Forest Gardens: A transformational approach for lifting farming families out of poverty

Training farming families to grow Forest Gardens which increase income, reduce hunger, and provide employment opportunities for youth.

Photo of John Leary
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I confirm that I am fully aware of the eligibility criteria, and based on its description, I am eligible to apply to the CSV Prize 2017.

  • Yes, I'm eligible

Preferred language

  • English

Organization name

Trees for the Future (TREES)

Year founded


Initiative stage

  • Established (the solution has passed the previous stages and demonstrated success)

Annual budget in 2017 (USD)

  • $1mil - $5mil

Number of beneficiaries impacted so far

  • 10,000 - 50,000

Organization type

  • Nonprofit, NGO, or citizen sector

Secondary Focus Area

  • Water
  • Rural development
  • Nutrition

Headquarters location: Country

  • United States of America

Headquarters location: City

Silver Spring, MD

Location(s) of impact

Senegal: Kaffrine, Koungheul, Kedougou Uganda: Lira, Kole Kenya: Ikinu, Homa Bay Tanzania: Singida Cameroon: Bamenda


Facebook URL

Twitter URL

Problem: What problem is this initiative trying to address?

In the communities we work, unsustainable farming practices have degraded lands and destroyed a majority of the trees. Farmers grow few crop varieties, leaving them susceptible to drastic income loss if crops fail. Most families are impoverished, suffer from food insecurity, and many youths experience difficulties making a living from farming and leave rural areas for urban job opportunities. Our goal was to find a way to grow crops and trees while addressing the needs of smallholder farming families and the Earth.

Solution Summary: What is the proposed solution? What do you see as its most promising aspects for creating shared value?

TREES helps farmers develop Forest Gardens by planting specific varieties of locally appropriate crops and trees in phases over 4 years. During year 1, farmers plant green walls (an enhanced version of a living fence) around the perimeters of their land along with fast-growing fertilizer trees to further stabilize their soils and enhance fertility. During year 2, farmers plant high-value vegetables, fruit, nut, and timber trees, and learn more advanced skills and techniques to help them manage their Forest Gardens for the future. During year 3, farmers learn to adopt advanced Forest Garden planting and care, integrated pest management, and conservation techniques for the long-term health, productivity, and profitability of their land. During year 4, TREES co-creates a sustainability and marketing plan with the farmers and transitions farmer groups to support each other as time goes on. Farming families quickly learn the power of trees to renew the land and improve their livelihoods.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Specify both the social and the environmental impact of your work

Since beginning our Forest Garden projects, we have seen amazing impacts on farming families lives, including: - INCOME INCREASED: Participants in our Forest Garden program have raised their income by an average of 400% over 4 years. - FOOD INSECURITY REDUCED: Before starting their Forest Gardens, 83% of our farmers report that they struggle with food insecurity—having trouble accessing food regularly, going to bed hungry, or going a day without eating. After the 1st year in our program, food insecurity drops to 14% and to 4% after 2 years. - CROP DIVERSIFICATION INCREASED: Participants in our Forest Garden program increased the number of plant species grown on-farm from an average of 3 to an average of 8.7. - The NUMBER OF TREES INCREASED: The tree count per hectare among Forest Garden program participants increased from an average of 20 to 1,522! Our solution goes beyond a typical intervention and provides families with long-term poverty reduction, nutrition, and employment.

Financial sustainability plan: How is this initiative financially supported? How will you ensure its financial sustainability long-term?

We ensure our long-term impact through public and private sector partnerships and reducing costs. Notably, 75-80% of our funding is multi-year, unrestricted, corporate contributions, 10% via individual donations, and 10% through grants. In 2016, we received a USAID grant to design a training certification that scales our model through in-country partnerships and other organizations. Our current operating budget is $2.2 million and is expected to grow by 25% in 2018. In 2018, we plan to implement a microfinance and village savings program to ensure that our farmers can access credit for Forest Garden materials and water infrastructure. This program, called LEAF (Loan to Empower AgroForesters), will help us operate more efficiently and reduce the cost of Forest Gardens for each family.

Unique value proposition: What makes your initiative innovative? How does your project differ from other organizations working in the same field?

The Forest Garden is a unique, multi-tiered, successive planting approach that combines the best from agroforestry and permaculture to offer farmers a way to generate income with short-term returns from vegetable and field crops as they wait for trees to mature. Within 4 years, farmers establish a viable Forest Garden and gain life-long skills in grafting, caring for, and using trees. No other organization has developed an agroforestry model for smallholder farmers with such sustainable impact.

Founding story: Share a story about the "Aha!" moment that sparked the beginning of this initiative.

In 2010, the staff at TREES reflected on the projects we implemented around the world asking, “Which of our projects had the greatest impact on ending hunger and poverty?” We discovered that it was the Forest Garden—an approach to smallholder agroforestry that combines the greatest high-tech, low-tech, and innovative ideas into a four-year model. Since this epiphany, we dedicated our organization to refining and implementing this model, and the results have been outstanding. We have graduated 690 families in the past year and are set to graduate 2,921 families in the next two years from our 4 year program. We currently have nearly 30,000 beneficiaries in our programs across 5 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and are thrilled to be bringing on more farmers, as we expect to expand in 2018 to new project zones so that we permanently end hunger and poverty for communities across the globe

Where did you hear about the Nestlé Creating Shared Value Prize?

  • Nestlé page or contact

Program Design Clarity: We are hungry to know more about what exactly your model consists of. Succinctly list a) what main activities are you doing with your beneficiaries, b) where you carry out the activities? c) how often? d) for how many hours? e) who delivers the services? and f) any other brief details

Forest Gardens are successful because they rely on farming families leveraging the few resources that they still have: land and labor. Farmer beneficiaries contribute the land, labor, and water to establish their own individual nurseries and Forest Gardens. TREES' frontline staff supports the farmers in developing their Forest Gardens over 4 years. All of our frontline staff members are nationals from the countries in which we work. They live in towns near the project site, provide one- to two-day trainings with farmer groups several times per year, oversee the nursery management and outplanting efforts, and visit each individual farming household twice per year to check in and conduct an assessment. During a 4-year Forest Garden Project, TREES frontline staff trains participants in designing a Forest Garden, establishing and managing nurseries, selecting crops to meet subsistence needs and market opportunities, creating sustainability and marketing plans, and incorporating advanced permaculture and conservation techniques into their Forest Gardens. TREES frontline staff selects and works with lead farmers who serve as a daily resource to Forest Garden participants. Lead farmers are participants who are quick learners, can answer questions for other farmers, and have visible sites that can serve as demonstration plots. Each Forest Garden project has one lead farmer for every 15 to 20 regular participants. A typical Forest Garden project has 200 to 250 participants.

Focus area

  • Rural Development

We are interested in learning more about your initiative's broad impact on sustainable development. Please reply ONLY to the question(s) related to your above focus area.

Forest Gardens enable holistic, equitable rural development by: - EXPANDING FARMING FAMILIES ACCESS TO MARKETS with more diverse and marketable crops. Our farmers nearly triple the number of food crops that they grow in the first year of a project - PROVIDING A STABLE SOURCE OF INCOME for rural communities and helping keep youth in rural areas. As one farmer put it, “We’re working hard to plant trees so our children don’t have to leave our land” - INTEGRATING WOMEN as much as possible. Currently, 44% of our Forest Garden participants are women and we require that at least 30% of the participants be women on any given project - CONSERVING WATER through shade production, wind protection, contours, and by introducing large amounts of organic matter into the soil. Once established, trees have roots that reach water deep in the soil, allowing farmers to divert water resources to other crops - IMPROVING DIETARY DIVERSITY AND REDUCING FOOD INSECURITY by encouraging families to select crops for household consumption. We have seen the dietary diversity of our farming families increase from a score of 5.62 to 9.05 after 2 years. We have seen food insecurity drop from a score of 9.18 (out of 10) to 2.96 after 2 years. Fewer families skip meals or go to bed hungry - RENEWING RURAL LANDSCAPES by increasing the average number of trees/hectare from 20 to 1,522 within 2 years. Forest Garden participants planted 13,877,927 trees in 2016 and sequestered 192,796 tons of carbon!

Creating shared value: How does your initiative create value for different stakeholders?

Forest Gardens create shared value for: - FARMING FAMILIES by supporting them in building lifelong skills, helping them mitigate the effects of climate change and diversifying their crops in order to meet their nutritional needs and address market opportunities - FARMER GROUPS by providing them with assets (tools/materials, income, new skillsets ) to increase the social value for farming families - YOUTH by giving them a viable means to make a living on their land instead of leaving for employment in urban areas or in other countries - WOMEN by training them in a new skillset that offers them economic opportunity - RURAL COMMUNITIES by offering them a source of economic revitalization and renewal of the landscape - THE PLANET by increasing the number of trees planted, renewing the soil, and sequestering carbon to mitigate the effects of climate change - "FIRST WORLD" BUSINESSES and CONSUMERS by connecting business activities and purchases to improving lives and our planet

How is your initiative funded, now and over the next 5 years?

TREES receives 80% of its funding from the private sector. We rely on growing corporate social responsibility to help us raise funds to plant trees and change lives. Corporations donate to TREES through two mechanisms: multi-year contracts that plant trees for each product sold or through longer-term contracts where companies sponsor an entire project for the 4-year duration. TREES gets approximately 10% of its funding from major donors and individual donors, who donate directly through TREES' website or on other giving platforms (Classy, GlobalGiving). TREES gets the remainder 10% of its funding through grants. We have full cost recovery on our projects and 90% of our funds are unrestricted allowing us to start new projects as needed.

How do you plan to influence your field of work if you are a winner of this edition of the CSV Prize?

TREES plans to scale our Forest Garden Approach by training other organizations to integrate Forest Gardens into their own projects. Through partnerships, we aim to eliminate hunger and poverty for 1,000,000 farmers. In 2017, TREES rolled out a new Forest Garden training and online certification program funded by a small grant from the USAID-funded TOPS program. TREES developed training materials and promoted the Forest Garden Approach through USAID's partner network. TREES also worked with Humentum to establish an online certification module for development practitioners. TREES plans to use a portion of the CSV Prize to spread Forest Gardens to other organizations through scholarships, targeted outreach, and in-person training.

How will you leverage an investment from Nestle to expand the impact of your work?

Our impact will expand as we spread Forest Gardens to new communities by: 1. Adding new Forest Garden Projects to our portfolio in the places where we work 2. Training other organizations in how to integrate Forest Gardens into their projects in the places where they work TREES plans to leverage CSV funds to expand our presence into two countries where we have been in conversations with local partners—Malawi and Guinea (Conakry). TREES will research how to strengthen the sustainability component (Year 4) of our Forest Garden Approach. And, TREES will leverage marketing approaches to build awareness of and deepen interest in our newly developed training and online certification program among others in our field of work.

Spread Strategies: Moving forward, what are the main strategies for scaling impact? What’s the projected impact for the coming years? Are you planning to expand your programme into new locations? On what assumptions do you build your scale-up plans?

The two most promising approaches that TREES plans to use to scale the impact of the Forest Garden Approach are (1) supporting Forest Garden project participants in sharing their knowledge with other farmers and (2) training other organizations in integrating Forest Gardens into their projects. The dozens of lead farmers that we recruit from each project already actively share their knowledge with new farmers and show them how their own Forest Gardens work. Many participants have reported farmers coming from many villages away to learn about how Forest Gardens work. As more farmers graduate from Forest Garden Projects, we are eager to better understand how we can support graduates in knowledge dissemination. TREES’ new Forest Garden training and online certification offer other organizations an opportunity to learn about and integrate Forest Gardens into their projects. This presents us with an opportunity to spread Forest Gardens into new countries and regions through partners.

Team: What is the current composition of your team (types of roles, number of full-time vs. part-time staff, board members, etc.)? How will this team evolve as your initiative grows?

TREES has 13 full-time US-based staff and 1 full-time program staff based in Kenya. In addition, TREES has 5 full-time country coordinators in each of the 5 countries where we work. The coordinators oversee each program and a total of 25 part-time staff who work as technicians on projects. The country-level staff completes technical training, supports monitoring and evaluation and works with farmer stakeholders to design their gardens. TREES' Director of Programs has 25 years of experience leading development projects across the world. TREES has an 11 member Board of Directors and a 3-person technical advisory committee. Our HQ staff grows by 2 communications and development professionals per $600,000 of revenue. Our field staff grows by 2-4 field staff per new project implemented.

Awards: What awards or honors has the initiative received?

Commendation, National Arbor Day Foundation Earth Society Trusteeship Award GreenGlobe Award Winner US Commerce Association, Environmental Work Maryland Legislature, Service Commendation Bethesda Green Awards, Sustainability Recipient Guidestar Platinum Level Non-Profit Charity Navigator 4-Star Charity GlobalGiving Superstar Charity

Organizational leadership: How are you influencing your field of work in the present?

In 2017, TREES' Executive Director John Leary released a book titled “One Shot: How Trees are our Last Chance for Survival,” which outlines the global problems brought by deforestation and provides solutions on solving them through more sustainable farming practices. John's thought leadership has allowed him to speak at several conferences, including the 2016 Humentum Annual Conference and at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In 2018, John will develop TED talk on how to support sustainable farming across the globe through the Forest Garden Approach. Further, TREES' Forest Garden Training Center was just approved as a UN Institute on Training and Research (UNITAR) sponsored training to help all countries access this approach.

Should you be successful, please confirm your availability to attend the Ashoka Impact Boot camp and Creating Shared Value Prize Live Pitch Event at the World Water Forum 13-16 March 2018

  • Yes, I am available to attend the events on 13-16 March 2018

Evaluation results

3 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 66.7%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 33.3%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 0%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 0%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 0%

2. Innovation

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 0%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 100%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

3. Social and/or Environmental Impact

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 0%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 100%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

4. Financial sustainability

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 0%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 100%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 50%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 0%

5. Potential to Scale / Replicability

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 33.3%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 66.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

6. Organizational Leadership

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 33.3%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 66.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

7. Potential for Creating Shared Value

5 - Absolutely, 100%! - 33.3%

4 - I feel really good about this - very promising - 66.7%

3 - This has some good elements and some areas for development - 0%

2 - This doesn’t inspire me so much - 0%

1 - This entry is weak here - 0%

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Attachments (3)


In our most recent Impact Report, TREES highlights farmer stories and how the Forest Garden Approach is ending hunger and poverty for farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa. Through social investments, TREES helps farmers break the cycle of poverty and natural resource destruction. One participant farmer says, "I get more from my two acre Forest Garden than I could get from six acres of peanut crop. My children have a future now, and as I age trees will continue to feed my family."

Senegal Impact Data.pdf

We are currently working with 1,654 families, comprised of 12,069 people, across our 4 projects in Senegal. TREES technicians conduct a survey to measure the food security and economic resilience of participating families. This survey is comprised of 86 questions and conducted at the beginning of the project to establish a baseline and again every year afterwards at the same time each year. This allows TREES to better understand the impact its programs have on the people where we work.

2015 Impact Report.pdf

Our 2015 Impact Report which details our model and tells the stories of some of farmers whom we serve. Page 9 shows our 2015 global statistics for food security as well as economic and household resilience scores. The report also highlights some of our partnerships and discusses how we work with companies, donors and other organizations to achieve our goal of ending hunger and poverty.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Marco A. Blanco

Hi John,

Excellent work! In single project, you are contributing to rural development, environmental sustainability, while also addressing the skills gap in developing countries throughout Africa! Each step is clear and well-explained in your application, which reflects an organized, thoughtful, and innovative initiative that is committed to long-term development.

Just a few quick questions. 1) I was unable to see how man beneficiaries this project has impacted. How do you determine who the project benefits? 2) I also noticed that you are in several African countries. How do you selected your target beneficiaries? What are the criteria?

Overall, excellent application! Keep up the good work!

Photo of John Leary

Thank you for your comments and excellent questions, Marco. Our work currently benefits 21,138 people across the five countries where we work (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Senegal, and Cameroon). Those numbers are reflective of the size of the families for each of our Forest Garden program participants. There is generally one main farmer who is in the Forest Garden program, but the benefits cascade to the entire family, especially when considering food security and income gains over the course of a project.

We select participants who live along environmentally degraded trade corridors: those who have access to a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly market (markets are very important to sell crops!) within about a 5 kilometer radius of their villages but who live on degraded lands.

Throughout all of our projects, 30% of participants must be women, and we hold workshops at times that are convenient for them and allow them to bring their children. We make sure that we are eliciting their feedback about what times and places work best for them so that they can actively participate in every training and event. Currently, 44% of our farmer participants are women. Regarding this, each year when Forest Garden farmers begin their own on-farm planning processes, we make sure that they consult their spouses and children about their food, dietary, and income needs. This process helps make sure that all family members can gain benefits from the Forest Garden, which is especially important as women and men often have different needs or concerns in mind for the family regarding food/crop types and income-generating activities. For example, women in our Senegal program often desire to grow hibiscus because since women traditionally harvest and sell the crop, they are aware of how much cash the crop can bring in and what their time, labor, and resource considerations are for that crop. Through this process, we learn that each family member may have different considerations, and through discussion and planning with each of the family stakeholders, we help farmers plant what is best for their household and to sell in the local or regional market(s).

In addition, farmers must be able to supply their own land, labor, and water for each Forest Garden as their in-kind contribution to each project. We view this contribution as an important buy-in for farmers and it helps ensure the long-term sustainability of the project. Since farmers are gaining new skills and building their capacity around more technical, long-term farming practices, having an in-kind investment is crucial to the success of the program.

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