Katrin Rohde has created a farm school that offers uneducated rural boys more attractive options and wages in their own villages by giving them the opportunity to receive an education and suitable professional training that will transform agriculture and raising livestock into more efficient, profitable, and dignified trades.
The New Idea
Katrin is combating rural exodus, and more specifically, the “streetboy” phenomenon, by creating a viable alternative to city life in rural communities. She realized that to get young boys truly excited about staying in their rural communities, it is crucial to provide a real and empowering economic opportunity for them to plug into during their teenage years. To achieve this, Katrin has created the Tond Tenga Center, a boarding school where the most vulnerable boys—orphans and sons from poor families—from rural areas are trained for two years in new farming techniques. Each detail of this initiative (i) serves to reinforce the sense that economic opportunity is real and (ii) a strong sense of empowerment during each step of the process.
In terms of empowerment, Katrin has created a unique selection process that involves the entire community, and thus, elevates the status of the opportunity. When chosen after long deliberation by a group of elders, parents, and peers, the boys often feel more pride in their own self-worth and see themselves as valuable in the eyes of their community, often for the first time in their lives. The very fact that the school is a boarding school, located near the capital, and made up boys from various villages around the country, also adds to the prestige of the opportunity, as they feel they have been selected to do something truly important. Katrin nurtures this new self-confidence during boarding school with courses and conversations that push the boys to explore who they are as individuals, and ultimately, how to work together.
Equally key in Katrin’s initiative is to create real economic opportunity. To accomplish this, elders sign a contract committing them to provide land to their program graduates so they may practice what they learned during home visits, and eventually launch their own agribusiness after graduation. Katrin also provides an education that is comprehensive (discussing all aspects of the value chain) and intensely practical with two years in classroom and two years in the field; provision of production materials; and development of wells). Even the choice to focus on organic production in particular is rooted in the real markets and the possibility for income generation attached to this growing industry. Katrin chooses villages carefully, paying close attention to their ready access to transportation along major roads to the capital and access to water. So in essence, long before anyone gets on a bus, she has pre-negotiated the village transformation process.
Young people are fleeing to cities in ever increasing numbers, leaving an aging population to tend to the land. Not only does this reduce the number of able bodies available to grow food, but these same young people often find themselves populating the slums of urban centers. These youth, between the ages of 13 and 18, with little to no education, without any professional qualifications, must fend for themselves surrender to in their quest for survival, committing criminal acts for which they are punished or simply left to becoming delinquents, commonly referred to as “children of the street.”
The cause of this rural exodus is grounded in several issues. Already an environmentally challenging place to farm due to austere climate conditions, the Sahel is starting to feel the effects of the use of chemical fertilizers and other taxing agricultural techniques—like monocropping—that have exhausted the land, such that farmers often struggle to grow enough food to feed their families or generate enough surplus to sell for income. Young people also struggle to get access to land in the first place, and fundamentally, they lack training to understand how to transform the current status quo of agriculture to one that is efficient, modern, and profitable. In these conditions, young people do not want to invest their energy into an activity they consider too difficult, “backwards” compared to images of city life, and simply not rewarding. Orphaned boys and those from especially impoverished families who cannot afford to pay school fees are the most susceptible to having the combination of these factors push them toward the cities, where they struggle to gain footing, and may slip into the life of children of the street.
To establish a selection process that successfully targets, recruits, and retains the most vulnerable youth, Katrin begins by entering various villages, explaining the opportunity, and then gathering representatives from across the village to offer names of boys that would best match the opportunity. The proposed candidates then fill out a written application and Katrin’s team begins to get to know each boy until they have settled on the ten (e.g. ten from ten villages for a total of 100) who will join her program. While the selection process probes for issues like the level of interest the boys have in staying in the village, previous experience with cultivating the land, work ethic, and general motivation (in an attempt to find the most entrepreneurial boys), Katrin also prioritizes the selection of boys who come from particularly challenging situations, in danger of becoming streetboys because they have nothing else to do.
The participation of a varied group of people, including the chief constable, elders, teachers, parents, and young people in this process, elevates the status of this opportunity during the selection process, and ensures community buy-in. This is crucial for establishing continued support once the boys graduate from school and return to the rural areas to implement their newly acquired skills full-time.
With community buy-in secured, as well as the boys’ participation and excitement, Katrin focuses on delivering a real economic opportunity to the boys, the foundation of which is the provision of an education that is comprehensive and intensely practical. Starting with two years at the boarding school, the boys learn new skills across the entire value chain. They learn methods of organic agricultural, silvicultural, and pastoral production.
Much of this information comes from Tond Tenga’s partnerships with universities in Burkina Faso, Spain, and Germany, who are increasingly focusing on organic tropical agriculture. But Katrin also seeks out relevant, though quickly disappearing knowledge of organic production from over sixty indigenous groups spread across Burkina. In various courses, the boys strategize around effective methods of distribution and marketing surplus goods because, as Katrin says, “it serves no purpose to have a producer increase his production above that of his own consumption without teaching him what he must do to sell the excess production in a profitable manner.”
Once they graduate, each group of boys returns to their respective village to carry out a two-year apprenticeship on the land that was bequeathed by the village elders at the time of their selection to the program. They are visited by various Tond Tenga staff who continue their education by ensuring that they gain access to all of the necessary components to put what they learned into practice as they begin their group micro-business. These trainers work with the boys on everything from acquiring production materials like seeds, animals, carts, and machetes, to installing necessary infrastructure, such as wells.
Critically, practical education actually begins from the first year of boarding school, as Katrin’s team instructs the boys to lay mustard seeds on the given land to help rehabilitate the soil. Then, during the first school holiday, the boys start to dig compost holes in their villages, asking their families to bring in dung and ashes and to work it into their ground. This is done so that when they begin to farm full-time, the soil will be properly rehabilitated and nourished, allowing them to be immediately successful when they start growing vegetable gardens.
The very fact that Katrin has decided to focus on organic farming is also related to the need to establish a real economic opportunity for the boys. Not only does organic farming present an opportunity to farm sustainably—not sacrificing the future for today—but it also has a real market available, and growing. The boys sell in town to those well-off and conscious that many farmers use, without measuring, masses of (e.g. in Europe long-forbidden) insecticides. These consumers are eager to purchase organic products. In the next two years, Katrin hopes to open two shops and an organic restaurant in the capital. Additionally, the produce is actually priced competitively against normal produce so ordinary consumers may also purchase it.
Launched in 2005 with the financial support of the Dr. Elvire Engel Foundation (and later support from Soroptimist and the Luxemburg government), the Tond Tenga Center has seen its first class of one hundred boys complete the two-year classroom training and two-year apprenticeship. The center estimates that the project has thus far affected as many as 240,000 inhabitants in the eight villages where the boys originate. Much of this impact has come from the outpouring of neighbors who visit the boys’ farm and ask to be taught the new techniques when they see how the boys are able to produce a lot more, and without the expensive input of chemical fertilizers on the same land. They have begun working together to, for example, send all of their vegetables in one car to town and then divide the costs; or, buy their seeds together to get a better price.
Currently, there is a national radio show that popularizes Katrin’s program and the organic production methods of work which can be used by everyone.
Katrin has now set her sights on creating a similar school for young girls who have left school. She is also looking to create a third school that charges admission to subsidize the cost of running the boys’ and girls’ schools at no charge. Once these initiatives are rooted, Katrin plans to travel throughout Africa sharing her model, which demonstrates that with training, anyone can grow rich from their own land. She firmly believes that similar farm schools can be created around all big cities in Africa to reduce the proportion of young people leaving their rural homes.
Katrin, a well-established manager of two bookshops in Germany, had always been cognizant of how difficult loneliness and cold weather is to tolerate in Europe, especially for foreigners. For this reason, she became a member of an organization that regularly visited the sick and those who lived in refugee camps. During one such visit to a psychiatric facility, Katrin met a person from Burkina Faso who was convinced that if only he could have his medication from home, he would be cured. It was at this moment that Katrin made her first trip to Africa. Despite words of advice from everyone around her not to go, Katrin got on a plane. Shortly thereafter, she fell ill by the borders of Burkina and Mali, where a Burkinese officer took care of her in what she recalls as “very extraordinary.”
After her recovery, Katrin continued the trip, retrieved the traditional medicine of the psychiatric patient, and returned to Germany. Without ever mentioning that it was she who had gotten the medication for the patient, she continued her daily activities with the organization.
The idea to travel again to Burkina was constantly on her mind, as she felt distinctly moved by the “wonderful, hospitable, welcoming, charitable people, who, despite their difficulties, always wore a smile on their faces and exhibited a great zest for life.”
Katrin had also made a promise to the custom’s officer to raise funds to build a school in his village. After accomplishing this task in 1992, Katrin realized she could be quite successful at fundraising to support needed initiatives for those in difficult situations, especially vulnerable children. With this realization, she decided to sell everything she owned in Germany, including her bookstores, her house, and all of the furniture to move to Burkina Faso in 1993.
Immediately shocked by the phenomenon of children living on the streets, Katrin rented a house where she lived with eighteen street children. Understanding this was not enough, she founded Managré Nooma Association for the Protection of Orphans in 1996; which has gone on to see the successful building of two orphanages, a hospital, a center for the physically handicapped, a center that serves women, especially those living with HIV/AIDS, and two houses for young mothers that are victims of family rejection.
Despite achieving gains in tackling issues for these various vulnerable groups, Katrin could not stop thinking about the issue of street children. After over a decade of interacting closely with the street children in Burkina’s capital, Katrin realized that any real solution to this problem would have to focus on working with them while they were still in their villages. Thus, Tond Tenga was born.