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Branding What They Sow: Roots of Peace Organization Aims to Cultivate a Better World

April 28, 2014
by Glen Martin

The impact of 9-11 hit Marin resident and Cal alumna Heidi Kuhn hard—but while her initial reaction was widely shared, her subsequent response was exceptional.

Four years earlier she and her husband, Gary, also a UC Berkeley graduate, had founded Roots of Peace, an organization that combines land mine removal with sustainable agriculture. After the Twin Towers fell, the couple decided to focus their attention and much of their resources on Afghanistan and Iraq. Farming, they felt, might help slow the rush to war—or at least mitigate some of the damage.

Farming and mine removal may sound like a strange conjunction, but there is an elegant logic involved. Fertile farmland is a favored site for minefields. Denying the means of food production strengthens an attacker’s control over the bodies, hearts, and minds of an enemy—or merely suspect—population. But mine removal has the opposite effect: The land is again cultivated, diets and economies improve, and goodwill is engendered.

Roots of Peace has established projects in Vietnam, Iraq, Bosnia Herzegovina, and all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In Afghanistan alone, it has secured USAID contracts worth $100 million, and reclaimed thousands of acres of fertile land from the bane of land mines. It has put displaced farmers back to work, and given them hope as well as livelihoods.

 Of all the projects, the Kuhns are particularly pleased with the Shomali Plains initiative north of Kabul.

 “It’s an excellent viticultural area about the size of Sonoma and Napa Counties combined,” says Kuhn. “And before the war, it was a major source of high-quality table grapes and raisins. They were prized throughout Afghanistan, and they were an important export crop.”

Then the Taliban invaded the plains, burned down the vines, and mined the erstwhile vineyards. The local farmers, says Kuhn, were devastated emotionally as well as economically. “It was wrenching for them to see their life’s work destroyed like that,” she says. “They loved their land, and they took great pride in their work and their grapes.”

In 2003, Roots of Peace launched a major rehabilitation project on the plains. It removed mines from thousands of acres, and sponsored ambitious replanting, overcoming the occasional obstacle.

 “We introduced trellised viticulture, which is far more productive than the traditional method of untrellised, head-pruned vines,” says Kuhn. “But when we went back the spring following replanting, we found that all the wooden stakes that had held up the trellises had disappeared. The farmers burned them because the winter had been exceptionally cold and they didn’t have any firewood.”

Roots of Peace got around that problem by using concrete trellis supports. Today, the Shomali Plains are once again producing large crops of grapes and local incomes have risen dramatically. Exports now stand at about 90,000 metric tons of grapes annually, and are shipped to India, Pakistan, Dubai, Ukraine and Russia. The group also is helping farmers grow commercial crops of almonds, cherries and pomegranates in other parts of Afghanistan.

 “When we started, the land was absolutely desolate,” Kuhn says. “Seeing it today, green and productive, brings tears to my eyes.”

Kuhn has an abiding faith in agriculture as a bridge to peace, in that farming remains the economic bulwark for most of the developing world. “In Afghanistan, it’s 80 percent of the economy,” she says, “so help with agriculture is something everyone understands and appreciates. It gives you a common language, common goals.”

Still, Afghanistan being Afghanistan, it’s not all beer and skittles—or grapes and almonds. On March 28, a squad of Taliban fighters stormed the Kabul building complex that housed a Christian child care center and the Roots of Peace compound. A fierce firefight ensued between the attackers and Afghan security forces and guards hired by Roots of Peace. After more than four hours of gunplay, the insurgents were all killed, some by hostile fire, others by suicide bombs. Two Afghan civilians passing by the compound, a young female medical student and a father of three, were killed by one of the suicide bombs. Several westerners staying at the Roots of Peace compound emerged from the battle unscathed.

“We received a call (in Marin) at 5:30 in the morning saying that our compound was under attack,” Kuhn recalls. “For the next several hours, we monitored the battle from our living room. It was horrible, we felt so powerless, so afraid for the people there. And when we heard about the two civilians killed, it just sickened us.”

 So has that given her any qualms about maintaining her work in Afghanistan?

“No,” she insists. “We made a conscious decision to go, and we can’t bolt just because it’s dangerous. The guards who protect our compound could’ve run away, and they didn’t. The Afghans have to live with that danger every day, and we won’t abandon them or our work. Turning swords into plowshares is never easy.”

That’s not to say Roots of Peace couldn’t use a helping hand. Money is a perennial problem. The Afghan program alone accounts for 350 local employees, who in turn train 50,000 farmers. Some advice on messaging, marketing and fund-raising was much-needed, acknowledges Kuhn—so she was gratified when the Haas School of Business presented an opportunity.

“It was a wonderful coincidence,” she says. “My son Tucker and I were taking a course at Haas on leadership and social sector solutions from Nora Silver, the director of the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership. One thing led to another, and Nora helped get us support from Haas’ Social Sectors Solutions class to develop a comprehensive communications and branding strategy.”

Jessica Clayton, a Berkeley graduate student in development practice and an intern at the university’s Center for Effective Global Action, leads the team that created the branding revamp.

“Roots of Peace was chosen over some other candidates because they’re very effective at what they do,” Clayton explains. “Heidi is a real visionary, she’s tireless, and people respond to her mission of supporting families and defining the economics of peace. Gary is a highly astute executive who has worked for IBM, Adobe and Autodesk.”

In other words, all the components were there; the Berkeley team just needed to burnish them a bit.

“We’re doing some obvious things, like updating their website—and more particularly, making it easier and quicker to donate online,” says Clayton. “You can find the donation page on their site, but we want it to be more obvious, and more compelling when you click on it. We’re also working on their social media strategy.”

And as they redefine the Roots of Peace brand, Clayton and her team are following an old journalistic edict: Show, don’t tell.

“There was a certain disconnect when it came to messaging,” Clayton says. “They were focusing on the number of success stories rather than the details of each story. But almost every story they told us is dramatic, heroic, even. So we’re working on getting those individual stories out, on focusing on the narratives of real people whose lives have been improved by Roots of Peace. The statistics on the sheer number of people they’ve helped is important, of course. But you connect with people on an emotional level when you share stories about other people. That’s when the real communication begins.”

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