Adam Tuller

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2003
This description of Adam Tuller's work was prepared when Adam Tuller was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2003 .


Starting in Kenya, Adam Tuller aims to meet the growing demand for fuel that has led to deforestation, through an ambitious tree planting enterprise that draws on the strengths and contributions of science, the citizen sector, and business.

The New Idea

In the last 80 years, 70 percent of Kenya's forests have been cut, with most felled trees now processed to form charcoal, a cooking-fuel staple. Reducing charcoal dependency by introducing other energy sources like gas and kerosene is cost prohibitive for most people. However, as Adam has demonstrated, it is possible to take significant pressure off existing woodlands by planting trees for use as fuel. His solution makes use of technical innovations to accelerate tree production, existing citizen networks to guide adoption of new planting techniques, and commercial forestry to generate enough capital to drive the enterprise on a large scale. Halting deforestation by increasing the fuel supply is Adam's main aim, yet he is simultaneously pursuing goals of environmental conservation and wealth generation. In cooperation with Kenya Wildlife Services, he has begun his work in the Aberdare region of central Kenya, the main water catchment area for 20 million people. He aims to scale up quickly, introducing his plan throughout East Africa in the next five years.

The Problem

The escalating rate of deforestation is closely linked to the region's growing population and its demand for fuel. Kenyans alone burn an estimated 2.3 million tons of charcoal per year that is derived from approximately 600 million trees. Today, roughly 90 percent of the trees that are cut are used for fuel. The deforestation has devastating consequences: once land is cleared, cattle move into the denuded areas, trampling the earth and compounding erosion, soil nutrient depletion, and habitat and biodiversity loss. This process also threatens drinking and irrigation supplies and leads to desertification.

Kenya is not alone; indeed much of the African continent is charcoal-dependent and faces similar biodiversity threats. In Tanzania, roughly 70 percent of felled trees are used for fuel; in Uganda, it is close to 100 percent. As the population swells and natural resources diminish, the situation comes into clear focus: scarce resources will compound existing poverty and fuel conflict as people struggle to secure land, water, and fuel. Some citizen groups have introduced tree planting campaigns that promote responsible use of resources and foster stewardship of the land. Unfortunately, such efforts have failed both to produce the benefits of conservation and income generation and to harness technical innovations that are appropriately fitted to the climate, the people, and the size of the problem. While existing efforts contribute to a solution, they do not effectively address the scale of the problem. As Kenyans welcome a new government, fresh, bold ideas that draw on the resources and best practices of science, citizen groups, and business are urgently needed.

The Strategy

Adam's plan is to make his enterprise self-sustainable and scalable by first producing the right kind of tree quickly and inexpensively, placing the saplings into the hands of existing citizen networks to help cultivate their growth, and then working with government and business to drive a commercial forestry operation.

A self-taught scientist, Adam has intimate knowledge about trees and tree production. His 10 years of research in advanced agroforestry for conservation have taught him that identifying the right type of tree for production and its means of production are critical first steps. Bearing in mind previous disasters, Adam has selected a few species of leguminous trees that grow rapidly, regenerate, and produce charcoal that burns efficiently.

While critically important, producing trees quickly and inexpensively solves nothing in and of itself. Placing the saplings in reach of villagers is a crucial step. In rural areas, Adam works with existing citizen networks and development groups to introduce free saplings and advises villagers on planting techniques. Neighbors with adjoining properties are encouraged to plant trees in blocks that cluster along property lines, allowing several families (four is ideal) to share the low-cost infrastructure that supports growth–a 44-gallon drum that feeds into a pipe, irrigating the 400-tree plot. Replanting is unnecessary for approximately 90 years, and maintenance of the system requires little money or time. In less than three years from the time of planting, villagers will have trees for fuel and trees to spare.

To address the urban charcoal need, Adam plans to set up commercial forestry plantations and is negotiating with the Kenyan government to secure some of the many bankrupt, barren ranches located throughout the country. The plantations will generate forestry jobs for villagers and provide a training facility for the citizen groups that assist the rural enterprise. Within three years, they will help to finance the whole enterprise and enable it to go to scale quickly and be able to sustain itself in the long term. Profits from the sale of plantation-grown trees will flow into the Africa Conservation Trust, the nonprofit organization Adam established in 2001 to drive the conservation effort forward.

Adam sees that he must also mobilize funds from businesses through appropriately synergistic relationships. To do this, he has begun a corporate social responsibility program, which he hopes will fund as much as 40 percent of the needs of the trust within five years. He encourages corporate contributions and enlists sponsors as partners in the trust's mission of long-term sustainability.

In cooperation with the Kenya Wildlife Service, Adam has begun planting trees in the Aberdare Mountain range, the water catchment area for Nairobi and surrounding towns. The first plantation is a 500,000-tree nursery, and the Wildlife Service is in negotiations to expand to 20 more national parks. Adam aims to move the project into every province in Kenya as quickly as resources and capacity will allow. He has also begun conversations with potential partners in Tanzania and Uganda.

Adam is the chairman and chief executive officer of the Africa Conservation Trust which is incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the U.S. and seeking charitable registration in the U.K. as well.

The Person

Adam is a third-generation Kenyan, his family having emigrated from the U.K. in 1876. He spent much of his childhood in the outdoors and developed, early on, a passion for and knowledge of the natural world. High grasslands, virgin forests, coral reefs–they were equally fascinating to him.

Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963 ushered in a time of political uncertainty in the country, causing Adam's family to send him to England for his primary school education. Eleven years later, when his education abroad was no longer affordable, Adam returned home to a country very different from the one he remembered: mass tourism had arrived, and with it, large seaside developments and polluting cars and boats.

Adam applied to the University of Nairobi to continue his study of science. But, in the dawn of "Africanization" (a movement in the 1960s to return control of the continent to black Africans) the admissions staff denied him entry on the grounds that he was not a "true"–meaning black–African. In what would become a pattern of self-education, Adam taught himself to fly, getting first a private, then a commercial, license. At 19, he ran the flight school. From the cockpit, he gained a new perspective on the demographic and environmental changes happening in East Africa. He saw that large land tracts, once wooded, had been cleared; along the coast, the reef's colors had begun to pale. He began to look for solutions to the looming environmental crisis.

Aquaculture was a new science at the time, and Adam saw in it great promise as a tool for sustainable marine conservation. He pored over the latest research, experimented with relevant techniques, worked with fishermen, and identified the perfect location to begin a pilot project. But this was an era of unprecedented corruption in Kenya, and the government unlawfully revoked the allocation it had twice granted, causing Adam to push the case to the courts, where it remains today, 11 years later.

During these years, he sustained his family by starting up and running several businesses, overseeing at one point a staff of 600. He completed a master's degree in business administration and consulted for several organizations and businesses. Sustainable conservation was his passion, though, and starting in 1995, he researched extensively the country's fuel needs. He was devastated to discover the scope of the problem, and he began to see dryland applications for the fast-growth techniques he had earlier applied to mangrove trees.