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Green Spark: Promoting Sustainability in Malawi By Planting Moringa Trees

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Angel Eduardo

Susanne Friedrich, founder of Green Spark holding up a phone with the Idealist logo on it.

Long before launching an initiative to plant 4,000 moringa trees in Malawi, Susanne Friedrich’s life was very different. On paper, she should have been content. She had a stable job as an industrial engineer and project manager for aircraft development in her home country of Germany, but something just wasn’t right. “I worked a lot because I was not happy,” she remembers. “I worked for 3 projects: one in the north of Germany, two in the south, so I traveled a lot.” The grind was meant to keep Susanne busy, to help her avoid that feeling bubbling up inside of her. But it persisted, and the moment she stopped to take a breather, it became impossible to ignore. “I went to a festival with friends, and when I had to get back to work, I couldn’t.” In that moment, Susanne had hit a wall and realized she couldn’t carry on as she was. “I was like, ‘Woah, what’s going on?’ It wasn’t a physical thing. It was that, mentally, I was blocked. And that’s when my life changed. I turned it upside down.”

“I quit my job and I spent half a year just looking at the world around me, trying to see the bigger picture,” Susanne recalls. “I spent quite a while to actually find a place to volunteer with. It was challenging, because all these ‘voluntourism’ opportunities come up, where you pay thousands of dollars for just one or two weeks of volunteering, [and] where the money doesn’t actually end up with the project.” Susanne eventually joined with Greenpop, an organization dedicated to planting trees and promoting sustainable urban greening and forest restoration. “It was a really great time,” Susanne says. “Very motivational and inspiring. And I really admired the founders of that organization. I was like, ‘Wow, how did they come up with that idea, and how did they come that far?’”

“I quit my job and I spent half a year just looking at the world around me, trying to see the bigger picture.”

Susanne later spent three months volunteering in Malawi, where the first flickers of her future endeavors began to show. “I really lived in the community, a rural town,” Susanne remembers. “The government had a project where they got funding from the U.N. to involve the youth in tree planting, but they just came and just planted some trees. They did not tell [the people in the village] how to actually propagate their own seedlings.” Susanne knew there was a better way, but she still couldn’t quite see it. She returned to Germany to save up money and began looking for partnerships. Then, she got a phone call from Alex Ndipo.

Alex, a Malawian native and community activist, had met Susanne during her time volunteering in Malawi. “He is very into growing the community, improving the community, and sparking change,” Susanne says. “Alex called me and said, ‘Weren’t you telling me something about tree planting in the past?’ [He told] me about this village head man’s interest in tree planting, and so I told him about my idea and my approach.”

Together, Susanne and Alex began formulating a plan for how to improve the lives of Malawans using sustainable methods, beginning with tree planting. The result was Green Spark, an initiative designed with sustainability in mind, combining green trends from industrialized countries with African wisdom and tradition to create environmentally healthy and economically productive lives for all people. “I want to start small initiatives and projects to showcase what is possible and sustainable,” Susanne says, “green ways of doing things, really by living in a community.”

Susanne Friedrich, founder of Green Spark, and partner Alex Ndipo in a field.
Alex Ndipo and Susanne Friedrich, A/K/A Mr. & Mrs Green Spark, planting seeds.

Susanne knew that one major avenue toward her goal with Green Spark is through planting trees. “The African continent is swamped with genetically modified seeds,” she explains, “and so-called ‘development help,’ where they say, ‘Oh, here, we’ll give you seeds for free,’ when there’s a big famine or disaster happening. Then it turns out that you can’t use the seeds that come out of those plants to grow new plants next year. You have to save money to buy new seeds [by selling] some of your harvest, which comes from a garden designed to feed only your own family.” Among other long-term goals, Susanne wants to use Green Spark to counteract this trend and give more control back to these farmers. “I have a lot of ideas for projects,” she says, “but for now we want to focus on strengthening the community through promoting moringa.”

Moringa, or Moringa Oleifera, are Himalayan tree crops that can thrive in a wide variety of soils and weather conditions, making them very easy to cultivate. Nearly every part of the moringa can be eaten, and its leaves, seeds, and pods also have myriad medicinal applications, making the moringa an extremely valuable commodity in developing areas. By helping Malawians plant and grow moringa, Susanne hopes to reintroduce agricultural autonomy to these rural communities. “What many projects do is they just set up a farm and then grow the moringa and sell it to the community,” she says. “That’s not what I want to do. We will really involve a lot of people, because I think they have to see it themselves, grow it themselves, and profit themselves. That’s empowerment, and that’s what we’re going to do: to plant moringa with the families, at the families’ houses, to teach them how to use the moringa.”

Malawian children planting trees, a shot of lake Malawi, and Green Spark volunteers planting together.
Left: Kids having fun saving seeds of the ringworm bush. Green Spark involves all ages and all genders. Center: Center of Nkhata Bay, directly located at the second biggest lake of the African continent named Lake Malawi. Right: Green Spark volunteer Susan Chitia with her son planting their first tree together.

Though Green Spark is still in its nascent stages, Susanne and Alex are aiming to start very big, and very strong. “Our pilot will be with one community, consisting of 15 villages and roughly 1,700 families,” she explains of her upcoming mass-planting project, set to take place in December 2019. “We said, ‘Ok, let’s equip them with at least two trees each,’ but some have already asked, ‘Oh, what if we want to plant more?’ because they have heard already from other sources about the benefits of moringa.” Green Spark plans to guide villagers through every step of the cultivation process, and has been organizing for months to make sure it all goes off without a hitch. “We will set up nurseries in each village, and from each village we have four ambassadors that are volunteering. We will train them on how to set up the nursery, how to grow the seeds, how to harvest the moringa, how to process them, so that we then hopefully will have at least 4,000 seedlings ready for planting in December.”

It’s an ambitious project, and Susanne has had to return to her job as an industrial engineer in Germany in order to fund it. However, the stress that had once paralyzed her is gone. For Susanne, the difference is that her work has a larger purpose, and through Green Spark, she can see the bigger picture. And now that she has committed, she is going all the way. “I try to not just do something by half,” she says. “I’m a 100% person, which is sometimes quite challenging for myself and for the people I work with, but I try to do my best and inspire others. That’s why I called it Green Spark: really to spark ideas and, hopefully, initiate change.”

An illustration of a yellow line with a star at the end.
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Angel Eduardo

Angel uses his skills as a storyteller to support and inspire job seekers and aspiring social-impact professionals.