Founded by Emanuel Chibesakunda, Plant A Million Zambia is an initiative that tackles poverty, deforestation and climate change by planting as many trees as possible. In fact, they aim to plant over two billion trees and have so far planted over half a million trees.
I gave up my Porsche to plant trees in the African savanna – this sounds like the title of a self-help book targeted at overworked city slickers who need to reassess their life values. Although I mentioned this book title to Emanuel Chibesakunda jokingly, in retrospect, he may be the perfect author.
Emanuel’s life began in Zambia. Born to a German mother and a Zambian father, he moved to Germany when he was eight years old and spent the next two decades of his far from ordinary life there. While other children were going through the motions of suburban life, Emanuel was training to become a five-time track and field star and even made it to the 1998 Olympic Bobsled team, representing Germany. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? A Zambian at the Winter Olympics?
The story doesn’t end with his ascent to sporting greatness. Emanuel then shifted goal posts and focused on academia, studying industrial engineering and then business administration at the Technical University of Munich and UC Berkeley respectively. Being an Olympic athlete who trained for ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week, Emanuel knows all about hard work. He testifies that he learnt a lot from his graduate school classmates who camped out in the library, taking two-hour naps and using their textbooks as pillows. This new type of competition was the fire he needed to land a job at Booz Allen Hamilton where he was a senior project manager for five years. This billion-dollar multinational provides consulting services to clients such as BMW and Ford Motors. Needless to say, Emanuel was in the big leagues, celebrating birthdays with royalty and spending more money on one meal than what some make in a year.
How does someone like this end up planting trees in Zambia? Well soon the trappings of the “music video life” and the “golden cage” became evident. For many of us, it takes a traumatic life event to make us rethink our priorities and Emanuel is no different. In 2006 his father was attacked by a robber in his home. He survived the horrific attack, but this brought Emanuel back to Zambia. The more he visited, the more he reassessed his life. Ultimately, his role at Booz Allen was to optimise profits and reduce costs, in other words, to make the rich richer. Unsatisfied with this, he began to search for more meaningful work, consulting on energy and agriculture projects across Africa and eventually homing in on his beloved Zambia.
Zambia receives millions of dollars in aid annually. Where does it all go and why doesn’t it make significant changes to people’s lives? These questions nagged Emanuel and he sought answers. His answers came from a conservation farming project he worked on. He realised that by empowering female farmers with the skills to increase their yield twenty-fold, they were improving the lives of an entire community. Female farmers use their profits to invest in food, healthcare and education for their children. Empowering decision maker’s in the home is the key.
We are still not talking about trees yet, are we? Emanuel then thought about the resources Zambia has in abundance and how they can be used to turn a profit. What does Zambia have in abundance? Trees! According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 66.5 percent or 49,468,000 hectares of Zambia is forested. Forests are multifunctional resources: they can provide firewood, food, regulate the water and carbon cycles, provide oxygen and protect biodiversity. Emanuel realised Zambia has an immense opportunity to shift from a copper-dependent economy to a sustainably managed tree-based economy, and so the idea for Plant A Million Zambia was born.
Plant A Million Zambia is an initiative that tackles poverty, deforestation and climate change by planting as many trees as possible. In fact, they aim to plant over two billion trees. They are well on their way. With Emanuel at the helm, the initiative has planted over half a million trees in Zambia to date.
Plant A Million Zambia is an ambitious project. Not only do they aim to plant an astronomical number of trees and offset the effects of decades of deforestation in Zambia, they also intend to change our education system. They are collaborating with the Ministry of Education to create the world’s first climate-change themed syllabus for grades one to twelve. Plant A Million Zambia understands that without sustainable management and conservation of natural resources such as forests and trees, there will be no money to be made.
The organisation is governed by three themes: education, economy and ecology. The goal is to ensure Zambians make money from trees. By planting trees communities profit from the sale of high-cash products such as mongongo oil, baobab powder, and avocados. Plant A Million Zambia also plans to use a mobile juice plant to travel the country extracting juice from the millions of fruits that are wasted each year. It is difficult to quantify economically the value trees provide but Emanuel and his team aim to try.
When asked about highlights thus far, Emanuel mentioned launching his project with the support of President Edgar Lungu in Chinsali in April 2019. “This initiative marks the beginning of growing money through trees and government stands ready to support it and ensure that it succeeds,” the president said. Is there higher praise than the head of the nation believing in your ideas? Hardly.