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Inspiring stories of people making a difference

San Francisco Man Poised To Expand Decade-Long Effort To Help World's Poorest

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Growing up on the Peninsula, Tevis Howard was something of a science whiz kid, poised to take the biotech world by story. Then he saw something in Kenya that changed his life.

    It was, without a doubt, the most memorable hamburger Tevis Howard has ever eaten. 

    "A definable moment? Yes, it was," says Tevis.

    This "moment", it should be noted, had much more to do with the setting than the meal. It was a decade ago and Tevis, then in his early 20's, was in the Kenyan seaside resort town of Kilifi, 300 miles southeast of the capital, Nairobi.

    What he saw that day launched him on a ten-year-long journey to help some of the poorest people in the world make a better living and help slow an on-going environmental disaster on the east coast of Africa. It's an effort Tevis now wants to expand on a grand scale.

    But at the time, he was just enjoying a hamburger and a couple of gin and tonics.

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    "It was a beautiful Saturday and I was having lunch at the Kilifi boatyard," Tevis recalls. 

    Tevis had been doing scientific research into malaria in Kenya for the previous few years during breaks from his studies at Brown University. He had grown up as something of a science whiz-kid on the Peninsula and was on a path to take the bio-tech world by storm with a particular interest in brain-computer interfaces.

    "That was my path, my passion," Tevis laughs,"bringing Google and Wikipedia into your head."

    But his time in Africa, witnessing its poverty first-hand, had begun to change Tevis.

    So, during that lunch, when Tevis watched a woman walk by with her three children carrying firewood on their heads, something clicked. "Here I am, enjoying my meal and fifteen feet away are people who have to gather firewood everyday to survive. It's such an economic injustice."

    Tevis decided to do something about it, but what? Being the good student he had always been, Tevis began to study poverty and what might be done to fight it.

    "I drew up a dozen different business plans, and then rejected 11 of them," Tevis says.

    The one that remained? Trees.

    Trees, it turns out, are in great demand across Africa and are being cut down at a staggering rate. "In Africa, two California's worth of trees will be cut down over the next two years."

    So Tevis started a non-profit, Komaza (Swahili for "to make mature"), that helps small farmers plant trees.

    The benefits, Tevis says, are multi-fold. The trees are the perfect crop for the arid-land farmers of east Africa, among the poorest people in the world. The trees, more resistant to drought than other crops, offer the farmers a good, stable source of income.

    The trees, in turn, stabilize and enrich the fragile east African soil.

     "(Since starting) we've planted over 1.5 million trees with nearly 6,000 farmers," Tevis says.

    But even after all his success, Tevis sees a much greater future for Komaza. "We're trying to grow to 20,000 farmers by 2020."

    Which is why, for ten days this August, Tevis has been at Santa Clara University participating in the school's Global Social Benefit Institute.

    Tevis, working with mentors and, he hopes, gaining more investors, is looking to expand Komaza, no long a non-profit, but now a for-profit "Flexible Benefit Corporation."

    The idea is that a profitable company with a good business plan can grow much more quickly and do much more good than one that relies strictly on the generosity of donations.

    Now that the some of the first trees Komaza planted years ago are ready to harvest, it's the perfect time, Tevis believes, to jump into the for-profit world.

    Tevis' projections have farmers, and Komaza, earning hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few decades. His dream is for Komaza to one day be the largest lumber producer in all of eastern Africa.

    "The scale of environmental need, the scale of poverty is massive," says Tevis. "Helping a thousand poor families is great, but helping a million would be a thousand times better."