#LeadYoung - Sarah Toumi: planting trees to curb desertification in rural communities across Tunisia

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Growing up, Sarah Toumi, a French-born Tunisian woman, would spend time with her extended family in Tunisia.  During one visit, she remembers sharing with her cousins her dream of becoming an astronaut when she finished school.  She then asked them about their dreams.
Her three cousins, all girls, said that they were dropping out of school because there was no bus to take them. The high  school was 12 km away and it was too dangerous to go by foot. Sarah remembers thinking, “How is that possible?  I can become what I want because the school is close by and everything is open in front of me.”  There had to be a way to get a bus for them. So Sarah enlisted her father’s support and set up her first organization to help children in her family’s village and beyond have access to learning opportunities in and outside of school. She was 11 years old. 
Now at 29, Sarah is leading Acacias for All, a movement to curb desertification in rural communities across Tunisia. She introduces alternative crops, like Acacia trees, which help farmers increase their income while restoring the quality of their soils. Sarah’s initial program in Bir Salah with 300 farmers and rural craftswomen demonstrated an average 60% increase in income.  She is now expanding the work to half of Tunisia’s provinces with 100,000 trees planted.  Sarah’s aim is to change the way farmers and policy leaders alike approach climate change mitigation from a low-priority, costly endeavor to the core strategy for improving rural livelihoods.
What made it possible for Sarah to do this? Sarah’s early changemaking experience was critical to where she is today.  “When you start early, you learn how to work with others and solve problems. . . I didn’t know I was a ‘changemaker’, but I was sure I was going to be an actor of change.”  From an early age, Sarah’s parents involved her in their own purpose-driven work.  “It was normal for us to take time for others,” Sarah remembers.  “We didn’t always understand everything but we had exposure.” Her teachers also gave her the space to be creative and curious, encouraging her to do extra-curricular research projects on topics she was interested in  and present them back to the class.
Within 4 years of starting her organization, Bir Salah had a bus to take kids to school and seven years after that, they had their own high school.  Today, all of Sarah’s younger cousins are in school including several who attend universities. Sarah has taken one cousin in particular under her wing, involving him in meeting with rural communities and accompanying her when she speaks at youth forums.  According to Sarah, it is critical to give young people today the kind of exposure and support that her parents and teachers gave to her. “For those who think that their children will become successful if they simply become a doctor or lawyer, they are wrong. Their children will be completely out of the game.”

Sarah sees the world her young cousins are growing up in as unstable and frightening at times with extremism, terrorism and climate change.  “But young people have the ability to dream without constraints.  They are connected, have access to information, can travel and talk to people who are different, and talk across continents. What they need is support from my generation and older to gain the skills and motivation to believe in themselves, do things and try.” 

This article was originally published on 21 May 2017
Related TopicsChildren & Youth, Girls’ development, Youth development, Early childhood development, Youth leadership, Environment & Sustainability, Agriculture, Ecology, Environment


Claire directs Global Venture and Fellowship, Ashoka’s core program to identify and support leading social entrepreneurs. Claire initially joined Ashoka in 1998 as the Latin America program officer, evolving to take on new leadership roles as Brazil Venture Coordinator, interim Brazil Director and Youth Venture Brazil pilot leader. During her hiatus from Ashoka, Claire led a UNICEF initiative resulting in the first inter-agency programming guidelines for adolescent girls and served as Country Director for Mozambique of Oikos-Cooperation and Development between 2006-2009, launching innovative programs at the intersection of livelihoods (agriculture and fisheries), HIV prevention/mitigation and disaster risk reduction.

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For as long as she could remember, Ara Kusuma had always loved  cows. She collected cow stuffed animals and painted her room the white-black pattern of cow hide. At age 10 she wanted a real cow and the journey began. Ara and her family traveled to a privately-owned farm in Solo, Central Java. There she saw 1,500 cows living in a clean environment. The farm owners were using integrated farming methods and nothing was wasted—everything from the milk to the urine was processed. She was amazed. Shortly after, Ara's family took her to villages in Boyolali, an area known for its milk production. There she witnessed the sickening smell of cow dung and flies swarming everywhere. Each farmer typically has three to ten cows, and one village may have around 500 farmers. The total number of cows could reach up to 5,000. The conditions of the sheds piled with cow dung made her ask, “What if we bring integrated farming to this village?” She began to build her dream, Project Moo. She worked with the community of Sukorejo Village, with the tagline “mulya sesarengan” (for the welfare of all). She finally got her own cow to serve as a sample for integrated farming management. Building such a dream was not easy for a 10-year-old, but not impossible, especially with the support of her family. Ara, now age 20 reflected, “I really like the fact that my parents were willing to listen and appreciated their children’s opinions and ideas. They responded to my idea with seriousness and then they helped me think through an action plan.” Ara's first team consisted of her family members. Her father was tasked with learning about integrated farming in a one-week training program conducted by the private farm they had visited in Solo earlier. He then shared the knowledge with village farmers. Her mother, Ashoka Fellow Septi Peni, had the role of assisting farmer’s wives with processing the milk into dairy products. Her older sister Enes, who is an Ashoka Youth Venturer, and younger brother Elan, were tasked with a village education project for the children. Ara described her own role as an integrator, who made sure that the team, villagers, cow owners, experts, customers, and village administration were all aligned. Ara introduced “Project Moo” as an effort to optimize what she described as the six golds of cow. First, the white gold (milk), not only as raw milk, but also as pudding, cake, ice cream, and other dairy products. Second, the red gold (meat), which was not the focus due to the fact that are only dealing with dairy cows. Third and fourth, the black gold (cow dung) and yellow gold (cow urine) was treated separately to produce solid and liquid fertilizer. Fifth, green gold: greening the village to create agro-tourism. The village was later turned into “Moo’s Camp,” a gathering site where urban families can experience village life in a farmer’s home. The sixth gold, biogas, has not yet been introduced due to technical issues. In  2008, this project introduced Ara to Ashoka Youth Venture at the age of 11. Ara says she learned a significant amount about the hardships and challenges from the villagers and the unrealized potential in the village. She also learned that change didn't happen until every villager bought in to the idea and started their own initiative. “The villagers, for example, excitedly decorated their home, realizing how a minor improvement could bring visitors and generate income,” she recalled. This experience led Ara to pursue a degree in marketing and management in Singapore. Later, back in Indonesia, Ara has repurposed her experience into a new venture, a travel-learning project URTravelearner (www.urtravelearner.com). Her early experience creating change gave her the confidence to know she could do it again and lead change. Ara said, “From 'Project Moo' I found my passion for being an integrator, aligning everyone’s interest for the benefit of all.” Ara’s travel-learning experience also allowed her to get involved with Spedagi Bamboo Bike, a village revitalization movement. Bamboo, abundantly available and often overlooked, is a symbol of how resources are often overlooked and taken for granted by villagers. With a bit of design, bamboo bikes aim to transform poor villages into self-sufficient communities. “Despite doing different things, I realize that basically I’m following the same process: how to communicate and encourage others, to understand the situation, to find solutions together, and to aim for the greater good," she said. "In principle, how to overcome challenges by developing local potential. And that’s what a changemaker does.”
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Alongside being the CEO of his own company and sitting on several advisory boards, Param still finds time to mentor, educate, and inspire young changemakers to follow their dreams by connecting a passion with a problem, and being resilient in their changemaker pursuits. “I want them to realize that they are not alone” and that “if you want to do something different, you have to have grit because you are going against the grain.” To learn more about Param’s work and journey, write to him here. Ways to engage further: Read more about Param’s journey. Param, in his own words, shares with Youth Venture how he overcame fear and doubt to unleash his inner changemaker to the world Share your #LeadYoung changemaker story with Ashoka’s Youth Venture, and we may publish it!  Engage with Ashoka’s Youth Venture team and #LeadYoung to explore ways for you, your school, or company to integrate changemaker skills and culture into your community! 

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