Sowing the seeds of sustainability - The University of Tulsa

Sowing the seeds of sustainability

For the past several years, visiting professor of business Bethany Johns (MEB ’16) has volunteered with the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Sowing Seeds in Belize. The mission of this organization is “to educate, equip and empower through educational sponsorship and resources to train and enable local entrepreneurs in sustainable, self-sufficient business development.”

Professor Bethany Johns wearing glasses and a dark blazer
Visiting Professor Bethany Johns

Sowing Seeds in Belize provides some material goods, such as clothing and school supplies, to villagers in rural southern Belize through its Container Ministry. However, the bulk of the organization’s work is focused on providing training that helps residents develop the knowledge they require to launch sustainable business ventures. According to Johns, “volunteers are more than an extra pair of hands. Labor is not so much the need. It’s really about offering education and life skills.”

Sowing seeds, growing futures

“Instead of imposing our thoughts,” Johns said, “we instead offer aid to help the locals’ ideas come to fruition.” Johns points to the example of a self-sustaining greenhouse. The desire for such a structure arose amongst the members of a church in Belize, while volunteers – including Johns – from the United States supplied the design and guidance on how to construct it.

four women cooking inside a wooden structure
Preparing handmade purple corn tortillas over an open flame

“This partnership enabled the church to build the means to provide sustenance for the community,” remarked Johns. “There were no ideals or beliefs imposed on another culture. Rather, it allowed the seed of sustainability to take root. From the community garden where seedlings and gardening practices were offered, locals were able to toil and tend to Mother Nature, learning a sustainable trade that has reaped both figurative and literal harvests.”

According to Johns, this project had a compounding effect. With more than enough produce to feed their own families, women were able to make baked goods to sell in town. “Where we came into play at that stage was to instill in those women the value of saving the proceeds of their sales to cover future expenditures and to teach them about reinvesting profit so that their small enterprises could continue to grow.”

Sustainability is:

  • Working directly with local people to help them become self-sufficient
  • Teaching entrepreneurs valuable skills so they can operate their own businesses
  • Helping villagers obtain start-up loans so they can open their own shops

In a related vein, women have been sewing (on donated machines) face masks, drapery and bedding for sale locally. These seamsters have successfully leveraged social media to advertise and sell their wares. Sowing Seeds stepped in to help the women budget both their time (i.e., how many hours they can commit to working outside the family) as well as their finances in support of specific goals.

From a socio-economic perspective, one of the particularly intriguing facets of this enterprise is that rather than being paid for their individual output, the women work collaboratively to make products that are sold as a group. With many women working at different times in such a collective fashion, profit and pay are thereby allocated based on the total number of items sold and the days work by each woman each month. A portion of the proceeds also go back to the church where the sewing machines are located as rental for the equipment and the space. “This set-up teaches the women both responsibility and how to conduct a business,” remarked Johns.

Men, too, have benefitted from Sowing Seeds’ interventions. One farmer, Johns recounted, was able to move from survival-based agricultural work to growing, processing and selling cardamom pods, one of the world’s most lucrative spices. By helping the farmer obtain a loan for a commercial spice dryer and arranging for him to pay off that debt in kind with a portion of his monthly harvest, Sowing Seeds set him on the road to where he has now been able to expand his business into purchasing neighbors’ cardamom pods to dry and sell them as well.

Lessons in sustainability

“The couple that founded and lead Sowing Seeds takes sustainability to the next level,” remarked Johns. In addition to sending volunteers and material donations to Belize, they run a working farm and catering business in Pennsylvania as well as supplying Belizean products to area shops and restaurants, including turmeric, cardamom, oils (sesame seed, coconut and palm), cacao and coffee beans. These goods help people in Belize expand their business reach internationally and give U.S. business owners naturally sourced products.

dozens of white plastic pots containing seedlings
Starter seedlings for the community garden

But Johns points out that lessons in sustainability travel from south to north, as well: “We can learn a thing or two from the villagers’ simple ways of living.” These include drying clothes on a line in the fresh air instead of using a dryer, walking instead of always driving, reading by sunlight and choosing natural heating sources in place of gas or electricity.

With regard specifically to working with people in other parts of the world, such as Belize, Johns noted that it is important to keep in mind that “outside assistance is still external to a local culture. Obstacles to acceptance can, therefore, creep in.” As a way to help avoid such situations, Johns advocates for offering to help local people’s ideas come to fruition rather than imposing plans and agendas on them. In a similar sense, “direct handouts create dependence,” she observed. An example Johns points to is when relief organizations import tons of rice to feed villages struck by natural disasters. Such well-intentioned donations, however, negatively affect local farmers’ ability to sell their own produce because they are now in competition with free goods.

Sustainability is not:

  • Handing out clothes and food to the needy
  • Giving money directly to the poor
  • Showing up to hammer a few nails in a board

The lessons Johns has learned through her involvement with Sowing Seeds in Belize now infuse her own worldview, volunteering and teaching about sustainability. “In the end,” she said, “sustainability takes time, effort and continual review. It’s a long-term mindset geared to using resources efficiently and effectively.”


In fall 2020, TU’s Energy Management program introduced a new curriculum that includes topics such as climate change and alternative/renewable electricity sources. Learn more.