Nefisa, 22, and Meseret, 26, were not aware the climate was in crisis, until they joined a greening project three years ago.
They could tell the weather patterns were more erratic every year, but they did not know what was happening or if they could do anything about it.
These two young people live in Tulu Moye, a farming community about 100 kilometres from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital.
In Tulu Moye, vast swathes of land as far as the eye can see are without a single tree or have little tree cover. People chopped them down for firewood and building supplies, with no regard to the cost on the environment.
The people here depend on rain-fed agriculture to grow wheat – the country’s staple food crop and an important source of income. If the rains were adequate, the farmers would harvest wheat, which takes three months to mature, up to three times a year.
Right now, due to poor rainfall, yields come only once in twelve months.
“Last year there was no rain for 10 months and we had planted potatoes,” says Meseret. “They stayed in the ground without rain for two months. Before that, rain came unexpectedly and destroyed our crops. I have that experience. The funny thing is I had not heard about the climate crisis,” he says.
Nefisa and Meseret are now part of an environmental project in Tulu Moye working to reverse the declining tree cover in this part of Ethiopia, as well as educate young people on ways they can earn a living by protecting the environment.
The initiative is a partnership between SOS Children’s Villages in Ethiopia and the government started in 2020.
Agricultural experts from the district agricultural office trained 140 young people on land preparation, sowing, transplanting, and grafting to ensure that seedlings grow into good healthy trees.
To set up the nursery, they received farming tools and various seed varieties like coffee, papaya, mango, avocado among others.
“I had no experience or training in anything before SOS,” says Nefisa. “I was a stay-at-home mother. I only went to sell wheat in the market. I was not interested in the environment because I did not know about it. I did not think about it. But after I came here, I have learnt a lot on how to protect my surroundings and I have adopted this by planting trees at home.”
Every day with rakes, pruning shears, and watering cans, Nefisa and Meseret meticulously nurture the tree seedlings, carefully placed in shaded areas.
Fifteen young people work in this nursery site. Some come in the morning and others in the afternoon. The whole group works together when preparing nursery beds before sowing for a new season. Working in shifts frees up Nefisa to take care of her two young children, and for Meseret to attend to his wheat farm.
“I got involved in this project because I was curious about the relationship between trees and the environment, and I wanted to see it practically,” says Meseret.
“Now I know that trees are important for the environment because they clean the air, attract rain, they create shade and maintain the ecosystem. I am a farmer, I have farming knowledge, but the project made the link for me between rain, the environment and agriculture. I did not know this before. I did not even plant trees in my compound before - fruit trees or any other. Now I have about 5,000 seedlings in my compound.”
In the first year, the green entrepreneurs sowed 9,880 seedlings. They sold over 3,000 and made 53,750 Ethiopia birrs (923 Euro). With the growing shift in attitudes about the environment, they hope to sell 10,000 seedlings this year.
The green project is also converting fallow land in six primary schools in Tulu Moye into eco-gardens, and creating awareness on best practices in water conservation.
Combat climate crisis
Ethiopia has a national campaign to plant trees every summer - June and July - to improve tree coverage in the country and combat the climate crisis. The three-year-old green project offers a great boost to this initiative.
The United Nations Environment Programmes estimates that Ethiopia’s tree coverage drastically fell to 4 percent in the 2000s from 35 percent a century ago.
Researchers have found that tree restoration is one of the best and cheapest way to tackle the climate crisis. As trees grow, they absorb and store carbon dioxide – a major driver of global warming. Tree planting programmes effectively remove emissions pumped into the atmosphere by human activities.
“The community is really affected by the changing seasons,” says Meseret. “When there is a tree, there is rain. When there is no rain, the community cannot produce any food and they will starve.
“If there is no tree, there will be no animals, no insects, and no birds. Our existence depends on the trees because they attract rain, and then the community produces food through farming. With no rain there can be no food production.”
Nefisa says trees not only benefit nature but also are a vital source of nutritious food and income for the families in the community.
“The community is already impacted by our project in many ways,” says Nefisa. “They have started planting fruit trees in their compound. They will harvest the nutritious fruits when the trees mature and feed their growing children.
“When they plant more trees, the agriculture in this area will improve because we will get enough rain. The community is already asking to buy coffee trees, paw paw, avocado, mango but they are not ready.”
Nefisa and Meseret have become tree-planting advocates. They are educating members of the community about the climate crisis and encouraging them to do their part for the environment.
“My neighbours visited my compound and saw how green it was and they started planting trees in their homes,” says Meseret. “And when I take the seedlings to the market, I explain to the customers why they should plant trees. I share the knowledge (SOS Children’s Villages) has taught me, how to tend to the trees and their importance to the environment.”