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Report on Permaculture Training in Dembe Dollo, Western Ethiopia (Part 2)

Continuing from: Report on Permaculture Training in Dembe Dollo, Western Ethiopia (Part 1)

Community trainings in the third world present a bit of a different set of challenges from your average western group. The community members often have quite a wealth of indigenous knowledge on the methods and the species of the area – they know exactly which trees are used for what (goat forage, fencing, medicine, fibre, etc.), how to plough a field with an ox, how to make local crafts, how to prepare an axe handle, etc. – and they generally have practical experience of doing all this. The real problems they face come from lack of education and not being able to understand the “bigger picture” when it comes to ecological processes. They have awareness about certain issues – like that forests create good soils, moderate air temperatures and help to ensure regular rainfall etc. – but they lack an understanding of the underlying mechanisms and processes. Here in Ethiopia farmers tend to focus on short term yields – basically because they live somewhat hand to mouth, and the general attitude is: “if I go to the trouble of doing X how much food or how much money will I get out of it (this year) to be able to feed my family.”

When people live life balancing on the bread line it can be quite challenging to get them to start prioritising sustainability over short term yields. So what we have to do is devise strategies that yield in the short term while building eco-system function over the longer term. To do that we have to deepen their understanding of what’s going on under the soil surface, what fertility is, how it gets destroyed and how we can build it up, how we can control water flow over our land, how we can partition land between different uses and how we should select for the most appropriate uses, etc. etc. We need to provide them with a tool-box for more effective decision-making. Which is of course what permaculture design is all about. They don’t need huge amounts of technical info. It just confuses things. What they need is simple concepts which appeal to common sense and relate to their indigenous knowledge. They already know the techniques; “how” to do most things they need to do. There are a few gaps to fill there but being farmers already they can quickly absorb and implement those with energy and enthusiasm.

With the westerners, it’s often completely the other way round. They can draft up all the pretty plans, maps, and technical system designs you like, but can often barely pick up a shovel. They generally expect to be blown away with torrents of high powered technical info for 8 hours a day during the PDC, but couldn’t show you how to plant a potato. It’s kind of ironic because permaculture is not actually about planting potatoes! It’s actually about how to partition and assign different land uses to be efficient and sustainable and place elements into cooperative conformations to optimise system functions. It’s about deciding where (and when) we should plant the potatoes. So with the westerners you often end up spending a lot more time on the techniques, whereas with the local community groups its actually the natural processes (basic scientific and ecological concepts) and systems design that we are able to focus on, which actually is what permaculture is all about. We can draw out a lot of indigenous, local knowledge from them, especially the elders, and get them to use that in building more effective systems.

So, to continue with the story of this training in Dembe Dollo… with the materials delivered to the site we were ready to begin the program, on schedule, on Monday June 17th, 2013. So we had a “game plan” meeting with the sisters – sort of a group huddle (but without the huddling). The first thing I wanted to know was where two particular workers were? These were the two guys who were trained in Konso back in December 2012, and were supposed to be helping facilitate the program. Well apparently the sisters had not been happy with their performance after they returned from Konso. They were supposed to make use of their training by implementing the site designs they’d done during the PDC on the project site. They had been trained at the Sisters’ expense and had signed an agreement that in return for the training they would start implementing permaculture on the project site in return for their sponsorship. However as soon as they returned they demanded payment to actually do anything. Mmm… the usual, depressing, “why should I do anything if I don’t get paid par it?” attitude. Maybe it’s because your community is starving the death….

Anyway, Sr Evalyn had a back-up plan, which turned out to be much better actually, in the form of Dr. Magersa (one of the medics from her clinic) who is proficient in both English, and Oromifa (the local language) and savvy enough, being a medical doctor, to the able to explain basic scientific concepts to the local trainees. Actually Magersa turned out to be a fantastic translator to work with; polite, tuned to the needs of the trainees as well as the instructor, energetic, completely lacking in hidden agendas, without the need to prove himself and had a good sense of humour to top it all — an all round professional.

Come Monday morning, we trekked down to the site – it had been raining and was very muddy so no chance to get there by car. With the disappointment of the two AWOL workers in mind I wanted to put the focus on making sure the group was engaged and here for the right reasons. We began with introductions, getting each participant to introduce themselves, explain what they do, where they are from and, most importantly, why they are here – what do they want to gain from being here (other than pocket money)? A pretty consistent theme emerged as we went around the 24 participants: “I want to gain new knowledge, to improve myself, my family and then help my community”. So I began by challenging them: “most of you say you want to improve yourselves. So, what is wrong with you? What are your short-comings that you need to improve?” Some of them said “we work hard, but we lack knowledge so our work is not productive.” Others said “we don’t work hard enough.”

Magersa and Alex doing the introductions with the group

So, I said to them, “regarding the first problem, the objective of this workshop is to show you how to make more effective use of your energy, to benefit both yourselves and your surroundings. But regarding the second problem, I can’t help you on that one. Only you can help yourselves.” There is a general perception in rural Ethiopia that westerners don’t do any work at all. They just sit around while everything gets done for them by machines. It may sound silly, but Ethiopian farmers tend to see the Western farmer as a non-entity. Well, I guess they have a point. They dream about having loads of machines to do all the work for them so they can sit about waiting for the money to come rolling in. What they don’t realise is that the typical western farmer is just as dependant on hand-outs as they are!

So I thought this a fitting time to cover issues relating to aid: we went over the concept of peak oil, western over-production, and aid. In the west everything is done with oil. It is with oil that all machines are powered. That is how westerners manage to produce more than they need to eat themselves. They get a lot of oil out of the ground and put it into machines and use them to farm huge areas of land which could never be farmed by hand like you do here in Ethiopia. They are too vast. They plough, sow and harvest with big machines and add fertilizers and biocides, which are made in huge factories, to stop weeds and pests from competing with their crop. However, the cost of all that oil is actually more than the value of the food produced. What?! Yes that is right, the farmers are actually producing food at a loss. That is why the government steps in and pays the farmers to grow the food – yes, western farmers actually depend on handouts for survival too. So don’t be deceived by all the big fancy machinery and mountains of grain – they can only persist because the government pays tax money to the farmers to sustain them. Why (you may ask)? Well, that’s because the plant and agrochemical industries have an interest is the system being sustained so that they can sell inputs. These industries are huge and have huge lobbying power with the governments, financed by the banks.

The banks are in perpetual need of making loans. They have to lend money so that they can balance all their liabilities with debts at interest. If the banks can’t lend money they will not be able to pay the interest on the deposits they hold and the whole system will collapse. The western governments know that as soon as the banks run out of new projects to lend to, the economy will crash, people will lose jobs, run on the banks, and there will be economic turmoil for which they will be held responsible. So, to avert this, they keep pumping money into this high input agriculture, always adding new specs and criteria so that farmers need to keep buying newer and bigger machines and inputs to actually get the subsidies. This new equipment they probably have to get on credit, borrowing money from the banks, which they then have to pay back, using the subsidies the government made them borrow the money to get in the first place! The banks, the governments and the agrochemical industries don’t actually care if there is over-production in the west – all be it at the tax-payers expense – what they do is dump their surplus on the third world as “aid”, depressing grain prices and lowering incomes for those farmers who are still productive in the third world. However, we can’t rely on that surplus being there forever because that whole system of production – which is already totally inefficient in energy terms to begin with (not to mention, completely crazy), is going to become more and more costly as time goes by. Why? Because the price of the oil, which sustains the whole clap trap, is only going up (and people are only too aware of this in Ethiopia as well). We have a decreasing supply of a finite resource, and increasing demand, and everybody knows what happens to the price of something in demand with a limited supply, especially in the dog eat dog world of the capitalist market place…. To add to that we have a climate that is going mad which is wreaking havoc on the monoculture systems of production – floods in Australia, droughts in Russia, hurricanes in the U.S., etc., which are making grain yields seriously erratic already.

Well, to be honest, the explanation I gave them was less complicated than that, I got a bit carried away writing that last paragraph. But the point I made to them was that oil is running out. The western system depends on oil, for over-production — over-production which is dumped onto third world markets as “aid”. Since this over-production cannot be sustained indefinitely under the current system, anybody who relies on this “aid” for survival, and a lot of people in Ethiopia do, cannot survive in the long term. So forget about aid people, it’s time to start looking after ourselves.

Some of the group agreed, others looked kind off apathetic.

So we need to create a system of production which is productive in energy terms, doesn’t use lots of oil, and is economically profitable as well as being ecologically sustainable (even regenerative). We call such a system "permaculture". We briefly ran over the etymology of the word, the story of Bill and David, etc., and the three ethics. Now I wanted a bit of input from them.

Outlining the Ethics

What about the agriculture here in Ethiopia? What is lacking? This is a very fertile area. What are the problems faced? We came up with a list of the social challenges and environmental problems:

  • Deforestation
  • Soil erosion
  • Lack of planning
  • Lack of equipment and infrastructure
  • Lack of water supply outside of rain events

This gave us a good set of objectives which we could address during the course. I knew that some of the PC concepts which address these issues were going to sound strange to them. I didn’t want to dive in and claim “you can farm without the plough!” It would make me sound crazy. What I wanted to do was to draw out their own local knowledge and start to build up a picture of a more sustainable system which would still be familiar to them, and then start to introduce new bits and pieces here and there as we go.

To do that we would first have to consider the current system and search for its weak points. So to give you a clear picture of the area and the agriculture, as it is currently practiced, most people farm small-holdings of 1 – 3 Ha. They have small home compounds in the village, usually around 400m2, in which they may grow some fruit and fodder trees and keep a few animals. Of the group of 25 people only 1 person had a water supply (a well) in their domestic compound. Their main farmlands are usually outside the village and may or may not adjoin onto their domestic compounds. Here they grow cereals (mostly maize, but also wheat and t’eff) and root crops (mostly “Irish” potato and also ginger) and some vegetables (local cabbage – which seems more like mustard). The land is all fairly recently cleared of forest, the soil is a rich loam and still has good humus content. Most areas are sloping to a greater or lesser extent. The way they farm is to plough the whole area and then sow the crops extensively. It was really quite strange to see cabbage and potatoes grown broad-scale, widely spaced, on broad areas with the majority of the soil actually bare. All that work put into turning the soil, to then leave it uncultivated. This of course means hordes of weeds grow between the crop rows – i.e. more work.

Broadscale planting of potato and some local cabbage
on ploughed fields in Dembe Dolo

So I wanted to draw a comparison between this system of cropping and the way coffee is grown. Coffee is generally planted in or adjacent to the living compound as an understory below canopy trees. What I focussed on was the labour requirement. How much work did it need to produce X amount of produce growing maize and get a similar economic yield growing coffee? They all agreed the maize needed more labour on a sustained basis. However the coffee also needed some work, especially to establish. It needs weeding around the coffee bushes or there won’t be good production, since the weeds take most of the nutrients, they told me. Bearing this in mind I questioned them further. What kind of trees make good shade for coffee? They said that coffee grows well with a legume overstory and some other types of indigenous forest trees, such as Cordia africana. Coffee likes a canopy which is not too dense and allows partial light penetration. What about sustainability? They were quick to admit, you can’t grow much maize on the same ground for more than 3 years after an area is cleared, or else you have to start adding fertiliser. But with coffee you can get a sustained yield over many years. What about the canopy? What kind of yields can we get additionally from this canopy? Timber, fodder and possibly fruit, though coffee does not grow well under mango – the main fruit tree in that area. However we were able to observe an avocado growing outside which had a very open canopy with good light penetration – would we not be able to grow coffee under avocado? Nobody had tried. There were not many avocado trees around in the neighbourhood. What I was aiming at was getting them to think more about poly-culture, using the local knowledge they already have. Later we came across some coffee growing under mango and guava trees. There were no weeds around them but deep leaf litter, and the chickens were having a great time scratching through that leaf litter looking for grubs. I took the group out and showed them. Interesting… could we not get the chickens to do the weeding work for us?

Coffee bushes growing with ground-cover of “weeds” underneath

Back in the classroom after lunch: Let us consider the forest. The natural forest. Does that require work to maintain? Does it need inputs? Fertilizer? Irrigation? Weeding… now they were looking at me like I was a bit odd. When we look at the forest we can also see a great deal of diversity in function; canopy, sub canopy, shrubs, herbs, ground-covers, roots and commensals (plants that grow on other plants). What if we could make a forest out of species that would all produce for us? We could get multiple yields from the same area of land, with less labour and maintain the productivity over the long term. What we have to do is choose the species and then assemble them into a functioning community…. I think I was getting somewhere with some of them. Others looked sceptical. Ok, bear with me, it will make more sense as we go along….

What is a seed? It’s basically an embryo (a root and a shoot), a food store (the cotyledon(s)) and a protective coat. What is the purpose of the seed, I asked them? Well, seeds have two main functions. One is multiplication, which is inherent in the seed itself, and the other is dispersal. Dispersal is usually achieved with the help of additional accessories that come with the seed itself. The mechanism of dispersal usually related to the plant’s ecology. Pioneers are often wind dispersed as they move into uncolonised habitat, while grazing-tolerant plants are often disbursed by animals by way of glue or hooks which allow them to catch a ride on the fur of grazers. Overstory canopy trees which occupy well-developed communities often have at their service animals such as monkeys, parrots, etc., so disperse their seed by way of fruit – the animals eat the fruit and drop or defecate the seed. The seed coat of such seed may be very thick, or have additional layers, which we may need to remove, pierce or soften before we can get the seed to start growing. Long term legume trees often have sugary pods which are palatable to donkeys or goats. They have seed that is designed to pass through the guts of the animals; its thick coat prevents germination for a long time unless the seed is subjected to the kind of harsh treatment that the gut of animal would impose on it. If we want to germinate seed like this we have to pierce the coat and or soak the seed in hot water to soften it up.

So the seed is like a capsule, it allows the tiny embryo – which is the essence of the plant itself – to move from where the parent plant is to another place, where it has a chance to grow and establish. This is the dispersal part. But as soon as the seed germinates – takes in water and starts to grow – the little seedling is at the most vulnerable point in its life cycle. This is the time when most plants die, at the seedling stage. Why? Because the little seedling is small and weak. It has little ability to mobilise resources and respond to the conditions around it. It can be easily drowned, buried, eaten off by a goat, and will die fast in a drought because it has short roots. So if we want to design and plant a forest for our own needs, we can’t just go around scattering seeds about the place and expect the trees to just grow themselves. We can do this for some species – those with abundant, cheap seed which are strong and fast growers (which would mostly apply to the early successional legumes), but for fruit trees like mango, avocado, etc., we want to make sure we get a high success rate in germination and establishment because we have limited seed and they will struggle to establish if we just throw them around the place. So we provide the germinating seed and young seedling with an ideal microclimate for germination and growth for the first 3 to 6 months – then when they are a bit bigger and stronger with leaves and roots we can plant them out in the field just when the rain season is getting going – which gives them the best start in life. This ideal microclimate we call a “Tree Nursery”.

So, let’s make up a list of what the young tree needs:

Water – yes, so the tree nursery needs to be near a water supply, so we can eliminate the labour of carrying water.

Soil – very good, what does the soil need to provide? Nutrients, water and drainage. Very good. The young embryo needs nutrients quickly so it can start to grow. We also need a mix which will hold onto water, so that it doesn’t dry up too quickly. However it also has to allow drainage, so that the young seedling won’t end up sitting in water and getting rotten roots. So to provide this we make a potting mix: one part compost, one part sand and one part top-soil. If the soil is heavy in clay we can put in two parts sand.

Shade – yes, the young tree is vulnerable to direct sunlight and should have partial (30-60%) shade. Also we should be aware that not all sun is the same. The morning sun is light, not at full intensity and it is the most beneficial as it helps warm up after the cold of the night. The midday sun is too intense. The afternoon sun is also not desirable as the environment is already hot from the residual of the midday heat. So ideally we can let morning sun into our nursery but keep midday and afternoon sun out.

Shelter – yes, especially in the dry season. The wind tends to dry things out. We want to reduce evaporation and maintain humidity in the air around the little seedlings, so that their leaves don’t lose too much water, as that stresses and can kill them. Winds may also knock them over.

So, bearing all that in mind, we split into two groups. One group would prepare the potting mix. Bahrudin was in charge of them. The other group came with me. We selected a site for the nursery which was: a) close to a water source, b) got morning sun, and c) had some shelter from the prevailing wind. We marked out an area 5m x 4m and began levelling it off. Once that was done we built shade frames. The frames were oriented with the long axis north to south and the tops slanting down to the west. This means that the morning sun, from the east, can shine in under the shade screen, but the midday and afternoon sun will be kept out.

Preparing the ground

The shade frames

Meanwhile Bahrudin had his group sifting sand, soil and compost. We had brought along 6kg of polythene tube for planting packs. We showed them how to cut the tube to a consistent length quickly. You wind it round a piece of pole wood with a circumference equal to the length you want – e.g. 12cm. You can wind it round 10 to 15 times and then use a Stanley blade to cut through all the coils at once. That way you get 15 equal sections with a single cut. You can also be sure to get sections of exactly the same length every time you use the same piece of wood. So it’s fast and consistent. With the compost, sand and soil sifted we mixed them 1:1:1 and added water to get a nice cake mix consistency – it should bind well enough to hold its shape when squeezed in the palm of the hand, but it should not be too sticky. If you prod it with a finger it should crumble again. If it sticks to your hands, add some more sand and maybe a bit more compost – there is too much clay.

Mixing the potting mix

The filled planting packs

With the mix ready, we started filling the planting packs and then seeding the tree seedlings into them. We did Leucinnea, papaya and some Moringa. We also made some larger packs which we used for mango and avocado. So with that done we were off to a good start. They’d worked hard in the afternoon to prove themselves. We were happy with a good first day.

Selecting seed for sowing

The seed packs in the nursery

To be continued…


Editor’s Note: Support the spread of permaculture and the increase of resiliency in Ethiopia, whilst having the experience of a lifetime, by taking a course at Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge. At time of writing, the next courses for 2013 are here. For other dates, please check our course calendar.


  1. Nice read of the basic ideas. Helps give me ideas of how to break the idea down for people! Always great to see people helping farmers around the world maintain a sustainable farm!

  2. Hi Alex
    I am very impressed with this inspiring permaculture training report from Ethiopia. And it is an encouragement to continue my permaculture design efforts here in Lesotho. Great photos. I am planning a visit to the Strawberry fields Eco -lodge in Jan /Feb 2014. See you there Alex.

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