Protecting Nature's Hotspots for people and prosperity

Leveraging Small Grants for Big Impact

​In 2002, Sierra Leone was known more for its “blood diamonds” than its biodiversity. Yet, even as this West African nation emerged from years of bitter civil war, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) moved to preserve another of its natural resources, biodiversity, by supporting a group of organizations at work there. 

One of them is the Environmental Foundation for Africa (EFA). In 2001, EFA was “running on a very shoestring budget,” with fewer than 10 paid staff members and a motley crew of volunteers when CEPF awarded a five-year, $295,487 grant, said EFA’s founding director Tommy Garnett, who had fled to Liberia during the war. CEPF’s investment in EFA—which added up to $850,000 in six grants over a decade—was aimed at restoring the once-teeming forests of Tiwai Island on the Moa River in southeastern Sierra Leone, creating a national culture of conservation, and strengthening EFA as a regional conservation leader. 

At the outset, the island’s rundown conservation center bore witness to a decade of neglect, and the woods around it stood eerily silent. “When we walked around the island, it was almostan empty forest,” said Garnett, with no sign of the striking red colobus and Diana monkeys, two of nine species of primates on what he dubs “the island of the apes.” With the help of CEPF, the conservation center reopened in 2006. Meanwhile, EFA grew into a much more sophisticated operation—with more staff, more programs, more donors, and more impact on Tiwai Island and throughout the Guinean Forests of West Africa biodiversity hotspot.

A winning strategy

The EFA story represents more than one successful civil society organization (CSO). It also spotlights the strategy that sets CEPF apart from other global funders: harnessing the power of civil society to protect biodiversity. The tools that make this strategy work are small grants that match the existing capacity of CSOs on the ground.

CEPF believes CSOs play a key role in the “ecology” of conservation. They work on the ground, where governments might not have the resources to focus. CSOs bring better conservation practices to local communities and can share that experience with government agencies. What’s more, CSOs have the capacity, flexibility and willingness to take risks that can lead to innovation, often by involving nontraditional players, including those in the private sector. 

Perhaps most important, CSOs can drive changes in social attitudes and behaviors toward natural resources while identifying opportunities to promote sustainable livelihoods. This results in conservation of unique biodiversity that benefits people. That’s why CEPF believes saving biodiversity around the globe requires strengthening the local groups that can make it happen, one hotspot at a time. Besides awarding grants to CSOs, CEPF mentors them on how to win legitimacy; influence national conservation; and build local, regional and national networks to collectively address conservation challenges. This strategy of technical assistance and manageable grants for underfunded CSOs can reap enormous results, as seen in the rainforests of Sierra Leone.

A vision realized

In the case of EFA, a relatively modest investment of $85,000 per year has paid big dividends for biodiversity. 

Today on Tiwai, monkeys bound among the treetops and a sharp-eyed visitor might spot the elusive local pygmy hippopotamus, endemic to West Africa. “We still have the occasional hunter arrested, but the species have bounced back,” said Garnett of the island’s wildlife. It is a crucial piece in the puzzle of primate protection. Five of the hotspot’s primate species are Critically Endangered, 21 are Endangered, and 92 percent are endemic.

Protecting Tiwai’s species takes a village. In recent years, consolidation grants from CEPF have helped EFA scale up to a staff of 21, win some $150,000 in in-kind services, and help mainland residents benefit from conservation activities on Tiwai Island. The preserve now offers a tent camp for visitors, guided river tours by canoe or motorboat, and more than 50 kilometers of forest trails. 

Area residents not only guide visitors, but also receive training from EFA in such sustainable enterprises as weaving, tie-dying, bamboo crafts and furniture making. Meanwhile, memorandums of understanding signed with local communities have cut the risk of monkey hunting and other threats to species on Tiwai, which has won a listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In 2014, EFA is set to open a Biodiversity and Renewable Energy Learning Centre in a forest preserve near Sierra Leone’s capital. As what Garnett calls “the face of Tiwai in the city,” the new center will be, he hopes, “a place where people fall in love with nature” and then work to protect it across the country.

Looking back on EFA’s growth, Garnett reflects that it might have been easier for CEPF to take a chance on a larger organization, but the support made all the difference. “For us, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that African organizations have the capacity to deliver, given the right kind of partnership arrangements,” Garnett said.

Once a small player on the conservation scene, EFA is poised to make a big impact in West Africa, thanks to CEPF and what is now a host of other funders. Nationally, EFA founded and chairs the Environmental Forum for Action, a network of 14 “green actors” across Sierra Leone that was launched a decade ago with a small grant from CEPF. 

And on a broader scale, the EFA story shows the cumulative power of small grants in the right places to secure the future of biodiversity. Like micro-loans for low-income entrepreneurs, CEPF’s strategic use of modest grants to CSOs that can make a huge impact in their home countries is literally changing the landscape.