(Left to right) Author Baptiste Paul, environmental leader Tantoh Nforba and author Miranda Paul visited NWTC to talk about how low-cost, grassroots community projects are transforming people’s lives in Africa.
When Tantoh Nforba, also known as “Farmer” Tantoh, left his central Africa home to begin studying agriculture in places like northeast Wisconsin, his neighbors thought he was crazy. Now his knowledge is helping create jobs and save lives.
Nforba, who graduated from NWTC in 2011 with a certificate in organic agriculture and landscape horticulture, has since garnered international praise for helping poor communities improve local agriculture and build wells in Africa.
“It was so amazing, because I got to learn about the sustainable agriculture in the Midwest and visit a lot of small farmers, visit the farmers market and learn about how the organic movement is growing,” he said before his lecture in the College’s Student Center. “And horticulture—to see how the industry is advancing in the Midwest, that gave me perspective on how I could grow my movement in Cameroon.”
He said his time at NWTC helped him learn how to use the environment to “re-green” his native country of Cameroon and provide clean drinking water to around 50,000 people.
Nforba is known for traveling from tiny villages to cities in Cameroon, organizing communities to plant sustainable gardens and build wells— tactics meant to replace the traditional ways of managing waste and land that have become both obsolete and unhealthy as Cameroon’s population has surged. The new gardens provide food and stabilize the soil under homes, which keeps the buildings from collapsing. In addition, the wells replace tainted water sources that have historically caused illness and even death.
Nforba himself contracted typhoid fever after drinking tainted water. The disease halted his first attempt at attending college and caused him to shift the goal of the Save Your Future Association—an organization he founded in 2005. Initially, SYFA was created to plant trees, flowers and lawns to protect Africa’s environment and create jobs. The organization now focuses on managing healthy watersheds and forests.
“We have our own indigenous ways of agriculture, but here [in Wisconsin] we have advanced in agriculture,” Nforba said. “I was trying to see how I could bring them together, to find things that I can introduce at home.”
He found several—including irrigation techniques that could allow for more growing during Cameroon’s dry season, as well as new kinds of business practices in horticulture.
“People at home think planting flowers is a concept of the West. But growing trees, flowers, plants, it will create employment,” he said. “Young people are growing things [to sell] and now they get income.”
Nforba recently returned to NWTC with Wisconsin-based authors Baptiste and Miranda Paul. They spoke to students and staff about Nforbas’s adventures including a new children’s book the writers coauthored about his life, I Am Farmer: Creating an Environmental Movement in Cameroon.
Baptiste and Miranda first heard Nforba speak at a preschool eight years ago and were struck by the idea of writing his story.
Miranda said she was particularly captivated by Nforba’s drive to gather ranchers in the village of Fulani to build a clean well.
“One grandfather had endured death after death among his children and grandchildren from waterborne diseases,” she said. “Now, their public tap is still flowing, year-round, with really clean water. Since the new well, not one child has gotten sick or died from waterborne illness. Tantoh is going where no one else goes. There is no group of people too small to help out.”
Baptiste said the way village locals help with Nforba’s projects shows the strength and hope in humanity.
“This is really grassroots,” Baptiste said. “Every single person contributed work on this. Every little child who can carry a rock helped.”
That sense of community and working toward a common good is ingrained in Nforba. Growing up in one of Cameroon’s small villages, he, too, worked outside and carried water great distances. Planting gardens with his grandmother is what truly sparked his passion for the environment, though. As a teenager, he started looking for ways of growing crops with limited resources that would not harm the environment. One of his earliest gardens was planted in an unused corner of a gas station parking lot.
“You have to start small,” he said. “I planted my first garden in 1996 when I was a teenager. I got seeds from other parts of Cameroon. I was experimenting with garlics and raising some animals, like bunnies, so I could collect their poop, because I didn’t want to use chemical fertilizer.”
No matter how well he contained costs or created food in unexpected places, his neighbors would not join him.
“In Cameroon, farming is for poor people,” he said. “I was always alone in the field. I realized that to grow this movement, the best to focus on are the children. If you train them, they will not depart from it.”
More about Nforba
Nforba came to NWTC through the U.S. State Department‘s Community College Initiative Program, which brings students from around the world to U.S. colleges for one year.
“I told them I was interested in sustainable agriculture and landscaping,” he said. “They looked in the U.S., and NWTC was the only college that could offer sustainable agriculture and horticulture at the same time.”
As his success grew, he started receiving invitations to study water and land management and bring his knowledge back to Cameroon.
In 2011, Nforba won the African Achievers Award for Best Grassroots Environmentalist in Africa. He also received the International Green Apple Award for Environmental Best Practice and Sustainable Development. In 2012, he was named an Ashoka fellow.
Nforba’s success had led to him connecting with prominent figures and organizations like Charles, Prince of Wales, and the World Wildlife Fund.
Among his many great accomplishments, Norba may be the first NWTC graduate whose story has inspired a children’s book.
“This man does so much for his people, we were just blown away,” Baptiste said. “Recently he shared with us he’s involved with helping people build bridges to save kids’ lives. His deep devotion to his people and to humanity is just phenomenal."