Trees for Tole: How it all started

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Sigora CEO Andy Bindea explains how a chance encounter with a hitchhiker inspired Sigora to launch its ‘Trees for Tôle’ hurricane relief initiative.

This is Jean Baptiste. We gave him a lift about two weeks ago when we were in the southwest assessing the damage to the electrical grid following hurricane Matthew. His story stuck with us and frankly is what led to the scaling-up of our hurricane relief efforts.

Sigora’s JP and Jean-Baptiste


We were driving in the rain on a muddy road between Jeremie and Dame-Marie when we spotted this guy on the side of the road walking with a roll of rusty roofing material balanced on his head. We slowed down to let him jump in the back of the truck as is the norm in Haiti. Thirty minutes later he taps the roof of the truck and we stop so he can jump out. He comes to the window and starts rattling talking so fast in kreyol we couldn’t understand most of it. Between the torrential down poor, the rattling sound of the engine, and being so far behind schedule we just bolted as soon as he finished talking, thinking he was just haggling us for cash. Turns out that wasn’t the case.

Over the next 15 minutes we were able to finally piece together this guy’s story. Turns out his house had been washed-out by the massive flood following the hurricane. He was on his way back from town where he had just bought some old tôle (roofing tin) to piece together a bit of shelter on higher ground for his sick wife and two-month old daughter. With the last of his money he’d bought a tiny bag of charcoal. He hadn’t asked us for money, he had just wanted to thank us for the ride.

I felt guilty for assuming he was trying to haggle us. I got quiet for a while, and for those that know me, you know that is rare. I was thinking about this guy, his sick wife, his newborn, the house destroyed by the flood, the farm plot that was no more, and what kind of shelter he’d be able to piece together with that rusty roofing material. That, and the daily rain that just wouldn’t let up. More than anything I was thinking about what I would do if I were in his shoes. How I would feel if I had a sick wife and a newborn with no shelter. I felt angry. I felt hopeless. I felt desperate. I felt tired. I wanted to give up.

But as tired and desperate as this guy looked, he hadn’t given up. He had a family that depended on him and he was doing everything he could to take care of them.

It struck me how desperate the situation is for people like him and his wife, how few options they have, and the seriousness of the situation for those who had survived the hurricane but lost their homes and farms.

By this time we’ve been driving for 20 minutes and already behind schedule but we said “let’s mark it on the map and we’ll come back tomorrow and see if we can help this guy out somehow”. We didn’t know his name, and only knew the general area where we dropped him off but we didn’t think it would be hard to find a guy with a house taken by the river, a newborn and a sick wife — somebody must know him.

The next day after we got done with evaluations and meetings we decided to go look for the man in the red shirt, with the sick wife and a newborn and help him out.

I don’t believe in aid, it doesn’t work. So it couldn’t be a hand-out. Then why not a trade? We’ll propose to trade him roofing material for him planting some fast growing moringa trees in exchange. They’re good for the environment and that makes us happy, and our guy earns the roofing material instead of just receiving a hand-out. He can later sell the seeds to a moringa oil maker and make some cash. It also happens to be a super food.

So we bought 10 pieces of new roofing tôle (large 3 feet by 6 feet metal roofing tin sheets) and set out to find our guy and propose to him the exchange.

We looked everywhere for this guy. We asked everybody we found in the road. We had a whole search team. We sent people swimming over the river and climbing beyond hills looking for our guy. But every time we got a lead it turned out to be a different guy whose house was destroyed by the flood, whose wife is sick and has a newborn, one after the other, again and again. We were a bit shocked, but we kept looking. After half a day and having a we had to call it quits and return to Port-Au-Price. Shockingly we didn’t find our guy with the red shirt, but in the process of looking for him we made a lot of friends that were in the same situation. They knew about the deal we were going to give “the guy with the red shirt” and they wanted to plant some trees in exchange for some roofing materials.

Stubborn, as usual, but out of time to look for him, we offered a reward for locating this mystery man: the guy with the red shirt, the sick wife, the newborn, his home wiped-out by the flood, who got a ride from a group of “blancs” (white people) the day before. We left a phone number with Marilene, a woman in the community who had a functioning cell and who happily took on the task of being the designated search coordinator.

On the seven-hour car journey back to Port-au-Prince it became clear to all of us that we couldn’t just go back to the city and get on with our work knowing how many people were seriously struggling just to get by after having been dealt a devastating blow by the hurricane. We’d met dozens of families over the course of just half a day, none of these people had received any help yet, nearly two weeks after the storm. It’s at this point we decided to get involved in the relief effort. Over the next two days we flushed out the idea for the GoFundMe campaign: scale the deal we were going to offer our “guy with the red shirt” – all the while wondering if we were ever going to actually find this guy.

Four days go by and the phone rings. It’s Marilene, and she’s very excited. “We found him, we found him!!! It’s the guy, it’s the guy!!” We were skeptical. When we had initially met Marilene she had helped us “find” six or seven other guys that she had though were “the guy in the red shirt.” Of course none of them were. But she insisted “No, I’m sure this time, he said he remembers you, it’s the guy!!! It’s the guy!!!”

Andy and Marilene
Andy and Marilene

We returned to the area two days later and indeed she had found the guy! His name is Jean Baptiste and it’s the guy in the picture – he was wearing the same red shirt as he did the day we gave him that ride in the rain and his story was true. His wife and newborn were both ok and he was incredibly excited to plant some trees for us in exchange for brand new roofing tôle.

Over the next three days, together with the help of Jean Baptiste, Marilene and everyone that had helped us look for “the guy with the red shirt” we went up and down all the hills in this community and made the same deal with another 150 families totaling the entirety of this small remote community. For each sheet of tôle we negotiated the planting of 10 moringa trees.

We the help of Dr. Katie Wolf and her local community health workers we were able to replicate what we did in Jean Baptiste and Marilene’s community to 5 other small very remote communities.

So far we’ve distributed 5,000 metal sheets to fix the roofs of roughly 500 families in exchange for planting 50,000 moringa trees. Over the next three days we are set to double those numbers.

Around 200,000 homes and small farms have been damaged or entirely destroyed by the hurricane and the vast majority have yet to see any kind of assistance or relief. Our efforts, in the grand scheme of the devastation, are a drip in the bucket, but I can tell you that for Jean Baptiste, Marilene and their families, it makes a difference.

I believe we have both a personal and corporate responsibility to help out our fellow humans in a time like this. Once we decided that we had to do something, we looked for a path that would be effective, dignifying and sustainable. This effort is not meant to fix everything for everybody, it won’t, but hopefully it does provide a bit in the way of immediate relief, gets trees planted, and offers a source of supplemental income for these families in the future.

I am sure this reads a lot like a fundraising add, it’s not. It’s a story that is meant to give a bit of insight into how this Haitian social enterprise and micro-utility company decided to start exchanging roofing material for tree planting services.

Thank you to all that have joined us in this effort!