Vita is a charity based on Dublin’s Northside. I spoke to Ciara Feehely, their Head of Communications.
By Patrick Brogan
During a sunny August morning, I met with Ciara Feehely to chat about the work she and the charity Vita do. We chatted in Oxmantown, near Ormond Quay, over possibly the nicest sausage sandwiches ever created. With hundreds of charities in Ireland all doing equally valuable work, it can be difficult to pick one out for praise but Vita certainly falls into that category.
Vita has a long and interesting history as Ciara explains; “Vita celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, it was set up in response to conflict in the world and was originally called Irish Refugee Trust. It was very much emergency aid for refugees and then over time it evolved into more sustainable living ethics and values so you know it’s not really about your bags of rice, it’s really about long term agriculture and long term food security. There are a lot of really great organisations that are managing the emergency aid very well, so we have decided to look at long term agricultural sustainability, we’re trying to keep these people on their land at all costs, so they can make a living off their land, so they can get their children into education.”
Vita is a rare charity in the sense it is proactive rather than reactive. They’re trying to help the poorest while they still have something to work with. It is this positive attitude that has them working in a host of African nations. “We work primarily in Ethiopia and Eritrea and we have also worked in Kenya in the past. The reason that we are effective is
because our model of collaboration is very inclusive. We collaborate very closely with local and national governments, public partners, women’s groups, farmer’s groups and farmers themselves and local research agencies and international agencies. Our ethos is very much research led agriculture, which we find is absolutely the best way to deliver the best results for our clients.”
Vita works off the premise that all the programmes should complement each other and should create a better society, not just in the communities they are working, but for the world at large. This approach encompasses a lot of themes and areas, such as; poverty, the environment, agriculture to name just a few. This integrated approach is very much to the fore in their next projects too, as Ciara tells me; “We have quite a few projects at the moment. We have got an integrated approach to our projects and to explain that; it is not enough for a one farm family to have a quality potato crop. They also need to have an improved cook stove, they need solar lighting, they need clean as possible drinking water, they need latrines. So this integrated approach would try and bring a number of programmes together to bring a holistic solution to the problem. We would also be very concerned about the impact of climate change, particularly on the world’s poorest nations because they are effectively paying for Western development and Western excesses. They are adversely impacted, they are paying the highest price and they have the littlest to give.”
The next project maybe the biggest and most important to date. This will involve all those aspects of the projects coming together to reduce carbon emissions, this in turn will be incentivised with a monetary value; “So that’s our next big project we are working on and it is called The Vita Green Impact Fund and it is very innovative and there is nobody doing anything else like it. There are carbon credit funds, but as far as I know we are the only NGO driving our own carbon credit fund. It has taken us about six years to get to this point because it is very difficult to secure the certifications, but we are at a very advanced stage. We are about to launch, it is very much a project for those that show leadership in the climate change area. So if you look at our logo and our strap-line it’s Fighting Climate Change and Hunger in Africa and I think we are very much living by those values and we recognise that those two values are very closely linked.”
Another extremely important aspect of Vita’s work is their ability to improve the lives of the women of Africa. In many cases, the lives of these women are spent doing menial labour that we in Ireland would largely be unfamiliar with. Ciara explains; “The synonymous image of Africa is women and young children walking, carrying these enormous bales of sticks. It’s something that happened in Biblical times and it has to change. Women’s lives of drudgery have to amount to more than this. So, the improved cook stove is one way. They’re quite different across Africa. In Ethiopia, it’s quite a small, simple affair. In Eritrea, it’s quite big, about half the size of a room. The improved cook stove is a real game changer. Particularly for women and female children because they no longer have to walk four to five days a week to gather sticks. They may walk two days a week. It’s 60% reduction on the amount of fuel they need.”
When you look at the hours Ciara works, one then realises why Vita have made such huge strides as an organisation. “I’m usually at my desk between 7 and 7.15am. I’m an early morning person. It suits me to get a couple of hours done before other people start coming into the office. The first thing I do is get on to Twitter and see what’s been happening over night. See if there’s anything worth re-tweeting. Once the real day begins, at about 8.30 I’ll have meetings or be doing conferences over Skype. We employ over a 100 people in Ethiopia and Eritrea. So the communications with the different countries, with the different languages, with the different cultures is a challenge. I spend a lot of my day sourcing articles, sourcing photos. I have a wonderful person working with me called Nirvana. I usually go home about 5pm.”
Ciara’s previous experience was with EirGrid, RTE and a farming representative organisation. She feels that these roles and the experience she gained have helped enormously with her work with Vita. This experience is now helping improving the lives of those that most need it.