Interview

Experience spanning continents: Phosiso Sola joins CIFOR to lead programs in east and southern Africa

From tea production to fending off lions, and everything in between.
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Africa - BOGOR, Indonesia (15 August, 2012)_While Phosiso Sola was working in Zambia, her car broke down in Kafue national park, so she and her colleagues had to walk 58km to safety on foot, lighting occasional bonfires on the road to ward off animals, but eventually a pack of lions trailed behind them.

These days, 43-year-old Sola’s dedication to her work brings her to Nairobi, fusing her experiences – from the forests and farms of Zambia and Zimbabwe to doctoral studies in Wales and refugee camps in Bangladesh and Rwanda – to coordinate CIFOR’s work across eastern and southern Africa.

She joins CIFOR after more almost two decades of experience in the field, including 14 years of project management and action research. Recently she designed, supervised and implemented research on plant pesticides in sub-Saharan Africa, and also studied forest law enforcement, governance and trade in the Southern Africa Development Community.

Impact of conflict

Early in her career, for her first research project funded by the International Institute of Sustainable Development, she investigated how people adapted and coped with the changing environment to sustain their livelihoods. The densely populated communities she visited in remote Zimbabwe were highly dependent on the forests.

“Some of these communities had been on the frontline repeatedly that people had to move away from home and live in camps. I started to understand socio-economic and political questions, which affected the way people coped and adapted to the changing environment.”

Her most challenging project was environmental management in refugee camps, where deforestation, water contamination and encroachment on local communities were rampant. In Chad, she was working in a refugee camp constructed on highly fragile Sahelian ecosystems, causing massive erosion. In Bangladesh, a protected state forest was decimated by refugees collecting firewood – destroying a catchment and resulting in reduced storage capacity of the water reservoir.

Some of these communities had been on the frontline repeatedly…I started to understand socio-economic and political questions, which affected the way people coped and adapted to the changing environment.

Sola assisted the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and its partners to recommend ways to avoid damaging the ecosystem, but with high staff turnover, execution was a challenge.

“Each time I went to a site, I had to start afresh,” she said. “In some camps, there is no trace that I’ve ever been there.”

Strengthening livelihoods

Sola’s passion and specialty has been helping people to build sustainable livelihoods through commercialization of forest products.

Her favorite project was with the Southern Alliance for Indigenous Resources (SAFIRE) in Zimbabwe, helping to improve the production, quality control and marketing of makoni tea, harvested from a forest shrub that sprouts annually. Beginning research in 1999, she surveyed how much makoni tea was available in the forest and the general growth patterns that influenced harvesting. Together with the SAFIRE project team, she assisted the community in ensuring the quality was up to par, and by 2003, the tea was in the international markets.

“Value addition at the local level – either local or country level, and fair trade – that’s what we need to facilitate.”

Leading CIFOR’s ranks

Sola first came in contact with CIFOR in 1998, when she did some work with Bruce Campbell, who was head of the Institute of Environmental Studies and also linked to CIFOR where she provided a background paper for the Mabalauta working group. The short case study, based on her master’s degree work, was a livelihood assessment in an area of Zimbabwe where the population was extremely marginalised and very few children made it to high school.

In this study she learned that the community depended heavily on palm trees – to make baskets, mats, doors and roofing. They ate the palm’s fruit and made wine from its young stems. She assessed how they managed the palm trees, and then analysed how much the baskets were worth at different stages of production and marketing.

Through a small grant from CIFOR, she did an in-depth socio-economic analysis on palm baskets, which was published in 2004 by CIFOR as part of the book, “Riches of the Forest: For health, life and spirit in Africa.”  This was further taken up in her PhD studies which focused on the assessments of impacts of commercialisation of non timber forest products on ecosystem health and human well being

Her passion for the forests and its people is based on an appreciation of biodiversity – a seed planted from her childhood that has flourished through her years in the field.

“Even before I understood community ecology, I was always fascinated by the interconnectedness and interdependence between trees, animals, soil, grasses and the people. The loss of forests reduces ecosystem products and services and ultimately destroys people’s livelihoods.”

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