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Field, fuel & forest: Fellows Friday with Sanga Moses


When former accountant Sanga Moses ran into his sister on a far-from-home road carrying firewood on what was supposed to be a school day, his life changed. He knew that Uganda’s rapidly disappearing forests had big implications for the environment, but he hadn’t recognized the day-to-day effect it was having on the lives of his family and village. Now, with his company Eco-fuel Africa, Moses helps farmers transform agricultural waste into cooking fuel, and also sponsors tree-planting projects. Here, he tells the TED Blog about fast-changing ecological conditions in Uganda, and how he hopes to help restore the country’s forests as quickly as possible.

You started out as an accountant, and now you are an environmental entrepreneur. What was the moment that changed the course of your life?

I used to work for one of the biggest banks here in Uganda, and that meant that I was away from my home village. One day, I decided to go check on my mother and little sister. This was a Wednesday — and I ran into my sister on her way carrying wood. She saw me and started crying. She said, “I’m supposed to be in school today. But mother told me to go out and get the wood, and I do this at least twice a week.”

Seeing her didn’t surprise me at first, because I also carried wood as a kid. At first I didn’t get what was wrong. [When she started crying], I thought that maybe my mother was sick or something terribly wrong had happened at home. I helped her put the wood down, and we sat for a few minutes and I asked her, “What is the problem? Why are you crying?” She told me, “It’s about the wood. I’m supposed to be in school today. [But] my mom told me to skip school to go out and get the wood. ” I told her I would talk to our mother, and bring her back to a school in the city where I worked so she wouldn’t have to fetch wood.

But when I spoke to my mother, she said, “No, you can’t do that. She’s the only girl I have, I’m an old woman, I can’t survive without her. If you take her, I’ll be dead.” I went back to the city, but this conversation haunted me. I couldn’t really live my life anymore. I was constantly thinking about my sister, at the verge of losing the only opportunity she had to a better life — that is, education. And as a child who grew up in a rural area, my own life was transformed by education.

I wasn’t sure what to do. All I knew was how to be an accountant and work in a financial institution. But one night, I asked myself, “If I don’t don’t do something, who will? I am just complaining about what I can’t do, and my sister can’t go to school because she has to fetch wood.”

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

The press machine forms briquettes of biochar fuel. Photo: Eco-fuel Africa

But wait, why had this become a problem when you’d fetched wood as a child yourself?

When I was growing up, we had a forest close by. It no longer exists now. I used to graze cows as a kid and we would graze in forests — have a lot of fun, play hide and seek. But kids these days don’t have that luxury. It’s all empty land — you can see virtually 50 kilometers away because it’s all empty.

The problem is that once people deplete the few forests remaining, they must venture further to find wood. At first, I thought I was just blowing my sister’s dilemma out of proportion, but it became clear that she is not alone. There are so many people — so many kids like her who can’t go to school because there are no trees left in the villages. At my office, where I had access to the internet, I did some research. I found that Uganda has already lost 70% of its forests. According to UN statistics, Uganda will have no forests left by the year 2052 if nothing is done to curb the current rate of deforestation. In a few years’ time, Uganda will have to import wood. But we’re talking about people who live on less than two dollars a day. If we imported wood, would they be able to afford it? And if they can’t afford cooking fuel, how will they survive?

So what you noticed was a connection between changes in the environment and a threat to your community’s way of life.

Yes. It’s actually about the entire ecosystem. When I was younger and we had forest, we were semi-nomads — a cattle-keeping community that traveled with cows. It was easy to take care of them, because seasons were stable, rains were predictable, we had water. In the last ten years, things have changed for the worse. Now droughts are becoming persistent. Actually, as I speak to you now, my family is relocating our cows to a distant area because there’s no water left in the village — also a problem of deforestation. Even in national parks, animals are dying, and the population of buffalo is getting lower, and people encroach looking for water. People are competing for the little that is remaining. And in mountainous areas where all the trees have been cut down, the hills are so dry they develop cracks. When it rains, landslides cover people’s houses and it floods — people are dying because of this. It’s not the world that I grew up in.

To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>