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Report on Permaculture Training in Dembe Dollo, Western Ethiopia (Part 3)

This is part three of a report on a community training program we ran in Dembe Dolo, Wolega, Eastern Ethiopia back in June, 2013. If you didn’t catch the last installments you can read them here: Part 1, Part 2.

If you recall we started the training program off with introductions from the group and drew out the class motivations and aspirations for taking the training. We then briefly covered the permaculture principles before diving into setting up a tree nursery, mixing potting mix and preparing some planting packs and sowing seed. Now, that is not normally the way I would order things. The actual reason we dived straight into the tree nursery was that some of our seed had gotten wet in a torrential downpour on the way to Dembe Dolo and I wanted to get it in the packs before it went mouldy!

The usual way I structure my course is to start with the most intensive systems — Zone 1 — and move outwards to the increasingly more extensive land uses, expostulating the various ecological theories and principles of design which are most relevant to each of these areas as we go. So, having kind of jumped ahead to the tree nursery, which would usually come in when we cover food forests around day 4, we jumped back to the garden, Zone 1, and in particular compost.

A quick discussion with the group revealed they are aware that land recently cleared of indigenous forest is fertile and will grow very good crops for a couple of years. After this time the fertility drops off and they have to add nutrients in some form to the area to get a sustained yield. Of course the artificial fertilisers are expensive and only getting more-so. What about compost? Yes that is possible. The problem I had observed in the area was that they are planting vegetables using a lot of land for a very low level of production and expending a lot of energy (effort and money) to continuously weed and plough that land which of course is leading to its degradation. What I wanted to demonstrate to them was that we can use land much more intensively in small areas by piling lots of resources into that area to get just as much production out of the small area, with less work and without wrecking the land broadscale. The key to this is compost. And since we need a lot of compost I wanted to show them how we can get it fast.

So, we covered the basics of a 21-day compost. How do you explain about Carbon:Nitrogen ratios to a group of rural community members who lack even basic knowledge of scientific concepts like the periodic table? Well, there was the challenge.

So we approached it like this: carbon can be considered as a substance which makes things hard (knock on wood). The harder some (living) thing is, the more carbon it has. Wood has lots of carbon in it. The old grass we use for thatching the roof is hard. (I confirmed with them that a well thatched roof can last up to 20 years.) Green grass is soft, and if you thatch your roof with it, what happens? It goes rotten. Why? It has less carbon in it.

Old grass is hard and can last in place for many years, because it has lots of carbon in it. Nitrogen, on the other hand, is a different substance — one which makes up our flesh. Our flesh is soft. If something has a lot of nitrogen in it, and it dies, it will break down fast and release a bad smell. When an animal dies, it smells bad. When a tree dies, it does not smell bad. Why? Because the tree has more carbon, but the animal has more nitrogen. Cows can eat green grass and can digest it, but if they eat old hard grass they may suffer indigestion or sickness — because the old grass has more carbon, so they cant digest it. We people can eat a dead animal and digest it easily. But if we try to eat sawdust we will probably die.

OK, so things with more nitrogen tend to be break down fast and are more digestible, but they also tend to quickly become putrid and rotten. Things with more carbon tend to break down very slowly, are indigestible and don’t purify or smell bad.

So, carbon makes thing hard. Pure carbon is very hard. It is the hardest thing there is — think of a diamond. Another type of carbon is coal. Coal (including charcoal) is a fuel. And, that is also what animals use carbon for — as the fuel for their bodies. What about nitrogen, what does it do? Its main role is in the proteins which make up our bodies. Proteins are like the mechanical engine of the living organism.

Now when we talk about compost, we are dealing with a living organism — a bacteria. This bacteria breaks down the material we provide it and turns it into soil. If we give it the right conditions it will work well for us, just like yeast will make bread rise or another kind of bacteria turns milk into yoghurt.

We have to balance the fuel (carbon) we provide with the engine (nitrogen). A big engine can’t run with a small amount of fuel. A small engine won’t go any faster even if it has loads of fuel. Hence we balance the fuel and the engine.

If there is too much nitrogen it’s like a big engine with no fuel. Other types of bacteria will come in and start using the nitrogen as a fuel. We will get a bad smell and the compost won’t heat up. The bad smell is toxic and means we are losing nitrogen into the air.

If there is too much carbon it’s like a small engine with lots of fuel. The engine just can’t burn it all. So the material breaks down very slowly and it won’t heat up.

Then we considered different materials we may use to make compost, some with high C:N ratios (urine, bird manure, mammal manures, dead animals, kitchen waste, green garden waste, etc.) and some with low C:N ratios (sawdust, paper, card, straw, leaf-litter, hay). We also discussed how we can mix up these different materials to get a good C:N balance. We didn’t go into the numerics of this as I thought it would confuse most of them. We saw how to classify the materials as green, brown and activator and how we can make a layered heap which we should then turn every 3 to 5 days to get nice even breakdown.

Diagram of a good heap

The other two factors that have to be balanced are water and oxygen. The bacteria, like us, need to breathe oxygen. If there is no oxygen in the compost heap we get a swampy smell and toxins are produced. This will be the case if there is too much water — i.e. the heap is waterlogged — and the heap will not get hot. However, if there is not enough water and the heap is too dry, the bacteria will also not thrive and the heap will, again, not get hot. So we have to have a balance between water and air — the heap needs to be damp, but not soggy.

So by this stage they were all looking a bit classroom weary and it was time to get outside and start making compost.

Practically, it all went very well; we gathered leaf litter from under the mango trees, carted in cow and chicken manure, added in kitchen waste, chopped up dry maize straw, fresh banana leaves, and gathered up armfuls of fresh green weeds from the surrounding fields and threw in a few handfuls of lime as we went along. Soon the heap was up and then everybody went off to lunch.

Chopping greens for the compost

Collecting manure

Kitchen waste

The heap nearing completion

However while we were making the compost I was a bit taken aback by the tendency of the group to trample all over everything around them. The area next to where we were making the compost had been a nice fluffy loam-soil field of potatoes. Now it was a muddy compacted mess with a few bedraggled survivors poking out of mounds here and there. I realised that this was perhaps one of their biggest problems in terms of how they were using their land — they were not effectively partitioning between land uses. People walk all over everything and plant stuff all over the place. Pathways are not well delineated, fencing is patchy and there is no potential to use rotational management without the land being effectively partitioned.

With the students all gone off to lunch I had a chance to walk up to the cow shed. On the way I passed a little shed in which some bee-hives had been installed previously. Actually it was done by one of the students on the course. The bee-hives were empty. The chickens were in the little shed scratching around excitedly in the dirt. Further up the track I found a calf in the veggie garden — well field really, it is too extensive to be called a garden — but the calf was having great fun munching and trampling all over the cabbages. So I realised we had our work cut out. We have to get them to focus on more intensive land use in the lower zones, as well as to divide the land; both separating the zones and the elements within zones from each-other as required — so chickens don’t get into the bees and get stung and/or disturb the bees until they swarm off (having the bees next to the main pathway was also not a great design decision since bees are sensitive to disturbance by people trudging past all the time.) We have to separate path from bed, chicken from bee, cow from garden, etc. etc., then we have to separate the special packets of land use across time as well — if we can divide up the coffee plantation we can get the chickens to forage in there rotationally, cleaning under the coffee and getting lots of nice grubs etc. at the same time. The same for cows. How can we develop a Savory/Salatin type rotational grazing system in a place where they’ve never seen an electric fence…? Mmmm… lunch time.

The bee hives in an open shed

So conceptually we had to dive into a whole lot of other stuff now — zoning, promotion of cooperative relationship and avoidance of antagonistic ones, multi-functionality, etc., and the group was not very happy sitting in the classroom….

Anyway, after lunch we covered zones. I always like to start this topic by considering a toilet, just because it is something we all have to do, several times a day every day, wherever we are and whoever we are. If the toilet is placed three minutes walk away how long will you spend walking to the toilet and back in a year? Well how many times a day do you go? Some say three some say five. OK so let’s say four. Six minutes (three there, three back), so, 6 x 4 = 24 minutes per day x 365 = 8,760 minutes per year = 146 hours = 6 days. Place the toilet 30 seconds walk away and you save 5 days (and five nights!) in the year. So that always gets people’s attention.

Then we talked about the different zones as broad land-use categories (garden, orchard, farm land, forestry, wilderness); as compartments of intensity of land use; as zones of human and natural influence; how they are not real circles, etc. Finally we had a discussion about which elements should go into which of the zones. I got them to try and zone their own homesteads and farms and we had a discussion about that. Some of them had land separate from their domestic compounds. No problem. We can fit that into the same frame-work. You have Zone 1 at the house and the other zones out in the field… or we can do it differently. In Zimbabwe, so I was told by a former student, they have their gardens down by the river or pond, and they keep chickens at the house. They go all the way down to the river to garden, and cook and spend most of the day down there, and come home in the evening. The chickens get fed morning and evening. So really they have Zone 2 at the house and Zone 1 out in the field. We use the design system to suit our needs — it’s not there to constrain, but rather to inform us.


So now we wanted to demonstrate to them how they actually could make more intensive use of the land nearest their center of activity, be it the house or another place where they work most of the time — and the key issue here is concentrating additional nutrients and resources into a focussed Zone 1 area. We had already built the compost heap. Now to look at how we can use that compost for intensive food production: raised beds.

Bahrudin took the session, explaining about the layers in the raised bed, the breakdown process, how the organic matter holds onto water, how it allows us to actually build soil as we grow food, etc. We also wanted to show them how we can use clay pots inside the raised bed for very efficient micro-irrigation. The pots we had were not the long-necked urns we usually use, but clay cooking pots, which are the local style. So we adapted them by filling them in with gravel and then cutting the bottom off a water bottle and sticking it head down into the gravel. We then put some sacking material covering over the top of the gravel and the whole lot is then buried inside the raised bed as it is built up, until only the open bottle end is left protruding out from the top of the raised bed. Water can now be poured into the bottle to water the bed from the inside. This water will seep slowly out through the walls of the porous unglazed clay pot and keep the inside of the bed moist for around a week per watering.

Raised beds, first layer: cardboard

Next, greens and compost

Another thing we decided to impress upon them at this point was the importance of path design. Just like compost, soil needs oxygen. If there is a lack of oxygen in the soil we get a swampy smell. That smell is caused by bacteria — just as if the compost heap is waterlogged. These bacteria, remember, use nitrogen as a fuel source. When this happens the soil loses nitrogen. The nitrogen gets burned off as ammonia, which is a poisonous gas. Hence soil without oxygen does not grow good plants. When we compact soil we drive the air out of it, which results in a loss of fertility and production of ammonia so the soil also loses its nitrogen and won’t grow good plants. Because of this, when we put a lot of effort into making compost and creating good soil in a concentrated area, we need to make sure we don’t trample all over it, wrecking it after we’ve been to all that trouble.

Now the pots go in

Filling the pots with gravel

So we showed them how to mark out a key-hole bed, so that the whole bed can be reached without stepping on it, giving the least path-to-bed area ratio. Then we had them lay down markings for the rest of the garden area. We only had a small amount of compost, only enough for one raised key-hole bed, with the clay pots buried inside it. Half of this bed we used for a vegetable nursery and put a shade over it. Sister Evalyn had a lot of different kinds of vegetable seeds which she had given us to use so we set them out on the new bed in rows. With the compost heap starting to warm up, we anticipated more beds ready to plant out into by the time this seed has grown into seedlings big enough to be transplanted.

The bed is nearly ready for planting

Planting up

Done! Time to go home for tea…

So, with another good day’s work done it was time to head back home…. I had a plan for the next day which I was brooding on, but I’ll tell you about that in the next installment.


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.

One Comment

  1. Mashaa allah go brother i m waiting for the next part of your passionate articles.
    Thanks for your clear eplanation
    Looking forward to meet you brother

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