Norman Beaulieu has an innovative business approach to community development in Africa, regenerating degraded land and providing solutions to mitigate climate change.
Mesmerising childhood tales from a Mombasa-based aunt and a visit to South Africa’s Alexandra township two decades ago forged a passion for Africa in Norman Beaulieu, who now wants to change the fortunes of impoverished people living in rural communities across the continent.
Boston native Beaulieu is the founder of Village Corps, a community development business which aims to use bio-energy, agriculture and modern technology to help overcome poverty and mitigate climate change in some of the poorest parts of Africa.
Already underway in the Akyem Abuakwa Kingdom in the Eastern Region of Ghana, the project has potential across the continent with South Africa’s Rharhabe Kingdom in the Eastern Cape next in line through continued support from the Department of Trade and Industry.
“My aunt was a nun in Mombasa, Kenya, in the early 1960s and as I grew up, she shared all sorts of fascinating stories, many of them about the challenges communities face,” Beaulieu tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Later, I was at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and my resident advisor was South African. We became close friends and when I visited the country for the first time in 1997, we spent a day in Alexandra and I got to see where he grew up.
“I was struck by how my childhood stories of poverty became all too vivid before my eyes. Over 30 years after my aunt left Africa, it seemed like little had changed. I was devastated by the entrenched pattern of poverty, in all its many forms. So I became rather fixated on coming up with a solution to break that cycle.”
What Beaulieu witnessed were NGOs tirelessly implementing their individual solutions, such as drilling boreholes or providing mosquito nets, in as many communities as they could reach, all the while constantly trying to raise money.
Beaulieu, who previously founded Aedi Group, a sustainable project development company in the United States, relocated to Cape Town in 2016 with his wife Kristin and two children to implement Village Corps’ innovative business approach to community development.
“The Village Corps business model is in part similar to a property developer who secures both land and then an ‘anchor’ tenant to create, for instance, a shopping center. The anchor tenant pays annual rent as well as a revenue share to the developer,” he says.
“Similarly, Village Corps secures degraded land via long-term lease from poor communities, yet varies from the conventional model in that it develops the ‘anchor’ business itself through integrated bio-energy and agriculture projects, paying annual rent for land as well as an annual revenue share back to the communities to help address varied community-based needs more systemically.”
“This integrated development model uses an organic agro-ecological farming system to regenerate land that cannot be currently used thereby helping thousands of smallholder farmers establish a more stable and diverse income that collectively creates a more resilient local ecosystem.
“Once established, other businesses can co-locate adjacent to the bio-power facility not only as a source of baseload renewable energy, but also as a source of heat generated by making electricity, which can be used in a multitude of industrial processes.”
In Ghana, Village Corps, he says, is regenerating up to 26,000 acres of illegal mining land, called ‘Galamsey’ land, and approximately 100 kilometers of polluted rivers and streams in its first project.
“Illegal miners dug holes looking for gold, which filled with water and created stagnant pools, so the instances of malaria are extremely high,” Beaulieu reveals.
“The ruined lands had also collapsed riverbanks, polluting rivers and streams, which were sources of drinking water, so deaths from diarrhea and septicemia are also very high in this community.
“We regenerate the landscape and soil in part by planting perennial grasses like cow grass and bamboo to help re-establish riverbanks. The nutritious leaves from these grasses are used for animal feed and the remaining stalks are used to make electricity through steam combustion.”
Village Corps chairman, Kofi Appenteng, is also chairman of the Ford Foundation and the CEO of the Africa-America Institute in New York.
“The Village Corps model uses bio-power to create a more stable and diverse source of income for thousands of smallholder farmers all while delivering appropriate financial returns to funders,” Appenteng says.
“An organized network of farmers producing organic raw materials is compelling for other industries to co-locate within an industrial enclave that has renewable power and a source of heat from the power plant to make their products, this creates many more jobs and tax revenues for the government.
“Over the years of vetting so many approaches to development work, the Village Corps model is the best I have seen.”
Emliano Maletta, a Spanish-based agronomist who is an expert in bio-energy, is also excited about the possibilities across the continent and echoes the view of Appenteng.
“I think that Village Corps projects in Ghana may become an outstanding replicable model with great benefits in Africa and worldwide,” Maletta says. “In terms of regenerating degraded and abandoned lands, this new approach enhances resilient agriculture, agroforestry and perennial grasses which increase raw material productivity at the regional level.
“By combining new farming and agro-industries’ sectors, these bio-refinieries can produce and use local renewable energy sources. A synergy with new value chains including animal feed, food and cash crops, bio-fertilizers and many other bio-materials has the potential to replace fossil-based products that are being imported, enhancing a new local bio-economy with amazing social benefits.”
With the model in place that demonstrated a path to appropriate financial returns, Beaulieu attracted private investors and secured a grant from U.S. Trade and Development Agency through the U.S. Power Africa initiative to conduct the required feasibility studies.
In addition to delivering financial returns, the model has to deliver enduring impact dividends as well.
“Village Corps has inextricably linked their solutions to mitigating climate change directly with overcoming poverty,” according to Bill Reed, who is president of the United States-based Regenesis Group, experts at working with communities to implement sustainable development projects.
“The Village Corps platform is the broadest example of how it is possible to achieve multiple value-adding benefits and impact through a single investment effort. It creates renewable energy through the restoration of degraded land into healthy soil, diverse habitat, and natural water sources in a way that will allow much more productive farming, achieve local food security and a significant reduction in sources of disease.”
From childhood stories of the struggles of the poor in Africa to a business model for community development, Beaulieu has come a long way to realizing his vision of ‘overcoming poverty by cooling the planet’.
And as the program rolls out, he will have the firm backing of Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo.
“The Village Corps platform is being developed as a Presidential Special Initiative by President Nana Akufo-Addo as it aligns with the President’s vision of implementing an integrated rural development approach to creating agricultural jobs for youth, women and ex-miners,” Nana Bediatuo Asante, Executive Secretary to the President of Ghana, tells FORBES AFRICA.
“Regenerating the Galamsey lands and waterways into resilient and productive agricultural systems throughout Ghana will benefit communities for generations to come.”
– By Nick Said