TIST area, south of Nanyuki, members voiced frustration that their trees had not yet been counted and wondered how long they would have to wait before receiving any carbon prepayments. (It seemed the cluster’s location had presented a logistical challenge to the assigned quantifier, and calls were made on the spot to try to remedy the delay.) Still, there was plenty of other business to address—including a review of the TIST newsletter, a summary of conservation farming techniques, and the collection of funds for the rotating savings club. “The carbon payments are only one of the reasons we keep coming,” Juliette, the cluster leader, explained to me. “And it is not even the most important. Every month we are learning things that can help us improve.”
In recent years, talk of “gender empowerment” has become ubiquitous in the development world, with projects of all kinds claiming to give women the chance to gain economic independence, often through micro-lending or entrepreneurship training programs. TIST does not advertise itself as a women’s empowerment program; yet its impact on women’s lives has been profound. Because gender balance is built into the group dynamics that underlie the program, participation not only enhances women’s income earning possibilities, but also fosters their potential as community leaders. At monthly cluster meetings, a system of rotating leadership ensures that even the shyest and least educated women gain experience in public speaking, leading discussions, and directing meeting protocol. Women who opt to become “trainers” gain expertise on a range of topics, from agroforestry to nutrition to HIV/AIDS prevention and the chance to become teachers to their peers, while those who become “quantifiers” learn to use a smartphone to measure and record tree data for carbon auditing purposes, gaining valuable technical skills otherwise unavailable to them. The prevalence of women leaders in TIST has an infectious effect; “Because it is farmers working for other farmers, and not an expert coming in a big SUV and telling them you should do this,” Dorothy Natori explained, “women think: ‘if she can do it, why can’t I?’”
Ultimately, the clearest evidence of the efficacy of TIST lies in the program’s quiet but dramatic expansion—from 77 Tanzanian smallholders in 1999 to 77,000 across 4 countries by 2017—and the cumulative carbon-absorbing effect of more than 16 million trees. I have found no other community tree-planting initiative that has scaled in this way, propelled largely by the word of one farmer to another. “In the beginning recruiting was a challenge,” Patricia Wachuka, a long-time TIST member and quantifier, who previously worked for several environmental NGOs in the Meru area explained. “People thought they already knew about tree-planting. And it was hard to compete with groups that paid people to attend meetings.” (Patricia confessed that she used to “hijack” the meetings of other organizations so she could share information about TIST.) But as early adopters began to experience the advantages of TIST, many became ambassadors, spurring demand-driven growth.
Today, constraints on working capital—due primarily to an over-supplied carbon market—are slowing the pace at which TIST can continue to expand across Africa and beyond. I decided to invest to enable another cluster of 100-200 farmers to begin planting trees and improving their lives. I am hopeful that more investors—including individuals, corporations, and multilateral organizations—will recognize the potential of TIST to reduce global carbon emissions while strengthening the resilience of those most vulnerable to climate change.