Permaculture in Ethiopia stands on the edge of a sea of possibilities. This is a virgin land. The mighty plains of Abyssinia rise out of the Eastern Sahara, to become rolling fertile uplands, worked by farmers in the primeval mode that the modern westerner can only dream about nowadays, caricatured by the Shire in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. It is a land where people live in little circular grass-roofed huts and make hay stacks with wooden pitch forks to feed their cattle through the dry season. They plough the deep fertile soils with oxen and sow a variety of crops, of which their most beloved is their own indigenous endemic grain t’eff, used to make the national staple food, injera.
Ethiopia is not a desert, though parts of its territory are, such as the Danakil, a boiling cauldron of volcanism and sulphur in the Northern rift valley, one of the lowest and hottest places on earth, populated by the Afars, a warrior tribe — pastoralists, beloved of their camels and as harsh as the landscape they occupy. Most of the country though is fertile highland. In areas over 2000m, which is where at least 75% of the population are found, the annual rainfall is usually over 1000mm, often a lot over 1000mm, though there is a trend of increasing lushness as one moves south through the country.
Ethiopia is infamous as a land of famine and poverty and, indeed, life is tough for much of the 80% rural population. The nation has remained one of the most isolated cultures on earth, even up to today, and though the system of governance has changed its stripes, little has changed in terms allowing external influences. This was the only part of Africa that was never colonised. Of course that is a reason for pride, but it also means there has been very little technology introduced or infrastructure built, and the levels of education are very poor compared to East African countries like Kenya or Uganda where the British enforced standards and built schools. The result is that the literacy rate in Ethiopia is among the lowest in Africa. Most people work the land by hand for what they eat, and when that fails they are reliant on aid.
Systems of land management here are archaic. While it may seem that non-mechanised and organic agriculture would lead to sustainability, there are several reasons why Ethiopia, like most other ancient agrarian cultures, has been slowly corroding the foundations of its own sustenance. It seems to be precisely because it is a land endowed with such natural wealth that the people have never really been forced to think about how to implement careful stewardship. The plough is the basis of their agriculture. Grain and meat are the major products. Mono-cropping, overstocking and unregulated grazing are the norms and are creating major land degradation. Deforestation and failure to plant new trees except for stands of Eucalyptus, which fail to protect soil and in-fact wreck the land by killing the groundcover around them while draining the water table, are other major problems.
To make matters worse, these days the agro-tech industry has moved into business with the agricultural extension offices, trying by hook and by crook, to push hybrid seeds and the chemicals of high-input industrial agriculture onto the peasant sector, just like they do in much of Africa. All of this has left a growing rural population on steadily degrading (though still, for the most part, very good quality) land without the tools it needs to produce consistently for its own needs in an increasingly chaotic global climate, now falling into the cycle of debt-dependence to the agro-tech multinationals.
And yet, the crazy thing is that Ethiopia has the potential to feed not just itself, but most of the Middle east and North Africa too, so well endowed it is with ample rainfall, deep rich volcanic soils and a wide variety of agro-climates that allow it to produce fruit ranging from apples to mangoes and a spectrum of grains ranging from barley to millet with a great variety of indigenous strains of each in between. This was what struck me when I came across Ethiopia in 2005 when I was wandering around the world looking for a place put down permacultural roots and do something with my life.
Back in those days I was just a naïve, middle-class, western-white-liberal backpacker, thinking that all I had to do was rock up, buy some land and begin planting trees on it and I’d inspire the whole country to do the same. Five years down the line a lot has happened, but it wasn’t really how I imagined it. I turned up with a backpack full of clothes and (a photo copy of) The Designers’ Manual under my arm. I had £15,000 in the bank back home and not much of a clue at all what I was up to. I’d done a PDC the previous month near Barcelona with an American trainer called Richard Wade, so I had some idea how to go through the design process for a piece of land, but planning and organising a project, that was a different matter all together. Where to start?
I met a Sudanese business-man in Addis called Alimedin who helped me develop the project concept and write the initial proposals and get an investment licence, etc. I wanted to set up a community-oriented permaculture business that would not rely on exterior funding. We decided it would be an Eco Lodge, so it could generate income while hosting the country’s first PC demonstration site. We ended up doing it in Konso, right down in the south, 600km south of Addis Ababa. Without Alimedin’s help in the early days I could never have got it off the ground. But once we got the site and started working in the project he turned rogue. He took over and wouldn’t let me have any input on the early design of the project and he had no real concept of permaculture at all. Within 3 month he had blown the entire project budget and ran off, probably stealing a lot of the money as he went. It was right at that point that my old school friend Peri came to the rescue. He was coming over to hang out for a month and take a break from his job with his cousin’s construction company. He ended up staying for a year and helping me to advance the construction of the lodge to the point where we could almost half feasibly open to accept guests. We wrote up a business plan, got the garden going with the help of an English permaculturalist-volunteer called Guy Rees, and even managed to arrange for Rosemary Morrow to come and teach two PDCs on the site in May and June 2008.
But by the end of that year, though, things were getting tight again…. Peri had to go and get on with his own life. The money — the bail-out which my parents had fronted when my own money dried up, that is — was running out and I was soon going to be on my own again. That was when Tichafa came in. I had been shouting it all over the internet that we needed a permaculture trainer to help us keep going in Konso. The Australians weren’t responding and the British PC Association, who had earlier found us Guy Rees couldn’t come up with anything. Finally though our call was answered, from within Africa! Walter Nykia, the director of ReSCOPE (4.2mb PDF), a Malawi based organisation that operates permaculture school-gardens around southern Africa, recommended Tichafa Makovere, a Zimbabwean school teacher who had been working on SCOPE and permaculture schools in Zimbabwe and around Southern Africa for 14 years.
Tichafa came at just the right time, November 2008. He helped us get the eco-lodge formally opened and to begin operation. At the same time he took over running the demonstration site. We announced a PDC in January 2009, but we couldn’t find any international participants. His name didn’t have the same ring as Rosemary Morrow, I guess, but his work on the ground spoke for itself. We had to cancel the course, but soon we had NGOs getting interested in what we were doing. I was running a promotional campaign in Addis and I managed to get a private donor to fund us to train some locals too. At the same time CISS, an Italian NGO, agreed that they would put three local school teachers on our course in March of that year.
In May the same year, a friend of ours and consistent supporter of our work, Sarah Davis, who had been a volunteer and a participant on one of Rosemary’s courses in 2008, sent us some money to train more local teachers. At the same time Tichafa got Save the Children Finland on board through his networking and they funded us to train three teachers. So we were able to run two courses in the first part of 2009. The next stage was to begin following up with school gardens in the teachers’ school compounds. And so the permaculture in Konso Schools Project was born.
The first school we implemented permaculture in was Sagume Primary, from which the Italians had funded us to train one teacher. The follow-up was based on a verbal agreement. Tichafa spent three days leading the community implementation on the school site. However the NGO didn’t live up to its verbal promise and the local office staff refused to provide Tichafa with the agreed sustenance or accommodation during the implementation and refused to pay us a consultant’s fee after the garden was established. We had effectively done the implementation ourselves, all be it as an infant business desperately struggling to make ends meet, but at that stage it was critical in getting things going for the future. Save the Children then came in with two more school implementations at Fuchucha and Brokara. Next, in June 2010, Mercy Corps would bring in two more schools.
Around that time I was contacted by a lawyer called Alison, in the UK, who offered to help us establish a charity so that we could look for funding directly. A couple of friends of mine as well as my dad and a few colleagues of his from London agreed to form the board of the charity. By June 2010 we had registered the Ethiopia Permaculture Foundation in the UK and held our first fundraiser at the Traveller’s Club in London. By this time there were already eight schools in the PKSP. The eco-lodge was by then quite well established as a business and Tichafa was looking to spread his activities more widely than Konso. He established his own consultancy business (Shumba Integrated Ecological Design) and handed back management of the demonstration site to me in July when I returned to Ethiopia. We had all this time been running PDCs and we were starting to get more international participation. The EPF now funded us to give refresher courses to two of the most promising teachers we had trained early on, and this brought some great results. Asmelash Dagne the science teacher from Debena primary school got really inspired at this point and went on to begin an impressive implementation in his school with no further external financial support. Asmelash, as the most promising of the teachers trained in Konso to date, has since been acting as a translator in all subsequent trainings we have run, and looks set to eventually develop into a trainer himself.
Around the beginning of 2011 things started getting interesting in Konso. We had a great crop of really active interns who would stay with us for three months until March when we ran one of our most successful PDCs to date. We were planning to run it together with David Spicer from the PRI, but since we had not had many registrations early on David cancelled as it looked like we would not be able to cover his travel costs. Then we got a bunch of last-minute registrations, so in the end we had eight or nine participants. The course was lead by Tichafa and I co-taught as an assistant facilitator. One of the interns that participated was Eddie Joy, who stayed for six months in total. He took charge of our tree planting scheme during which we planned guilds of tree species and planted out over 12,000 tree seedlings on our site between March and June 2011. We also trained a further two teachers on that course funded by the EPF, taking the number of PKSP participating schools to eight. Implementation on the school sites followed immediately.
At that time Tichafa also began working on a garden in Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa, assisted by Tiginesh, a graduate of one of our previous PDCs. The garden has now developed into an impressive model set in one of the favourite haunts for back-packers and budget travellers passing through the capital city. The hotel’s director, Mr Fitsum, is pleased with the production of vegetables for the Hotel’s kitchen and the garden is attracting attention to the cause.
Around the same time as this Tichafa was made the director of Slow Food’s 1000 Gardens in Africa Project for Ethiopia. Slow Food is an international organisation with its HQ in Italy. They promote the quality and variety of traditional local foods as opposed to the trashy commercial fast foods that are proliferating to dominate the modern diet, while traditional processing and production of quality foods is being lost. But their “1000 Gardens in Africa” project has more of a focus on food security and they were really impressed by what they saw on the ground in Konso in our Schools Project. They wanted to see the Permaculture in Schools Project expanded to the whole Southern Region of Ethiopia and beyond. South Ethiopia has 65 ethnic groups of which the Konso are just one. There would have to be wider coverage. They have now agreed to establish 30 schools projects around the South. Tichafa is in charge of it all.
All of this was, however, making Tichafa extremely busy. My father, as a board member of the EPF has been getting increasingly frustrated about inconsistent and sometimes poor reporting back on the PKSP projects that the EPF has been funding. Tichafa, although his groundwork is fantastic has been lacking a proper office and, with so much on his plate, lacking the support staff needed to deliver reports on his work with the school communities.
My father also felt that the model for the schools project we were following lacked robustness. Training a single or a pair of teachers from each school could produce good results but only if the teachers were well motivated and pushed the project forwards. But we learned that if we trained a lazy teacher the project would deliver a poor outcome. We subsequently decided that with future PKSP schools we would train a wider selection of the community: 2 teachers, 2 parents, 2 pupils – one male and one female of each.
We began implementing this model in July 2011, in a training lead by Steve Cran. The training and subsequent implementation were funded by LUSH and the results were very encouraging. It seems that training parents along with the teachers puts more pressure on them to perform. And training pupils means that the concepts can be explained to the other pupils in their own terms. We implemented the project in Gocha and Karat Primary Schools and the projects have now been running for three months. The results have been fantastic, and we will shortly post another update on these two projects. We need to keep up the momentum on this.
We are really standing on a foothill at this stage staring across a mountain range of possibilities. We are scaling up and building on the hard won successes we have achieved so far. And yet in a country of 80 million the possibilities are limitless. The EPF has now agreed in principal to open a branch office inside the country. If this happens we could be looking at branching out much wider into areas like wide-scale land rehabilitation and agro-forestry funded through carbon credits schemes. Till now we have been handicapped due to lack of a legal auspice through which the EPF can work on the ground and apply for funding from bodies supporting projects from inside the country. But if we are to successfully scale up we need more support at this stage. It is very hard to find reliable and well educated, quality staff within the country. What we need to make this work at this stage is enthusiastic and energetic young people who believe in the cause of permaculture and will help us progress it in Ethiopia. At the same time we will keep working with promising locals and build them up to take over from us in the long run. But so far we have been unable to find people we can really give big responsibilities to confidently at this stage. The first thing we really need is an office administrator who can help us with proposals and reporting. We also need people to work on the ground for us.
Strawberry Fields and the demonstration site need to be kept going as we spread our activities more widely. We are looking for an intern to help manage the farm and gardens and we are also looking for a chef cook to manage the kitchen. Naturally these two people have to coordinate closely between them, to minimise expenses and maximise the use of what we grow, to increase production for what we cook.
We plan to continue running international PDCs at Strawberry Fields every two to three months, but we are also now looking to establish a second training site more in the central highlands. We are also planning to include a wider range of design examples from our schools projects in other locations around the south of the country as well as at Taitu Hotel in Addis Ababa. Our PDCs will become much more broad in the scope of habitats and situations which the practical examples and illustrations cover. We hope that students coming on the courses will be inspired to stay on and help us out in different aspects of our work. Or maybe the other way round — people without a background in permaculture will come to help us and learn about it by doing so.
For want of a better phrase, we are making a call to arms here. Ethiopian permaculture needs you! We need young and passionate interns to come and assist us in this quest. Are you or someone you know looking to gain more experience in any of these areas?
Please let me know if you are interested or would like more information. Contact me on:
- alex1mcc (at) yahoo.com
- Office Administrator, Addis Ababa
- Assistant Farm Manager and Volunteer Coordinator, Konso
- Chef Cook, Konso
If so please get in touch!
Editor’s Note: I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired both by Alex’s vision and his dogged determination. I’ve found few have the former, and even fewer have the latter. If you want to help, and want to step into this situation, even just for a reconnaissance trip, consider taking Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge’s next PDC, to begin December 5, 2011.