Turning Trees Into Sustainable Businesses

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Driving up from Entebbe, Uganda to Kyenjojo on my recent trip to Africa allowed me the time to look out the window and take in the landscape that Hemingway described as “The Pearl of Africa.” Rolling hills, Chaparral-like landscapes that you would see along the Mediterranean, and pops of beautiful colors in the limbs of the flowers and in the smiles of the people along the roadside when our eyes met. Something else caught my eye and craned my head skyward: the groves of trees sequestered in various patches everywhere the eye could see.

I asked our driver what kind of trees lived in this part of the country. His response made me do a double take. “Most of the trees that grow here are Eucalyptus.” Eucalyptus?! That’s a tree I only see in my shampoo ingredients or an occasional essential oil. I had never seen a Eucalyptus tree in the wild before. As I researched the tree, I found that it is an incredibly fast-growing tree, going from a small shrub to an adult tree in four to seven years. It’s a semi-hardwood that tends to grow straight and can grow pretty much anywhere in Uganda. I stored that away in the back of my mind, and continued my sightseeing from the pick-up truck that was carrying me to meet the men that would be training with us in the fall at Narrow Gate Exchange.

My next interaction with the Eucalyptus came soon after that beautiful drive. We had arrived at the vocational school our Narrow Gate Exchange students are attending, and on our way to see their sawmill set-up, I entered the forest of trees near the school – Eucalyptus trees. In that copse of sturdy trees sat an LT-15 Wood-Mizer sawmill prepped and ready to mill logs that would eventually be the inventory for a business that will change lives.

I asked Davis and Clovis, our Narrow Gate Exchange students, “These are Eucalyptus trees; is that what y’all are milling?” After a short conversation about what the word “y’all” meant, I found out that Eucalyptus was solely what they were felling and milling. And all of a sudden, a tree that I was just introduced to, was the cash crop that would build the foundation of a business.

I had never thought of a tree as a catalyst for a sustainable business in a developing country… But it was, and I could see the potential (literally) all around me.

The trees grow fast, which allow you to create relatively quick cycles of tree planting, tree growth, tree maturation, and then tree felling. With a four to seven-year turnaround, you can create a one to two-year pattern that will allow you to sustainably cut select trees every year that will fuel your business year-round.

Did you catch that essential word? Sustainability. It’s not just a buzz word around Narrow Gate Exchange. It is a core tenant of our business model. The idea is that you can run a business indefinitely based on your strategic plan of keeping your material viable and available. When discussing the lumber and furniture business, sustainability is the make-or-break decision that will determine the success of your business. A company in plastics doesn’t need to worry about their influx of material. Not so with the lumber and furniture industry. The moment you lose sight of your sustainability, you will find yourself wondering why your business is folding and wondering where your dreams of success all of a sudden went.

Sustainability is everything in this business, and that is the aim of Narrow Gate Exchange.

We aren’t just creating businesses with the hope to get a quick score and an easy dollar to exploit the vulnerable and weak. We are about raising up our brothers from all over the world, training them in indispensable skills, including the necessity of sustainability, so that they can, with support, start and continue sustainable businesses that will lift themselves and their communities out of poverty and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ at the same time. The business will be theirs, but they will have the support they need to bring sustainability to the table.

As I think on sustainability and the experience I had in Uganda, I still remember that car ride. The first thing that comes to mind are those Eucalyptus trees and the businesses that, God willing, He will create. But the next picture that comes into my mind are the faces that I saw along the way. With some I found smiles coming back as we saw each other, but with so many, I saw hopelessness, sadness, and deep pain. I saw the grips of poverty doing its nasty job in creating misery and a sense of powerlessness to change one’s own situation. I saw what dependence on foreign aid and the influx of help over decades has done to a vibrant country.

The beauty of the land in the “Pearl of Africa” juxtaposed with the poverty of situation defined for me the absolute need to move away from paternalistic thought, and move towards constructivist principles where neighbors come alongside their brothers and sisters, and through training and guidance, the platform can be set where creativity, ingenuity, and sustainability is generated from inside the community.

My dream is that one day I will be driving in a pickup truck looking over the landscape of the “Pearl of Africa,” on my way to visit some dear friends and brothers in Christ, to celebrate a business that has been sustained through ups and downs. In that dream, I am driving into a community that is thriving. And you know what? No one really even knows my name. Because it’s not about me, and never will be. God make it so!

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