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Can Africa save rural Canada?

Often development flows from the so-called “developed world” to the undeveloped. Experts and volunteers from countries like Canada are supposed to have all the answers. These experts get on planes, fly to far-flung corners of the world and then run projects that work to change families, communities, economies or governments. I’m not saying this is wrong and doesn’t work – sometimes it helps in the overall process. Sometimes these experts really do have the cultural know-how, sensitivity, language skills and compassion to make real and lasting change. But without people on the ground, citizens from the country in question, change is impossible.

From the beginning, we at Community Forests International realized that communities and Tanzanians were the experts. When I first came to East Africa in 2007 I didn’t intend on helping anyone – I was trying to write a novel and find my place in the world. My Tanzanian friends helped me – they gave me a sense of belonging and place. They taught me some Swahili and showed me what it meant to belong to a community. I shared stories about tree-planting in Canada, shared stories about what was possible and how people in my country had worked to change vast areas of land by planting millions of trees.

My Pemban friends did the rest. They decided which trees to grow and how to grow them. I learned beside them and shared only in my enthusiasm and belief in the possible. I learned from one of my best friends, Mbarouk Mussa Omar, how to mobilize an entire community. How to share an idea and spread hope. I learned how to run an NGO and how to organize people around a shared vision. I came back to Canada and founded Community Forests International with a great group of Canadians while he founded Community Forests Pemba in Tanzania. We started the organizations together building off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, learning quickly and taking risks at the right time. Today Pemba is a model of innovation. Communities have transformed their island and have built something that should be replicated around the world. Why can’t we learn from them?

Rural Canada, especially in the Maritimes where Community Forests International is headquartered has development challenges of its own. Brain drain, economic decline, forest degradation and corruption. As an organization that works to restore natural environments through the creation of sustainable economic opportunities we also run up against other challenges. We face closed minds, insurmountable communication barriers, intergenerational knowledge gaps and an unwillingness to try new things. Canadians are stubborn.

Maybe we’ve got something to learn.

Pembans have been working over the last few years to innovate cook stoves, housing construction, the generation of electricity and food production and their work has culminated in the creation of a Rural Innovation Campus. The campus is a place for communities to pilot new technologies, share their knowledge and return back to their villages armed with the tools necessary to make change. We are exploring ways to bring community leaders from around the world to come and learn and teach at the campus.

So what does this have to do with Canada?

We like the idea so much we’re bringing it home. We have the dream of making our organization’s 600 acre farm and forest a Rural Innovation Campus in Canada. A place where Canadians can come and share innovations and ideas around farming, forestry, green building and clean energy. We want to support people around the world in the development of new technologies, both to fight climate change and create new job opportunities.

In order to kick it off we’re bringing Mbarouk, Community Forests Pemba’s Executive Director to Canada in the summer of 2014. We’re excited to hear his thoughts on rural Canada – how we can learn from Pemba and build a true global network of ideas.

At this point in the game there’s one thing we know for certain.

Ideas can change the world.

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