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Visiting Konso Schools Project Sites, Ethiopia

Editor’s Note: Alex gives us another update on the excellent work he and his team are doing in Ethiopia. You can see his previous reports via his author’s profile. If you want a first hand look at their work, and an exciting trip-of-a-lifetime as well, now’s a good time to book for their upcoming March 2011 PDC. Check out details on the course and book.

We were recently visited at Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge (SFEL) by Ali, the vibrant and energetic manager of World Challenge’s Africa section. World Challenge is an organisation which organises trips for school children from the UK to destinations around the world where they undertake challenging and productive activities involving nature, adventure and local communities. Ali’s visit proved to be very fruitful in tying together several aspects of our work in Konso, in line with our project’s objectives of promoting community well being through permaculture and eco-tourism.

A bit of background if you are unfamiliar with our work: Strawberry Fields is the project I began in Konso starting from August 2007. It is an eco-lodge, permaculture centre and demonstration farm. We run PDCs both for local community (working with various NGOs) and for foreigners. SFEL’s main partner for permaculture activities at the moment is Shumba Integrated Eco Design, a consultancy set up by Tichafa Makovere, a Zimbabwean permaculture facilitator. The Permaculture in Konso Schools Project (PKSP) was established through the cooperation of SFEL, Tichafa and various NGOs which are active in the area and it has been running now for 2 years in a growing number of schools around Konso. Two of the three schools which came into the project at the earliest stage back in 2009 continue to progress well, with one of the teachers also now regularly serving as a translator for the trainings of new school teachers. Since the project began, teachers from a total of nine schools have been trained. In December 2010 the UK-based charity, Ethiopia permaculture Foundation (EPF), funded the training of two new teachers to begin the process of introducing a further two new schools into the project.

What is the link between this and Ali’s visit to Konso? Well, Ali was here to research activities that her groups can do in Konso, and Strawberry Fields is facilitating that. I put a proposal to Ali for a seven day program for the group she is planning to bring in June; sixteen high school kids and four adults who are helping manage them. The program includes three days of trekking and four days of permaculture related volunteering activities. We had some details to work out, but we had framed some good ideas for what we want to do, helped by Emily, a Peace Corps volunteer based in Konso, who actually took a PDC with Tichafa back in October. Emily is a clay enthusiast, and has experience with building clay bread ovens in the US. She also put forward the idea of using clay pots to create a highly efficient irrigation system for the school gardens. These seemed like two good ideas we could work with.

As well as promoting permaculture, one of Strawberry Fields’ objectives is to deliver tangible benefits to the local grass roots community through including them in some of the tourism activities going on in the area – community based eco-tourism. Tourism in south Ethiopia generally side-lines the locals. Tour operators make a pile of money, basically by pimping out the local people as photo opportunities to foreigners, a bit like a sort of human safari, which generally delivers them no benefits at all, or just a few crumbs. Our initiative has been to establish ‘Cultural Immersion Programs’, — trekking trails which allow visitors to experience a deeper and more meaningful interaction with their hosts. Visitors learn about Konso culture by seeing and having a go at various traditional crafts like pottery, weaving and metal working as they trek from village to village. And the locals get paid for hosting them and showing them about their trades. Now, it just so happens that the village in Konso which is the centre of excellence in pottery production, which our trekkers usually visit, is Sawgume, which is also where one of our PKSP schools is. This is why Emily’s ideas involving clay pot gardens and clay bread-ovens are such a good idea for a volunteering challenge in Sawgume for Ali’s group of school kids. So we had to visit Sawgume and discuss this idea with the school-community themselves.

Uluma is the teacher in Sawgume who runs the environmental club. Environmental clubs are a nation-wide government scheme to encourage schools to improve their own environment. The PKSP actually works through the pre-existing structure of the environmental clubs, basically getting the club to do permaculture in the school, by training the teacher responsible for organising the club and getting the kids in the club and their parents to participate in permaculture implementation on the school site. Uluma was trained in March 2009. He subsequently won first prize from the national education bureau for the best environmental club out of every school in the entire country. Quite a success really!

We caught up with Uluma in Sawgume and had a quick look round the school. At this time of year it’s getting well into the long dry season and the garden was looking markedly less vibrant than it was when we up there in November. However, the tomatoes were fruiting happily in the cool shade of banana trees which have grown lush under the awnings of the classroom buildings where the mulch pits catch the rain water spilling from the corrugated roofs and holding onto it well into the relentless dry season. The nursery had a good stock of coffee plants, mangos, papayas and moringa. Uluma has continued to expand the development of the project over the last 18 months. My father, Piers McCausland, who is a board member of the EPF (the UK charity that funded Uluma’s own 5 refresher course in November) also happened to be with us at the time and took the opportunity to quiz Uluma and some of the other teachers on the permaculture project. How much income were they generating? Was the food being distributed to the kids? Was the community buying tree seedlings from the school nursery? My father concluded that the project was continuing to develop; there are a select team of students involved who are working effectively on expanding the project and the other teachers are well informed about the activities. On the other hand his criticisms were that there was not much evidence of the community being involved beyond the school compound (for example the sales of seedlings from the school nursery were not to the community members but apparently mostly to the teachers themselves). There was also no evidence of the community being mobilised to provide resources for the project, a notable example being that the school’s water tank had dried up, but water was not being brought in from the surrounding area by the community. There was also evidence that food that was grown was not being harvested, especially the maize and the sorghum which were still standing there well past harvest time, unused. The over-use of sorghum as a crop on the grounds was also raised as a poor use of the space which could be given over to more intensive and more diverse production, ideally food forest.

Our clay pot irrigation gardens may be an answer to some of these problems. So at this point we all sat down to discuss the idea; myself, Ali, Emily, Uluma, the headmaster and some other teachers were all present.

The idea with clay pot irrigation is that while the clay holds water it is porous enough that the water slowly seeps through it and into the surrounding medium. If this is air, the water will evaporate – a process which absorbs energy – which is why clay pots spontaneously cool water down. But if the surroundings are soil, preferably with a good level of humus, the water will be absorbed into the soil, where it can be accessed by plant roots. We explained this concept to the teachers. And they liked the idea. Great! And the clay pot garden will allow them to expand the area of intensively planted land, as well as perhaps motivating the community to bring in water to fill the pots, if there is none in the tank. Since Sawgume is a village with a particular skill in the craft of pottery the kids themselves and their parents can make the pots for the garden. Deposits of the right type of clay soil are available in the locality and the kids from the environmental club can collect and bring enough for one pot each to the school. Ali’s team of school kids, having trekked for 2 days up the 15km trail from Karat town, passing three other villages and doing various activities along the way, will reach the school where they will pitch camp and meet the kids from the environmental club. The next day they will learn about how pots are made, with the local kids demonstrating. The pots are fired in brush-wood fires. The local women are experts in adjusting the burning brush around the pots to maintain the correct temperature for the clay to be fired properly without cracking. In return the UK kids will demonstrate to the locals how to properly layer a compost heap for fast hot composting to produce compost for the clay pot garden.

The other project we proposed was a clay oven. They liked this too; a great way to make more efficient use of fuel wood, as well as generating some extra income for the school. The 16 school kids from the UK will actually get a 1-day induction on permaculture and on the activities that they are going to have to do in the School at Strawberry Fields before they begin their trek. The heap composting is one. The other is building a bread oven. Emily is the expert on this, so we will actually have them make a bread oven at SFEL as a trial run of what they are going to do at Sawgume.

So, everybody happy and in agreement, off we went back to Strawberry Fields and Ali back to Addis. There are a few more details to iron out, but the program is now set to proceed in June.

My father however stayed on for a week or so more, and over the following few days he was keen to see some of the other schools where the EPF had been funding us to train teachers. So the following week we arranged a trip to Debena, where one of the trained teachers, Asmelash, lives. Asmelash had gotten off to a relatively slow start with the Debena site. The reason for this was that we never formally followed up on his original training back in early 2009 with an implementation session. The reason for this was the Italian NGO which had sponsored us to train both Asmelash and Uluma never paid for the implementation program which Tichafa ran in Sawgume primary school. In fact, though they were supposed to pay a consultancy fee to Tichafa for his organising the 5-day implementation program in Sawgume, they didn’t do this either, nor did they provide for his accommodation and sustenance. It seems as though, being a black man, they expected him to be comfortable sleeping on a stone floor and eating nothing but beans for 5 days like the villagers. I can’t imagine the average Italian consultant would accept such treatment, and neither did Tichafa. Consequently we have not had any further dealings with that NGO. Strawberry Fields effectively paid for the Sawgume implementation, but we could not really afford to shoulder the costs of an implementation at Debena as well at that time, as we were almost always strapped for cash back in those days.

Subsequently my father and some friends back in the UK set up the EPF to support our permaculture activities over here in Ethiopia, specifically the PKSP. Hence my dad’s interest in seeing Debena. So I arranged a car to take us up into the Konso highlands where Debena is located about 12km out of Karat, and it dropped us at the village of Debena. Asmelash recently got a refresher course which the EPF paid for. And we could immediately see that he had been making the most of it! As soon as we went into the school compound we could see a small forest beginning to burst out of the place. The mango trees had obviously been planted some years back, now beginning to form crowns well above head height and to cast dense pools of shade around the school yard. But there was a hive of activity going on in the shadows. Kids ran here and there pushing wheel barrows of manure, earthing up an understory/ground-cover of sweet potatoes, and filling in pits into which banana had recently been transplanted. Stone-lined pathways were being laid out according to the plan which Asmelash showed us on the seed bank wall. He enthusiastically displayed their nursery areas. Papaya, moringa and orange seedlings were the major species they had prepared. He explained how their water tank was not catching the rainwater effectively due to wonky guttering on which the fall had not been set properly. Consequently the 1400 pupils of the school are each asked to fill a 1 litre bottle from the river down in the valley bottom and bring it with them each day as they come to school. An ingenious idea, but also clear evidence that the entire student body has been mobilised to participate in the project by the school administration. However, looking at getting that gutter fixed is also something they should do – or we may help them with it. Asmelash also showed us his pit and heap composting areas, and where his kids were busy making bee hives and hanging them in a big old Acacia tree in one corner of the compound. The project has really taken off!

My father’s only point of concern was that it seemed to very much rely on the personality of Asmelash for its function and development. That is not surprising since he was the only person to have been trained in permaculture. His enthusiasm and obvious intelligence is a great asset to the whole PKSP. His English is a cut above his peers and he has a clear grasp of many of the concepts upon which PC relies as a system of ecological design. However a key concern of the board members of the EPF is that of sustainability. If Asmelash were to leave the school tomorrow, or fall off a cliff, would the school community be able to keep it moving forwards without him? Another questions that my father felt was not adequately answered by the trip was if the community members (the students and their parents) were taking these ideas back home with them into their own domestic compounds.

These key points will influence the strategic outlook of the EPF’s activities in funding permaculture programs in the future. The PC movement in Ethiopia must be based on broad community action and cannot rely on individuals. Consequently the training of teachers should be accompanied by the training of both students and their parents, if the school project is really to impact on the whole school community.

Despite this, great progress has been made in both schools, and we are hopeful that our upcoming cooperation with World Challenge will promote greater interest and wider participation by the community in Sawgume. If the program is a success for the kids from the UK, we should develop a long term relationship with World Challenge which will allow us to conduct exciting and productive little projects in all the PKSP schools one by one, achieving something on the ground, giving an educational experience to the kids (both the visiting ones and the resident ones) and galvanising the enthusiasm of the local community that permaculture is something worth getting excited about!

You can also learn more about and support our work in Konso by joining one of our international PDCs at Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge. Our next PDC is in March and will be lead by David Spicer of the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia, co-facilitated by Tichafa Makovere and Alex McCausland.


  1. The pots and the photoes look great – keep up the good work. Looking forward to seeing the repiared gutter!! E

  2. Warning Negativity follows!
    So I read this story with a bit of disappointment. Not with this project in particular or the people who run it, but because of the re-enforcement of a feeling I have that Permaculture really isn’t making a difference. It’s seems a great idea and I have followed it for years now but I don’t see these villages taking off by them selves and becoming some sort of sustainable Utopia that I hoped. Unpicked harvests, Projects abandoned once the outsiders leave, it is the kind of thing I thought was the problem with other Organisations but it seems Permaculture as an organisation faces the same issues.

  3. Michael,

    while I think your observation has some validity, there are a number of factors to be taken into account.

    I’ve learned something quite interesting from Alan Weisman’s book on “Gaviotas”. Gaviotans did come up with a number of very useful novel approaches – such as a highly efficient hand pump that still is simple enough to be fixed by any bike mechanic. How was this received in the wider community? At first, many villages were enthusiastic to adopt them, but they later fell into disuse (and disrepair) for despite fuel being expensive for villagers, it was still considered less effort to instead run an electric motor pump from a small generator.

    That of course does not mean that their hand pumps would not have been a good idea. But it shows two things: (a) whatever you do in terms of improving a bad situation: if the sociocultural environment is opposed to it in some way, it will be an uphill struggle. (b) finding out what one actually has to pay attention to and get right in order to both avoid long term problems and have a major cultural impact is trickier than one may think.

    On the other hand, there are a number of very useful ideas that actually do see major widespread cultural uptake – but there just as well seems to be a certain predisposition to no longer regard something that makes sense as “Permaculture” as soon as it is really successful. ;-)

    Now it may even be the case that quite a number of Permaculture projects fail, for all sorts of reasons. But given that the vast majority of start-ups fail (irrespective of what they are about), is that so surprising?

    Even one of Bill Mollison’s first major projects – own seed company “Self Reliant Seeds” failed – but in this case in quite an interesting way in the sense that “failure” kind of was a design objective.

  4. Thanks Thomas, Your example of the pump is exactly the type of thing I was thinking of. Maybe some of these ideas need to be re marketed more along the lines of being things that should be built and maintained in reserve in case the other “easier” options fail. Doesn’t really fix the immediate pollution problems etc, but might prevent catastrophic consequences if the other systems fail.

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