“Big problems are being addressed on a small scale.”

Daria Lehmann completed a three-month internship in Kenya in the field of development cooperation. What experiences stood out to her and what does she intend to do now? A conversation with Daria after her return to Switzerland.

Interview: Max Wild, Biovision Foundation

Daria, your first blog entry is titled “From Theory to Practice.” During your three months in Kenya, how much theory could you apply?

That is difficult to answer. The theories taught at universities try to tackle big problems, which inevitably makes them abstract—personally, I lacked concrete examples from practice. At university, it was not yet clear to me how a development cooperation project could equally promote all three dimensions of sustainability (society, environment, and economy). I was able to apply the theory, but the practical experience went far beyond that—now I know that there are concrete approaches for promoting sustainable development in the three dimensions at the same time.

Can you explain these approaches using Biovision's Kakamega project?

The heart of the project in Kakamega is actually the “Muliru Farmers Conservation Group Enterprise”, which produces medical products from local medicinal plants. Thanks to the project, small farmers now cultivate these plants on their own farms and sell them to a company. In the past, the plants were taken from the rainforest and the rainforest was overexploited. The economic component of the project is obvious: Small farmers can increase their incomes by selling the products. Cultivating plants needed on farms protects the rainforest, and part of the company’s profits are invested in environmental education, which also includes sustainable cultivation methods.

This covers the environmental dimension.  Additionally, the project affects the community because the small farmers manage the company themselves. Furthermore, the products contain only natural ingredients and are therefore also good for the consumers’ health. Using the company, or the economic dimension, as a starting point helps to cover the other two dimensions of sustainability.

What were your tasks? After ten years, the project is now in its final phase.

I had various tasks: for example, I helped prepare instructions for sustainable agriculture for small farmers or designed roll-up banners for the project. I was also responsible for creating a “synthesis brochure.” We recorded achievements and documented any shortcomings or obstacles to discuss whether partial aspects of the project could be implemented in others. The underlying question for me, however, was what added value the project generated in what areas of life for the local population.

How do you see the project setup once the cooperation ends after 2018?

I can only talk about my personal experiences, but here too I do not want to make a final assessment. In my opinion, the continued existence of the project depends primarily on whether the company can continue to make a profit. Initially, Biovision's partner institution, icipe, guaranteed to purchase the products; in the meantime, other buyers have to be found, which is proving to be difficult. There is a lack of a coherent marketing concept; although there are steps toward to this, they are not yet sufficiently mature. It remains to be seen how this will continue. It may not be possible to run the company economically, but I am convinced that the project has initiated a lot of improvements. The “domestication” of medicinal plants from the rainforest is a great success that will continue, I am sure. Many smallholders have also been able to acquire a great deal of knowledge about sustainable agriculture and business management, from which they and the community will also benefit in the longer term. There are also positive side effects such as the pollinator gardens, which have been set up on some farms and in schools and will continue to exist.

Do you see yourself in a field related to development cooperation in the future?

What interests me most about sustainable development is the interface between the economy and environmental/social factors. I am convinced that environmental and social aspects need to be monetarized to a certain extent to retain weight in our current economic system.

That sounds more like a macro-level than a micro-level.

My experiences in Kenya have given me very concrete ideas of what I would like to do later. One of the most important things I realized is that nothing is possible without environmental education: Awareness of the environment must be the foundation. Otherwise, it is difficult to convince people to try different methods than they already use. During my internship in Kenya, I also became aware that local ecological measures can often have positive global effects—I used to think that international projects were more important. But now I think that we should start with local initiatives. That is what Biovision is all about for me, too: addressing big problems on a small scale. Local impacts can undoubtedly have global effects.