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Report on a Permaculture Internship – Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge (Sept-Oct, 2013, Ethiopia)

Editor’s Note: Beginning 2 December 2013, Alex is running another PDC at the developing Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge in southern Ethiopia. Following that will be a four-week Internship, starting 16 December, 2013. Why not book your place and head off for the learning and cultural immersion experience of a lifetime!

This is a write up based on a brief report by Jesse Wood which he wrote at the end of our internship which ran September 16th — Oct 12th. I wanted to expand a bit on Jesse’s report just to give a bit more background, going a bit more into the theory underlying the physical activities we did and illustrate how they play out in the frame-work of the overall site design development. So my text is in italics while Jesse’s is in plain font.

We’ll solve this problem like we do all our problems, with persistence – Alex McCausland, 1 st October 2013

The Permaculture internship was run the week following the design course. It provided a much more hands-on experience of running a Permaculture system. The internship ran for 4 weeks in total, during which there was a wide variety of tasks that needed completing.

Week 1

The first day of the internship was started off with a tour of Zone 1 (the zone which requires the most intensive attention); this included the vegetable garden, the chicken coop and the area where the goats are kept. Each morning we would be in Zone 1 by 7:30 am to complete the daily duties of letting the chickens out of the coop, feeding them and making sure they had enough water; feeding the goats and moving them around the site so they could graze; and go through the vegetable patch removing any weeds and then running the drip irrigation system (if it hadn’t rained the night before). We also had to ensure that the seedlings in the tree nursery had enough water.

After the Zone 1 tour we looked into designing a more efficient Zone 0 system (Zone 0 being the Kitchen and Restaurant area). As the design stood, the ladies working in the kitchen would use water stored in two large plastic barrels, pouring it into two large metal pots, kept on the floor, to wash dishes. This system involved a repetitive motion of crouching and standing; to wash dishes and then to put them away on the drying rack. This repetitive motion was a lot of unnecessary extra work, so we came up with a new design which was more energy efficient.

We had actually begun to develop the kitchen design during the PDC as a little Zone 0 design problem set during week two. The most effective technique for designing use of space in confined areas is flow analysis. This sequences the flow of energy through a series of different tasks, allowing us to arrange them in space so that each subsequent task is adjacent to the preceding task.


  1. Vegetables out of garden to sink
  2. wash
  3. peel
  4. chop
  5. to stove
  6. plate out of cupboard
  7. cooked food onto plate
  8. plate out to dining room
  9. plate back to washing up (sink) wash
  10. rinse
  11. drip dry
  12. plate back to cupboard. And so on.

So the idea with this technique is to place these activates next to each other so you are not bouncing all around the kitchen like a ping-pong ball in a tumble dryer but are moving around in a sequence from stage to stage. So with our kitchen, there were several considerations as well as the basic principle of efficiency.

  1. Strategic development
  2. Maximise space
  3. Get all activities off the floor
  4. Build things to be as permanent as possible

Prior to the internship our kitchen had been in a state of gradual decline over the previous year or so since it got its last good makeover. The kitchen basically comprises two sections — an indoor (fully walled) room with a clay wood-burning range in the centre, chopping surfaces, storage for pots, pans and plates and the food store (in a pantry off to the side). And an outdoor section (roof only) where washing up and injera (Ethiopian pancake/bread staple) cooking are performed. We have a plan to replace the current clay range inside with a new and better design which has been expounded in detail here. However the mission of getting into the kitchen and demolishing the current clay range and building the new one, without suffering a severe black-hawk-down at the hands of my wife, wielding all manner of cooking implements, necessitates assiduous planning and preparation, even with the technological edge and greater firepower we have in the farm tool shed.

So, we have to play the diplomacy game here. My wife has to have a fully functional kitchen at all times, especially when there are interns about! So what Jesse and myself were really out to achieve was to design a strategy by which we could maintain all the essential kitchen functions and improve the current infrastructure, which would allow us at some point in the future (next internship perhaps) to get into the kitchen, demolish the old range and build the new one. So we decided we wanted to: a) move and improve the washing up infrastructure to make more space, use the existing space better and be more ergonomic for the washing up ladies, b) build an alternative stove – a portable rocket stove which works well enough to be taken seriously as an alternative to the current clay range.

Women in Ethiopia seem to have an urge to do everything on the ground. You spend days discussing with them in painstaking detail to design their kitchen, all the functions, surfaces, storage, etc., so they don’t have to spend all their time stooping, breathing smoke and sitting in ash. You go to great pains to make it all just so. You come back a week later and there are three rocks on the floor in the middle of the room and they are using your rocket stove as a coffee table. The termites had been hard at work in the washing up area since we last sorted it, so things had been reverting to their natural state. The washing up itself is done in large steel basins which are basically the end of a 200L oil drum. Two of these were placed on a wooden frame, but the frame had rotted and been eaten away, so the washing was getting done on the floor. The dirty water is poured through a sieve into an aluminium tin (which was still at waist height on some wobbly sticks that had not quite been fully eaten) after which it goes to the sceptic tank and then down though the grey water system (we have plans to upgrade the grey-water system too and we also made a start on this later on in the internship). The solid material sieved out from the water goes into the compost, via the chickens. Now the problem was this — with the basins on the floor and the sink raised up the women had to hoist all of the dirty water up and poor it into the sink. This was hence a strain on their backs and a waste of energy. We also decided that anything we went to the trouble of building now would have to be impenetrable to termites!

We started off by building a frame for the drying rack close to the kitchen door. This was made out of steel poles that were already on site, along with wire mesh, a metal sink and a separate metal double sink (not plumbed) that was already being used to dry dishes. We buried two steel poles – which had a horizontal metal bar connecting them – until the metal bar was level with an adjacent terrace. We then placed three pieces of steel pole perpendicular to the metal bar (spaced far enough to fit the double sink) and terrace and secured them with little bits of wire. We then cut some thick gauge wire mesh to fit across the frame and allow for the sink to fit nicely as well. Again, we secured it in place with wire. Once we were satisfied that the drying rack frame was secure we turned our attention to the washing basins. We had to ensure that they were raised high enough that it would be easy to wash dishes in (and easy to poor the grey water via the sieve into the waste water sink). This was accomplished by burying two metal barrels (already on site) until about waist height, which could then be used as a platform for the washing basins. The barrels were spaced just enough to allow the sink – which was to be plumbed into the septic tank – to fit snugly in between them. The plumbing in of the sink was completed the following day. A table for the dirty dishes was placed on the left hand side of the washing up area; to the right of this were the two metal barrels, in between which the sink was plumbed into the gray-water system to allow for easy pouring of waste water into the septic tank. On either side of the metal barrels we placed the plastic barrels that hold the water for washing. To the right of this was the drying rack; closest to the kitchen door.

The logic in this order of sequencing was:

  1. dirty dishes in from restaurant to the left
  2. washing
  3. drying
  4. plates back into inner kitchen room for storage or re-use.

Our plan at this stage was that once we had fixed up all the rotten wooden stuff and re-ordered the outside kitchen, making a lot more space in the process, we would build a new moveable rocket stove in one of the many old barrels we have on the site. However, sadly, due to the unforeseen circumstances, we did not get around to completing that project during this internship. With only Jesse on the course there was also a limited amount we could achieve.

The next task at hand was to build a chicken tractor (i.e. a moveable chicken coop) with a solar panel on the roof, connected to a battery which powered a mobile electric fence.

This electric fence netting is a system used at Zaytuna Farm by Geoff Lawton and others. It’s a great way to be able to move your chickens about the place, controlling what they have access to and stopping other things from having access to them! We recently got in a new flock of 12 hens, which are an indigenous Ethiopian variety, not much different from bantams, and along with them two roosters, one of which was quite young and hence constantly being beaten up by the other, older one. We had put them in a temporary pen at the bottom of the garden where they stayed during the PDC. Now we wanted to split them into two flocks, one of which would be placed permanently behind the garden (the idea being to develop a kitchen/garden waste chicken-manure composting system), while the other would be in a mobile pen that we could move around our Zone II and III areas to assist with clearing the ground, building fertility and removing pests from amongst fruit trees and crops, as required. So the task at hand was to build a coop for the mobile flock, to provide security for the hens from predators. It would include a power supply to power the electric fence netting, nesting space, roosting space, shelter from rain, etc. It would need to be durable, portable and make use of our old junk in the process!

Building the mobile chicken coop

We used a 100 x 120 x 100cm cage – which had previously been used to reinforce a water tank – as the frame for the chicken coop. We cut four bits of 2×2" timber, two at a height of 118cm, and the other two at a height of 133cm to give a slanting angle of 7 degrees (which is the most efficient angle for the solar panel at our latitude). These were then attached to sit vertically, 5cm below the first rung at the bottom of the cage and acted as columns for the roof. To keep eggs free from chicken poop (i.e. to separate the nesting and roosting functions – as Joel Salatin puts it, “wherever a hen roosts she always leaves her calling card. And we don’t want that soiling on the eggs”) we decided to place the nesting boxes on the outside of the steel cage. This was also where we decided to place the battery.

To make shelves for the nest boxes and battery holder (old plastic jerry-cans) we used timber planks, resting them onto four steel pipes with T-joints at the end. The steel pipes were placed horizontally all the way through the steel cage; two lower down and two higher up; and secured to the cage with wire. The pipes had a double purpose: 1) to secure the shelves for the nest boxes and battery, and 2) to provide perches of various heights for the chickens.

We fixed wire mesh around the cage to provide a secure roosting environment for the chickens. On either side of the frame we put two discarded metal pieces (from an old deck chair) to act as handles and provide even more roosting perches on the inside of the cage. These were secured on to the topmost horizontal pipes with small bits of wire. Once the wire mesh was secured all the way around the cage we needed to make the roof. This was done by cutting two beams the length of the corrugated metal sheet we were to use as roofing material. Three cross-pieces were then cut to fit the width of the corrugated sheet. The five pieces of wood were nailed together, forming a frame for the roof. The corrugated metal was then nailed onto the wooden frame. The next stage was to build a small frame on top of this to place the solar panel onto. This was done by first nailing four pieces of 2×2” timber into the shape of a hash-tag and using screws to secure it onto the roof. We then cut two pieces of angle-iron to the length of the solar panel. These were placed onto either side of the wooden frame and the solar panel was riveted in between them. We then put the roof onto the four columns and used screws to secure it in place. We wired up the solar panel to the regulator and did the same for the battery.

Strategy – zones, tractoring and poultry as ground preparation

Next we moved the coop, placed it near the already existing chicken coop, laid out the electric fence and moved the chickens over. The electric fence works in such a way that all you need to do is attach crocodile clips from the regulator onto the fence itself. And with that the first week of the internship was over.

Week 2

Now, with the mobile chicken system up and running, the first task of the week was to move the stationary chicken coop from its temporary location in a Zone 2 area to the back of the garden where kitchen waste was being deposited to make compost – on the edge of the raised bed system. We needed four people to move the coop itself, but once it was in place the rest was fairly straightforward. The fence (normal chicken wire and 1” steel poles) had to be moved into its new location. We bashed the poles into the ground with a hammer and secured the mesh using wire and bits of string. We bashed in wooden pegs to the bottom of the fence to stop any animals from being able to get into the area. We then made a door to fit in between two ends of the fence out of five pieces of plywood (two vertical and three horizontal) and wire mesh. On the hinge side of the door we used a thick round piece of wood that fit into an old bit of pipe, which we hammered into the ground. This allowed the door to swivel easily. Next we wanted to set up a good nesting site for them, so we cut holes in the fence that were smaller than the 200L steel oil drums (which were being used to house the nesting boxes) so they could be pushed through the fence while remaining flush so as not to allow any predators in, or chickens out. We placed the drums inside a thicket of thorny bushes, just outside the fence, so they are in shade all day and won’t get too hot inside.

With the two chicken systems now set up, I wanted to plant up the area where they had previously been housed during the PDC with fruit trees, as part of the ongoing development of the Zone 2 area. Jesse’s interests however lay more in building technical systems than in horticulture and gardening tasks, so after some discussion we settled on three more projects which we hoped to get done over the remaining three weeks. The first was building a solar water heater for the showers — one which could be modified into a hybrid solar-compost system in the future (the design for this system is outlined in a previous article I published earlier in the year). The second project was building a moveable rocket stove for the outside part of the kitchen. The third project was finishing off the first stage of our grey-water system upgrade – design outlined here – which we had made a brief start on during the PDC. In between these projects there was some scope for getting our hands dirty with a bit of tree planting and making compost as the impending arrival of the short rains meant that I was particularly keen on getting seedlings out of the nursery and into the ground.

Next, we decided to build the solar-powered water heater (with no solar panel involved). What this entailed was building a fairly large rectangular box with a wooden bottom and no top. Then we had to insulate this using cotton (collected from the site). We filled in the bottom half of the box to 5cm deep with cotton and nailed a sheet of black plastic pond liner down over it to hold it in place. We then fitted ten 1” T-pieces to twelve 1” nipples with two end pieces (elbows) on either side to have a radiator like layout. We used Teflon tape before tightening each joint to ensure that it was waterproof. The next day we realised we needed union pieces for the other set of T-pieces to make a duplicate of the radiator-like pipe we had made the day before. This meant that further work on the heating element could not be done; save for nailing black tarpaulin over the cotton.

Though we couldn’t work on the heating element without unions, we made a start on the stand by the shower block which would hold up the hot water tank. We did this by digging a hole wide enough to fit an empty tyre that was lying nearby. Once the hole was dug we put the tyre in it and began packing it with a mixture of gravel, sand and clay soil – making sure to compact it into the sides of the tyre. We repeated this until the tyre looked like it was filled with air and the soil mixture was so compacted that there was no give when we tried pushing it. We placed another empty tyre on top of the buried one and repeated the process. On top of the tyre foundation we placed a steel oil drum which we filled with rocks and gravel. When the barrel was full to the brim with a mixture of small and large stones, and after making sure the barrel was level, we knocked in three square metal rods (vertically) to act as a support for another half barrel that was to go on top of the base barrel. We then bolted the iron bars to the barrel itself.

While waiting for the battery for the drill to charge up, we performed other tasks so we weren’t sitting around idle. These included chopping various trees to allow more light into an area where we were going to plant more fruit trees (the area where the chickens had now been moved out off), chopping and dropping the overgrown area between the restaurant and the rooms, chopping firewood for the kitchen, and other tasks that needed doing.

Once we had managed to put the bolts on the base barrel we slid the half barrel over the bars. Again, alongside the drilling we perform other tasks; namely, we moved the mobile chicken coop into a patch of sugar cane, we then cut all the grass that was in the patch and laid it on the ground. This benefited the sugar cane as it was no longer being overrun by the grass and the chickens scratched through the grass looking for grubs and insects, fertilising the ground as they went. We also planted fruit trees in the newly-cleared area (where they had been and which we had just chop-n-dropped). We planted a wide variety of trees, spaced about 2m apart – the species included oranges, guava, avocado, coffee and lemon. We planted them by first digging fairly deep holes and adding a mixture of compost and soil (a handful of each) to which we added plenty of water. Next, the seedlings were removed from their plastic holders and placed into the hole. The hole was then filled with more soil and patted down around the seedling. We then added more compost, water and mulched around the seedlings.

Heat exchange box and tower for the solar water heater

Cleared land to plant fruit trees and mobile chicken coop in the patch of sugar cane

Week 3

The week began with us removing clumps of bananas that had begun growing sporadically in the vegetable garden, and transplanting them to the cleared patch in which we had planted fruit trees the week before. To do this we just dug out the roots of the clumps and then cut the tops off the banana trees so they would be easier to carry.

After moving them into place, we continued work on the tower for the solar water heater. As we had bolted the base barrel and half barrel, what we needed to do next was fit another metal barrel (with one open side), upended onto the tower. We had to cut flaps in the half barrel which we folded downwards to allow the barrel to fit inside. Once the flaps were cut we filled the half barrel to just under three quarters of the way from the top with gravel/concrete and then covered it with sand to make it level. We decided to wait until we had made the water tank before securing the barrel in place as it would be easier to fix the tank to the barrel from ground level.

To make the tank we used a 200L plastic drum (poly-ethylene), and a 100L plastic drum placed inside the larger drum. We cut the top of the larger barrel open, though we didn’t remove it completely. We made the top into a flap so we could fit the smaller barrel in and then re-seal it with ease. We then made in-flow and out-flow pieces (two of each) which were to be attached to the barrels. We did this by cutting the ring pieces off a T-joint and fitting them on, backwards, to a nipple piece. The purpose of this was to form a really good seal between the inside and outside of the barrels. Two of the T-joint rings were 1 inch in diameter (the inflow and out-flow for the heat exchanger) while the other 2 were ½ inch (for the inflow and outflow from the main water tank and outflow to the shower). Once these were made we fitted one of the 1 inch nipples (from the bottom) into the plastic lid of the small barrel. We did this by first drilling a hole slightly smaller than an inch into the lid and then using a flaming stick from the stove to make the plastic more workable. Once the plastic was soft enough we screwed one of the 1 inch nipples until the reverse T-piece ring was flush with the lid. We then used a silicon gun on either side of the lid, putting the silicon between the T-piece and the lid on the bottom side, and all around the nipple on the top side of the lid. We then screwed on 1 inch elbow onto the topside of the nipple – getting it as tight as possible to form a good seal. We repeated this process on the lid with the ½ inch nipple pieces. Next we finished off the heat exchange piece using mental unions which we found in the materials store.

We made a series of T-pieces attached to nipples, like we had in Week 2, using silicon and twine to make it water tight. We then cut 11 pieces of black 1 inch plastic pipe to a length of 140cm. Using a thread cutter we made threads on either side of the pipe. We then cut the pipe in two and made more threads on the newly cut sides of the pipe. We then screwed the separate pieces into opposite T-pieces and used a metal union piece to join them back together. This was done for 10 of the pipes, as the first one did not need a union. On the end of the T-piece/nipple pipe we placed an elbow piece. On one of the sides the elbow faced downwards and on the other it faced upwards – these were to be the in-flow and out-flow pieces (i.e. connect to the hot water tank via the 1” fittings) respectively. When all the unions and pipes were fitted we undid the unions and put silicon on the inside, leaving it to become partially dry before reconnecting them. This formed a water-tight seal on each of the unions. Two black plastic pipes were plumbed into the in-flow and out-flow elbows at the end of which was placed another elbow – each facing the same way.

At the bottom of the barrel that was to be the water tank we repeated the same process for the lid but with the exception of just using a single 1 inch nipple and elbow. We then added a pipe to one of the bronze elbows on the lid (so it would sit on the inside of the barrel). We then cleaned the rim of the barrel and the inside of the lid, and let it dry. When it was dry we put silicon around the rim and in the lid, and slid it into place – ensuring the elbows on either side of the barrel were facing the same direction. After a couple of hours we moved the heat exchange and water tank up to the showers and plumbed them both in to determine whether there were any leaks. Much to our chagrin there were a few leaks in the heat exchange and barrel, so we let the water out and left the tank and heat exchange to dry out. The plugging up of the leaks would have to be done in the next week.

Solar water heater tower and nipple with ring piece

Left – burning the barrel lid. Right – barrel lid with 1 inch & 1/2 inch elbows.

Left – Heat exchange. Middle – elbow in bottom of barrel.
Right – testing the barrel and heat exchange.

Week 4

To start the week off we undid the metal unions of the heat exchange and tightened the pipes. As there was still some water in them we couldn’t seal them up with silicon. We were also waiting for plastic unions we had ordered and more silicon to arrive. So, while the pipes were drying, we decided to work on the gray-water system which we had started during the PDC.

This involved widening and deepening the hole we had begun in which were to place the conjoined halfs of a 1000L tank, as well as removing the weeds that had sprouted in the meantime. Once the hole was deep enough so that the outflow pipe from the septic tank was just below the top of the half-tanks, and wide enough for the half-tanks to fit in snugly, we cleaned the inside of them of any dirt that had built up. This was done to prevent potential blockages. We then cut four pieces of 4” PVC pipe to a length of 50cm. We then used a heated 1.5” metal pipe (slightly smaller in diameter than the plastic pipe we were using for our in-flow and out-flow) to cut a hole in the top of each pipe. (You can read more detail on the design for this system in this article published earlier in the year.) After this was done we used a heated ½” pipe to cut smaller holes along the length of the 4 inch PVC pipe. Next we used the 1.5” metal pipe to cut 4 holes in the half-tanks; one for the in-flow, two to connect the half-tanks, and one more for the outflow.

After we did this we fitted the plastic pipes into the tank so they would stand vertically. Two pipes were put into each tank, in the corners diagonally opposite each other. We also connected two of the pipes and the two halves with smaller PVC pipe. The next step was to cut the black tarpaulins which we were to use as the baffles. They were cut to about the same height as the tank and about three quarters of the length. We then used a silicon gun to stick them into place, before filling the tank with gravel. By this time the new plastic unions and more silicone had arrived so we got back onto the solar water heater project.

We installed the plastic unions on the heat exchanger and used red gasket maker to seal up the leaks we had spotted the week before. All that was left to do then was let the heat exchange and gray-water tanks dry over night. We tested the heat exchange first thing the next morning – the good news was the heat exchange itself was not leaking. However, the bad news was the lid of the water tank began leaking profusely, since we had not allowed enough time for the silicone to dry fully and the pressure of the water system had forced the soft silicone out. Sadly this meant that the solar water heater was not going to be finished during the internship as there weren’t enough days left to tweak the design.

With that in mind we decided to finish off the gray-water system. We did this by filling up the tanks with washed gravel whilst ensuring the baffles remained upright. While we were filling up the tanks we also packed soil around the outside to stop the tanks from bulging out too much. As we had plumbed the reed-bed tanks into the septic tank, and dirty water began to fill them up. When the water reached about three quarters of the way from the top we planted a variety of reeds (some we had found on site, others we had dug out from a roadside swamp about 5km away). We packed gravel around the reeds and repeated this process for the other tank. We covered the very top layer with finer gravel. We then filled in the rest of the sides with soil and tapered the walls of the hole to make sure that no clay would fall into the tanks and block them. And that marked the final task of the Internship.

Completing the gray-water system

Sadly we didn’t have time to finish off all the projects we had scheduled.

Jesse said:

The internship was all in all a great learning experience. Not only because it provided a more hands-on way of learning but also because it did wonders for the confidence I have in my own abilities. At the start of the internship I was nervous to be given the responsibility of building things like a heat exchange or a mobile chicken coop, especially considering I have barely any experience. But after the 4 weeks my faith in my own abilities has most definitely grown and I have no doubt that I’m going to be putting all that I’ve learnt at Strawberry Fields to good use.

I’d just like to add that we really appreciated Jesse’s work with us on the project here. It was quite a challenge for him being the only intern on the course after all the PDC participants dispersed, and with few hands on deck it was just too much to get all the projects we wanted completed. Of course there were also the usual difficulties of sourcing good quality materials that we have in the deep south of Ethiopia, but despite this Jesse did really well. He was a fantastic personality to have around the place as well as being a soldier in the field. Jesse is based in Kenya and in fact he is planning to set up his own permaculture site not too far away from us, around Mount Kenya which is in the north, so only a couple of days drive from Konso. I hope that we will be cooperating more in the future. Jesse is signed up to do a training of trainers course with Joseph Lentenyoi and Warren Brush. We will be happy if Jesse returns to act as an assistant trainer in our future PDCs and Internships, so we can keep a productive relationship going into the future to build the local permaculture network in this part of Africa. Fortunately the outlook is better for our next internship, we already have four participants signed up and ready to go for the PDC-Internship combo. Who knows, maybe Jesse will make it back to help out too.

So if you want to learn about and gain practical experience of setting up systems like these, come along in December, 2013. Book on the PDC here, and the Internship here.

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