PIEDMONT — Sharon Allen prayed for a way to aid the impoverished people she met during mission trips to Rwanda.
Her prayer to aid her new friends bore fruit in an unusual way.
The Piedmont woman said she was divinely inspired to plant apple orchards in Africa, despite the tropical setting that made such a venture improbable.
Today, as founder of Apples for Africa, she is known as a modern-day Johnny Appleseed.
And she doesn't even like apples.
“I knew nothing about apple trees, and I don't particularly like apples, so this was definitely God's idea,” Allen said.
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”
— Martin Luther
Allen has helped plant numerous apple orchards in 13 countries, including Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia, Kenya, Congo, Sierra Leone and Burundi, in addition to the first orchard inspired by her Rwanda trip. She said her first orchard was planted in 2009 on a widow's land in the Banda Village near the Nyungwe Forest National Park in southwest Rwanda.
Allen, 49, said she never promoted that first orchard, but word quickly traveled throughout Africa about a woman called “Mom,” who was planting trees that bore the fruit many Africans long for.
“I planted the first orchard, and within weeks, there were people who knew where Banda was who hadn't known about it before,” she said.
Allen, an insurance adjuster and longtime member of Crossings Community Church, said she was a single mom who simply wanted to make a difference when she visited Rwanda during her first mission trip in 2005. She said she was part of a mission team that traveled to Rwanda over the next several years to train pastors who had planted churches.
She said one of the Rwandans she met was extremely curious about apples in America. Allen said she was puzzled when he wanted to know the kinds of apples she ate and if she had access to them all the time. When she described the variety of apples at her local supermarket, he was shocked. He told her apples were rare in Rwanda and very expensive — about $1 each — when they were available. Allen said most of the apples in the Rwandan marketplace she visited were imported from China, tiny and not necessarily sweet.
The determined Oklahoman said she returned home feeling the Lord had answered her prayer to help the Rwandans. She wanted to plant the apple trees in areas where widows and orphans could harvest and sell the fruit for much-needed income.
She said she had no idea her idea was highly unlikely — some said impossible.
She began researching and learned that planting apples in Africa wasn't so simple, because African countries basically have no winter season.
After much digging, she found the name of an orchard grower in California who had written a book about planting apples in warm and tropical settings. She said she sent emails to him and phoned him for six months before she was able to get into one of his “Apple University” courses.
“I love a good challenge. I think that's how God made me,” Allen said. “If I hear ‘can't,' it just makes me more determined.”
“Surely the apple is the noblest of fruits.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Kevin Hauser, founder of Kuffel Creek Apple Nursery in Riverside, Calif., said he remembers receiving those initial emails from Allen. He said he knew she was serious when she contacted him to tell him she had obtained the proper import permits to send apple trees to Rwanda.
“If that wasn't enough, she made a special trip to southern California in January 2009 for a crash course in apple culture before heading out to Rwanda to receive the trees we'd be shipping,” Hauser said. He said Allen is the reason he now has a Kuffel Creek Apple Nursery in Kampala, Uganda.
“She loves to visit the orphanages and widow's group homes and has a real heart for Africa, and God has used her to minister to many people,” Hauser said.
Allen learned that apple trees would grow in warm, tropical settings if they were “tricked” into thinking they had gone through a dormant season. She said Africa has two seasons — wet and dry — so she and the Africans pull the leaves off the trees to mimic what occurs during a typical winter or dormant season. Most of the orchards she has planted have had two harvest seasons a year because of this method.
Allen said she and her daughters, Marlee, 18 and Erin, 20, and family friends raised money to buy the first 100 apple trees by holding garage sales and other fundraisers. Hauser was so impressed that he sent her an additional 100 trees.
The first orchard started with those 200 trees. Allen said the first apples produced by the first Rwandan orchard were relatively small, but subsequent harvests have yielded larger apples and more of them.
These days, Apples for Africa has a waiting list for apple trees. Allen said she's working on a request for apple trees for Haiti and another query for trees to be planted in Honduras, to help raise money for a home for girls rescued from sex-trafficking.
Allen, who is now married to husband, Charles, said some people have asked her how she pursued what proved to be a difficult task.
“I'm going to where God wants me to go, and I'd rather be where God wants me to be than outside of His will.”
She said people who are inspired by Apples for Africa can donate to the organization or find their own way to help others. And she said she could use more prayers as her nonprofit expands into other areas.
“That's kind of how this whole thing got started,” Allen said. “Prayer works.”