Joining Forces To Empower Women in Senegal

Local girls enjoy clean water from a rehabilitated well in Senegal. Photo Credit: CREATE! (@createsenegal)

Where are the effects of climate change felt the strongest?

West Africa shoulders some of the heaviest impacts created by climate change, particularly in communities where families live off the land. Many communities in Sub-Saharan Africa have laid claim to lush, verdant farmlands for hundreds or thousands of years—but today, those families find themselves fighting against the very land they’ve called home for generations.

Between desert encroachment, deforestation, and the effects of a rising global temperature, rural populations in Senegal experience some of the worst effects of climate change. Farming families struggle to cope with a shorter growing season, while communities across the continent suffer from a shortage of clean water, food, and fuel.

Traditional relief methods, like medical intervention and food drives, have alleviated some of the pressure in the area. However, these methods tend to treat a symptom rather than the issue as a whole.

What if there was a way to bolster Senegalese communities, empowering women and families to use sustainable, reliable, renewable technology to transform their lives?

Enter CREATE! and the Vibrant Village Foundation (VVF), two organizations working to give Senegalese communities the resources and opportunities necessary to fight back against climate change.

The Center for Renewable Energy and Appropriate Technology for the Environment (CREATE!) is an NGO focused on collaborative, sustainable approaches to bolstering rural communities by combating climate change.

Funded by a network of business executives, foundations, and non-governmental organizations, CREATE! uses collective giving to make a massive impact on rural communities. The organization’s program in Senegal is the brainchild of founder Barry Wheeler, COO Louise Ruhr, and Ibrahima Kebe, CREATE!’s first Country Director in Senegal.

In the early 2000s, Wheeler met with Ron Taylor, then-CEO of the construction company SpawGlass, to present his ideas for CREATE! and identify the funding necessary to make the organization a reality. Intrigued by the challenge and Wheeler’s business model, Taylor traveled to Rwanda, where Wheeler and Ruhr worked in refugee camps, and then to Senegal, where he and Kebe identified potential villages where the CREATE! program could start. 

Now, CREATE! had a mission, a location, and a plan of action. All that was left was the funding to get the organization off the ground.

Wheeler and Taylor then collaborated to launch a collective giving challenge that would form the base of funding for CREATE!’s Senegal programs. The goal was to raise $250,000—and between funding from SpawGlass, funding matches from Taylor, and and additional resources from Wheeler, Ruhr, and Bud and Mimi Frankel, the team met its intial goal. By 2012, CREATE!’s first programs flourished in five Senegalese villages.

In 2012, CREATE! board member Dr. Susan Briggs invited Mary Kay Miller to visit these first villages. Miller’s experiences in Senegal would lead to her decision to join CREATE!’s board later in the year.

“I was so impressed by the successes the communities were experiencing in rehabilitating wells and using that abundant water supply to establish and cultivate community gardens,” Miller remembers. “Those gardens then provided the communities with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and nuts that could first improve food security and then provide income.”

Two years later, CREATE! amplified its Senegal programs through a partnership with the Vibrant Village Foundation (VVF).

“In 2014, [VVF] released a call for proposal, seeking organizations working to address basic needs around the world,” says Marieme Daff, Senior Program Officer with VVF. “CREATE! was selected because of its holistic, women-focused program, which addresses food insecurity and poverty in Senegal. Since CREATE!’s HQ office is based in Oregon, we were able to meet with their leadership in person and learn more about the model. These in-person interactions made a significant difference in deepening our understanding of CREATE!’s work and convinced us of their genuine commitment to support women in rural Senegal.”

“The fact that they were based in Oregon gave us a chance to meet with their founders Barry and Louise face-to-face, which was, frankly, a big advantage,” adds Koch. “There is nothing like hearing the founding story to get a real sense for the commitment and values of an organization. We were very intrigued by their program model and impressed by the passion of their U.S.-based team…and the rest is history.”

Founded in 2005 by Ken deLaski (then-CEO of Deltek), VVF seeks to help communities in poverty in non-traditional ways.

deLaski and his daughter traveled to poverty-struck villages around the world to see how and where their work could make the most impact. On one visit to Haiti, deLaski was struck by the ineffectiveness of the symptomatic approach many organizations took to poverty relief. While the work these NGOs did on the ground was critical and lifesaving, he noted most of these efforts acted as more of “a band aid” to temporarily treat a symptom, rather than a cure for a much larger problem.

“This type of traditional aid serves a very important purpose,” deLaski says, “but I decided that our work should start from the bottom up to focus on projects and solutions that foster stronger, more vibrant communities—in turn helping families to have healthier, more productive lives.”

This is exactly what VVF has set out to do.

In supporting CREATE!’s efforts in Senegal, VVF helps rural communities find ways to build, bolster, and protect their local economies and environments for generations to come.

“One of the most important things we can do as funders is to create space for local leaders to emerge and lead,” says Laura Koch, Executive Director of the Vibrant Village Fund. “Most of the time this means being really honest with ourselves about the value-add we bring and knowing when to step back.”

“Organizations like VVF and CREATE can have the best impact by supporting local communities to manage development initiatives on their own,” explains Marieme Daff, VVF’s Senior Program Director. “I see our role as facilitating a process and providing resources to build the capacity of local leaders who can more sustainably and fairly carry out local efforts.”

Instead of relying on intervention-based charity methods, CREATE! puts the power of philanthropy directly in the hands of the community. Sustainable technology projects help community members restore and protect the natural areas around them.

For example, deforestation is a major issue Senegalese communities face today. Climate change leads to expanding desert borders and lessened rainfall. In turn, this leads to smaller grounds for natural-growing trees. Deforestation contributes to this negative impact, but Senegalese families still need to chop wood for cooking and constructing homes and community buildings.

The first instinct for “traditional” relief efforts may be to bring in wood from areas of the world where usable wood is more abundant. CREATE!’s method, on the other hand, is to introduce sustainable technology and farming methods that nourish the land in renewable ways. For example, CREATE! helps communities in Senegal develop tree planting systems in conjunction with community gardens, solar-powered development projects, and training programs that put an emphasis on renewable farming, cooking, and development techniques.

Senegalese families cultivate a community garden with sustainable, renewable practices. Photo Credit: CREATE! (@createsenegal)

“We have been very impressed with the work CREATE and other groups are doing to support women improve their livelihoods in Senegal,” says Daff. “These programs not only work to improve the well-being of women and families through increased income and food security, but they also allow women to become more empowered in their homes and communities. Thanks to these types of programs, women are able to send their daughters to school, support their families and play a more important role in their communities.”

“When I visited the CREATE team in Senegal in 2015, we had many discussions about gender dynamics and how they played out in the garden program,” Koch continues. “It was a great learning moment to appreciate that funding programs for women does not resolve issues of gender inequality. If gender is not explicitly addressed and integrated into the program methodology, then women may still face discrimination and unequal access to resources and agency within her home or community.”

The impact of this empowerment can be seen in all aspects of the community. Many of CREATE!’s programs are designed to benefit women and girls, but the Senegalese communities have embraced the programs with open arms.

Daff saw the biggest example of this in a visit to one of CREATE!’s programs, where she met with men from one community where a women’s group had been established.

“The men spoke with pride and gratitude of the work their wives, sisters and daughters achieved through the program,” she remembers. “This signified true success to me: a women-focused program fully embraced by men, who genuinely believed in the power of women. Both men and women talked about how their relationship had improved as a result of women’s participation in the program.”

The partnership between CREATE! and Vibrant Village Foundation shows the impressive impact philanthropic organizations can have when they work together. CREATE! and VVF began when business executives realized their funding could play a massive role in improving the lives of people around the world. Together, the two organizations create an impact on a much larger scale than either could facilitate alone.

Programs like the Senegal initiatives embody the loftiest goals of female-focused philanthropy. By empowering women, girls, and families, communities find real, actionable ways to improve their environments, economies, and agricultural techniques.

Together, we can continue growing toward a bright and sustainable future.

For more information on CREATE!, visit their website at

For more information about the Vibrant Village Foundation, visit their website at

To see more examples of foundation partnerships creating greater social change, read about the first fund dedicated to creating culture change surrounding LGBTQIA+ issues, or the impact giving circles and networks can have through collective philanthropy.


Philanthropy Women covers funding for gender equity in all sectors of society. We want to significantly shift public discourse, particularly in philanthropy, toward increased action for gender equality. You can support our work and access unlimited and premium content with one of our subscriptions.

Author: Maggie May

Maggie May is a small business owner, author, and story-centric content strategist. A Maryland transplant by way of Florida, DC, Ireland, Philadelphia, and -- most recently -- Salt Lake City, she has a passion for finding stories and telling them the way they're meant to be told.

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