When we think of African aid, images of handouts often come to mind. Maybe it’s the truck that rolls into the village, and grains are scooped out of huge bags into people’s bowls, or perhaps clothing and blankets are distributed or vaccinations given. One aid organization is helping in a different way: Organics 4 Orphans empowers communities by teaching them about organic gardening, nutrition and natural medicine. This unique paradigm uses farming, along with the healing and nutritional power of plants, and has the potential to truly change the lives of Africa’s orphans—and that’s just the beginning.
Sowing Seeds of Hope
Former pastors Dale and Linda Bolton founded Organics 4 Orphans after a 2004 trip to Malawi. “In Africa (even in cities), a person will probably be seriously sick with a tropical disease—cholera, typhus, pneumonia or dysentery—at least four times a year. We were shocked to see the number of people who would come down with something and in three days be dead,” Dale tells Calmful Living.
Sadly this leaves many children orphaned. There are fifty-five million orphans in Africa, many of whom live on the streets. Others find shelter in an orphanage. Wherever they end up, nearly all are severely undernourished.
“We came home from Malawi completely impacted by the direness of the situation,” recalls Linda. “The African people really love children. They’re willing to look after them if they can supply food for them. But if they can’t, the children end up in the streets. They have no place to go. We wondered what on earth we could do to help the kids, because we really didn’t have a lot of extra income to give away.”
At the same time, Linda’s younger sister discovered Natural Vitality’s Natural Calm magnesium supplement, which helped alleviate her severe migraine headaches. Linda started taking Natural Calm to improve her sleep, fibromyalgia and bone density. The Boltons began importing Natural Vitality wholesale products and distributing them initially to some family and friends. Then Linda, a former nurse, started going to retail health stores to encourage them to carry the products. The products sold so well that the Boltons were given exclusive distribution rights for Canada.
“As we built the business, my husband asked me, ‘If this turns into a profitable business, would you be willing to give all the profits after expenses to help the extreme poor?’ I totally agreed; so that’s what we decided to do,” says Linda. After a couple of years the Boltons stepped down from pastoring.
The Organics 4 Orphans Model
The Boltons saw that the typical aid model of raising funds to buy food for orphanages only seemed to make the problem worse. Orphanages learned to depend on those donations and had little means to actively support themselves. They wanted to do something different with Organics 4 Orphans—to build an aid model that empowered the communities to help themselves too.
Dale attended an African agricultural college, Manor House Agricultural Center, which provides hands-on training in sustainable organic farming. He discovered that even the poorest communities in Africa have the ability to grow some of the best immune-building foods in the world. “After thirty-five years of visiting developing countries like those in Africa, I believe that the best solution is to teach them to grow disease-fighting food,” says Dale. “It can be done for pennies a day per person.
“We saw that many agricultural aid projects might be great at growing food but didn't know much about using food to build immunity,” he remarks. Likewise, the Boltons observed that African herbalists knew a lot about herbs but much less about nutrition. “In Africa, the Western medical system won’t work. What do you do with a billion people? The answer is that medicine has to be put back in the hands of the people.”
Since 2004, Organics 4 Orphans has built staff in seven countries and trained African locals from fifteen different countries. Those who receive training through the program, in turn, go out and teach communities how to grow organic foods sustainably. Each year the Boltons spend two to four months in Africa, striving to meet the rising demands for their program. However, “We want Africans to run the programs as much as possible,” Dale asserts.
Growing Health Organically
If nutrient-rich foods could grow in even the poorest African soils, why weren’t communities growing them already? “Farming has a very poor image in Africa for a number of reasons,” says Dale, “one being that chemical agricultural products like fertilizers and pesticides are too expensive for the average person, so many small farms have failed.” People run their small farms into the ground, after which they head to the slums. “The urban slums are growing exponentially,” he laments.
“The lie everywhere in the world is that ‘cash is king.’ Everyone focuses on foods they can grow and sell. Corn is grown everywhere in Africa—it is practically currency,” Dale adds. “The African diet is mostly corn and ugali [corn mush],” which leaves them woefully short on nutrients for proper immunity and makes them vulnerable to diabetes, he explains.
“In the beginning, we felt that growing any kind of food would be better than what we saw fed to the kids,” Dale continues. “Then we discovered that foods can vary as much as fifty times in their ability to build immunity. Later we found that there were indigenous plants in Africa that had amazing medicinal properties, and so we added them—nature’s medicine.”
Now the Organics 4 Orphans training focuses on plant varieties (the “Fabulous 50”) that grow well in African conditions and have high-nutrient profiles. “We use a nutrient-density chart developed by Dr. Joel Fuhrman to identify the overall values of different foods. Health comes from a symphony of foods,” notes Dale. “The more variety, the better.”
The Organics 4 Orphans’ list stands in contrast to the grains and tubers, like potatoes, grown in most organic farming programs in Africa, which provide calories but limited disease-fighting nutrients. “We have turned our trainers on to what we call ‘green leaf nutrition,’ where at least a quarter of the diet consists of various green leaves that are eaten either raw, cooked, or dried into a powder that is added to food.”
The vitamin and mineral most notably lacking in the African diet are vitamin A and iron. Organics 4 Orphans addresses this deficiency through a variety of vegetables high in those two nutrients. “Green leaves are generally the best to build immune function,” Dale indicates. “Moringa is one of the highest-nutrient leafy plants and grows naturally in some of the poorest areas.” For example, if a woman loses a lot of blood when delivering a baby, it can take her weeks to recover. But if she eats moringa leaves for a few days, she will recover much more quickly, he says.
The economic impacts are significant too. “Recently a woman contacted us, looking for help to feed hundreds of unsupported kids [in Zambia]. It was costing five dollars a week per child to feed them enough calories to live. Their costs were growing every week as new kids arrived, and they couldn’t keep up. One of our trainers joined the project, and within a few months they cut the cost of feeding the children by 92 percent. Today, they support over two thousand kids.”
Organic Farming for African Land
At Manor House, Dale learned biointensive agricultural practices designed to improve soil fertility and sustainability in areas where resources are scarce. The Organics 4 Orphans program takes biointensive methods and applies them to nutrient-rich crops. “Aside from green leafy plants, we teach how to grow healthier root foods like beets and sweet potatoes. We have a climbing spinach that is amazing because it doesn’t take up any space and will grow vertically on walls.”
Many communities lack water. “There has been a lot of development in rainwater harvesting, but few of the poor have the money for gutters and rain barrels,” says Dale. Instead, Organics 4 Orphans teaches gardening in 20-foot-by-5-foot beds. The aim is to build up as much organic material as possible in the beds to improve water retention. “Organic material holds seven times its weight in water,” he points out.
It is even possible, once the program is up and running in an area, for the orphanage or community to make a profit from the crops they grow. “Further into the program, we really want them to develop some income from the organic farming that they’re doing. They can actually produce enough stuff to not only keep themselves healthy but also start selling it for other seeds and essentials.”
Expanding the Wellness Connection
Organics 4 Orphans’ goal is to be in over fifty countries in the next decade, with regional centers in East, South and West Africa, Asia and Central America, including nations affected by Ebola. “In developing regions of Africa, people aren’t yet convinced that food can be medicine,” Dale says. “Here in North America, documentaries like Forks Over Knives and Fed Up have created a significant awakening about how food is linked to health.”
Dale would like to see the same concepts applied to Africa in a documentary film, “Can Food Be Their Medicine?” “We need to bring awareness to the research that exists,” he advises. “Twenty-first-century nutrition and immunity can improve, even for those with diseases like HIV.”
This year, Organics 4 Orphans will begin to tackle another critical aspect of health: access to clean drinking water. “Of the seventeen thousand children who die every day in developing countries, thousands die from bad water,” Dale states. “We are working in an area of Kenya called West Pokot, where there are two hundred villages that have no source of clean water. Their average life expectancy is at least a decade less than the rest of the country.”
Drilling water wells isn’t possible for these communities, “but simple water filters can purify even ditch water.” Organics 4 Orphans has partnered with Natural Vitality to purchase water filters for close to a hundred villages. “It will take a few months to install them and train the villages how to use the filters,” predicts Dale, “but these filters will save hundreds of lives.”
“We’ve been working with Dale and Linda for many years, and it’s very gratifying to see the fruits of their heartfelt work. Natural Vitality has been involved in organic agriculture programs, under our Calm Earth Project, since 2007,” says Ken Whitman, president of Natural Vitality. “In 2014 we funded the purchase of water filters for nearly a hundred African villages, which will be installed by Organics 4 Orphans. We can’t think of a better initiative or better people to partner with.”
“Without the financial support from the sales of a great product, we would have never been able to do what we do in so many countries,” Dale affirms.
In the next five years, Organics 4 Orphans will have the ability to take the training program anywhere in the world. “By the end of 2015, our materials will be available virtually anywhere,” reports Dale. As the program expands to new countries and new continents, Dale and Linda say that they will stick to their bottom-up approach, building grassroots solutions. “What we do has to empower people.”
To support their empowering programs, Organics 4 Orphans relies on profits from Natural Calm Canada as well as donations from individuals. To make a donation or learn more about Organics 4 Orphans, visit www.organics4orphans.org.