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Report on 5-Day Permaculture Workshop for the Etse Fewus Herbalists Association in Fitch, North Soha, Ethiopia: Part 1

Several years ago we were visited at our project site in Konso, South Ethiopia by an Australian lady called Elizabeth D’Avigdor and her daughter, May. We gave her a tour around our site and showed her what we were up to at the time. I vaguely remember her mentioning that she was working on a project somewhere up north. Several years later I heard from her again. She sent me several articles (here and here for example) about the project she had been instrumental in establishing in Fitche, North Shoa, an area north of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

Working together with local colleagues Lizzie had established an association there of local traditional medicine practitioners, called Etse Fewus. Association members include elders with an extensive knowledge of indigenous herbal medicine as well as local women who used to make a living by gathering medicinal herbs to sell to the local market. In recent years there has been a great erosion of knowledge and practice of indigenous herbal medicine. One reason for this is the arrival of modern medicine, promoted as a “better” alternative, despite being far more costly and often far less healthy. Another reason is the broad-scale destruction of the habitat of the plants themselves – the forest.

Several years after meeting Lizzie, I found myself in a once-well-to-do imperial-era living room with a local gentleman called Gash Laku explaining to me that “this is where it all began”. Lizzie’s daughter had gotten sick (which is not an uncommon occurrence out here), when they were visiting Fitche some years back, and Gash Laku, one of the knowledgeable elders of the community, had cured her with local herbal remedies. And so the idea to establish a project to preserve this local knowledge was born. And, I am sure, in no small part due to Lizzie’s resolve and dynamism, the idea made the leap from a concept into a solid reality, now firmly established on the ground. Lizzie had also established a charity in Australia, called Botanica Ethiopia, to support the association.

So, having achieved all this, several months back she emailed me to inform that the project was now established, they had a site and were working on it, but wouldn’t it be great if we could get them trained in Permaculture so that they could integrate their knowledge of herbal medicine with better gardening skills. So we prepared a plan for a 5-day practical PC workshop, set the date and got ready. I went up to Addis bought a load of stuff for the association to use and then we were off to Fitche Selale.

The journey from Addis was interesting. I was joined on this trip by Hajji Hamdu (our driver) and Bahrudin, a distant cousin of my wife, both from Silte the entirely Muslim area where we now live which is my wife’s tribal homeland, 200km south of Addis. But now we were off to North Shoa. It’s always exciting going to new places in Ethiopia. One of the amazing things about this country – like many great countries, I guess – is that every place you go has a unique character of its own, and yet is still part of the same thing, Ethiopia.

Wednesday 17/09/14 – The journey to North Shoa

We struck out north from Addis Ababa over the Entoto escarpment, a solid wall of hills coated by a massive government eucalypt plantation which completely blocks the northern edge of the city from any advance in that direction. Past the forests and we emerged into the high wide open plains of North Shoa. One got a very distinct feeling that we were heading into the Abyssinian heartlands, flat-lining at well above 2000m, across green plains, passing between green mountains trickling waterfalls into wide, wet meadows all around. There was lots of water and a strong pastoral mode of life in evidence all over, with very little of the grain agriculture we see in other areas. Herds of Fresian Holtstein dairy cattle, blending into the local stock in various combinations, were grazing here and there. A land of milk. The Oromos, the local tribe in these parts, were once nomadic pastoralists (their cousins in the lowlands of the deep south still are) but here they have adopted the settled lifestyle of highland farmers, building little fenced compounds dotted around the landscape, each with a few houses, some thatched and some tin-roofed. This kind of dwelling is archetypal of the Amharas, the politically dominant ethnic group during Ethiopia’s imperial era, the 19th-20th centuries, during which time they built the foundations of the modern Ethiopia nation state, the only one in Africa that was able to repel European colonialist designs, by and large. Abyssinian influence is also attested to by the heavy predominance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in the culture of the area.

At around 1pm we arrived in Fitche, where we were promptly greeted by Mr Gulilat, the association’s logistics manager. He showed us to our hotel and then took us to the association’s office where we handed over our cargo of purchased materials.

Arrival and materials handover to Gulilat and Workalem

Then he took us up to look at the project site. It had clearly been worked on since the photos that Lizzie had posted on the Botanical Ethiopia blog were taken. There was a plethora of different herbs, flowers and young trees taking over the space of the little compound. Some were familiar to me, such as kosso (Hagia abyssininca) a remedy for tapeworm, damakesse (for colds), tsenadam (rue – for stomach upsets) and Artemisia (for malaria), but others were not. Mr Workalem, the association’s secretary, who was also present, explained to me about a few of the unfamiliar herbs, but it was frankly too much info to absorb on the spot. These guys clearly knew a lot about herbs and remedies and had created a fantastic diversely intercropped herb garden. They had dug out wide terraces planting the kosso tree in rows along the terrace edges and filling up the intervening space with different herbs dotted about amongst masses of garlic. There was also a creeping ground-cover, who’s name I forget, a medicine for cattle apparently, spreading around here and there to cover the bare soil. I was impressed by the progress they had made. However, it also occurred to me there was not much space left to do anything new without damaging what they had clearly worked hard to establish already.

The medicinal garden

Thursday 18/09/14: Day 1

In the morning we were met by Mr Bayuh, the translator, at our hotel. It turned out that he is a local government employee working as a public representative for the North Shoa Zone Administration. He was very concerned that we should have a letter from the association to formalise our presence in the area with the authorities. So we had to spend a couple of hours getting a letter written up, signed by the right people, stamped and then delivered to the local administration office, so they didn’t think we were up to no good. We also invited them to send representatives to participate/observe the training, but as usual they were too busy to show up. With that done we went over to the local agriculture office to collect chickens – 10 young laying hens – which had shown up the day before. So, with ten young hens in need of looking after we decided to bring the proposed day-5 program – making a chicken tractor – forwards to day-1.

Picking up chickens with Mr Bayuh at the local agricultural bureau

However, first we had to deal with pleasantries. We met the association members and all did our introductions. Then we briefly discussed their aspirations for the project. They all agreed it needed to be expanded. There was also a general air that the association needed to generate some quick income. The participants seemed to feel that they had put in a lot of work, but that the herbal medicine was going to take a long time to pay off for them financially.

Introductions (Gash Abiye)

So we started the course by looking at chickens. Whatever we use on our project has needs. We have to make sure any element is supplied with its needs. If we fulfil those needs we can gain use from the element in question. If we don’t fulfil those needs, it will die, break, rust or rot and we won’t gain any use from it. It’s just so with chickens. We have to analyse their needs in order that we can fulfil them. The happier our chickens the more they will prove useful to us.

Chickens need food. A healthy diet should comprise grain, grubs, greens, grit and calcium. Grain gives them carbs, grubs, meaning any kind of invertebrate life, give them protein and fats, while greens give them fibre, vitamins and minerals. Chickens have a pecking order, so a good feeder should be long to allow them all to eat at the same time without the dominant hens hogging the whole lot. Grit is essential for their gizzard, since chickens have no teeth, and supplementary calcium should be made available to them in non-calcareous areas since they need it to make their egg-shells. Healthy chickens are less prone to illness so you don’t need to pump them full of antibiotics the whole time. Chickens also need clean water, shelter, and security from predators. The shelter should keep them out of strong sun, be warm enough at night, cool enough in the day, provide roosting space which is elevated off the ground and a nesting space which is separate from the roost. Chickens drop most of their manure at night, so if they roost in the nesting boxes they end up full of manure, which means dirty eggs.

I showed them a couple of videos of Joel Salatin’s systems at Polyface Farm – “pastured broilers” and the “egg-mobiles”. We looked at how you can design and manage chicken systems to achieve additional functions from them beyond just their basic products, in this case manuring the pastures and providing pest control for cattle, but potentially also cultivation, composting, etc.

We then expounded a simple live-in chicken tractor design made from ½” steel pipes and 1” hardware cloth which can be made from locally purchased materials at a cost of around $150. The design can also be modified to use cheaper local materials such as bamboo or eucalyptus pole though it would be less durable and tend to get heavy when wet.

Making the chicken tractor

After lunch we started to build it. The practical took the rest of the day and by the evening we were not finished, so we resolved to meet early the next day to finish it off before class. The design was an A-frame style tunnel, formed by three pipes bent into 2m x 2m x 2m triangles and another 3 pipes connecting them. One end of the structure contains a slanting-ladder-roost and is covered over with plastic. Insulation, such as a bamboo screen should be added to keep the sun off in the day time and increase warmth at night. This end should be faced into the wind. The other end is open to let sun in during the daytime. Feeders and water are installed here also. The pen should be moved about on a grassy area, changing spot every day or two so that the birds have access to fresh green grass and the insects living in it each day. The manure they drop will also fertilize the pasture.

Attaching Nesting Boxes

Friday 19/09/14: Day 2

The next day we finished off the chicken tractor by mid morning and introduced the chickens to their new home. We could see them pecking at the grass, clearly happy to have some greens to eat.

The chickens in their new home

This tractor design has worked well for us in the lower altitudes of the south. However it needs modification to keep the birds warmer at night in the highlands. They had obviously been living inside, probably with heat lamps, in the agriculture department. They were young hens of what appears to be quite a delicate breed. They suffered in the open air and a couple of them had died already in the first week! It was a surprise for me as we have never lost a chicken like this in Siltie and our birds have been living in houses like this right through the rainy season when it gets quite cold (by Ethiopian standards), including quite young chicks, and the birds often were often sleeping with wet feathers after running about in the rain. So I didn’t expect this loss, but then we tend to keep hardy local breeds and white leg-horns which are a tough and highly active bird that gets on well in the Ethiopian peasant-farm situation. Anyway, the point was that the group had learned to assess the needs of the chickens and design solutions for the local situation, so we had to modify the design accordingly to keep the cold early morning wind out and insulate their roosting space better. Despite the set-back the students were all adamant that they wanted one in their own home compounds and were going to propose it as a project idea for income generation.

Anyway, with that finished off, before lunch, we returned to the classroom for a talk on making compost. Their current method of composting, they said, takes a year to produce useable compost. We explained to them how we can get useable compost in less than a month, about the need for balancing the carbon and nitrogen content as well as the water content and aeration. We looked at some typical ingredients and how we can lay them down in layers so they will be mixed as the heap is turned (a more detailed explanation of how I like to explain composting to community groups can be seen here).

One thing I wanted to get across to them is that composts primary function is not as a fertilizer in itself, but to add stabilized organic material (humus) and soil life to the soil. Humus is a soil conditioner. It gives soil the capacity to hold onto nutrients and water — something like a sponge. In a natural forest soil humus is located under a layer of leaf litter, which protects it from the wind, sun and rain. The humus layer is continually forming from the breakdown of the leaf litter, which of course is conducted by a healthy living community of micro- and macro-organisms. Below the humus layer is sub-soil. And in a healthy soil the top-soil and sub-soil layers blend into each other as the living things churn through it continually. The sub-soil is the product of weathering on the base rock of the area. It is non-living but contains minerals. Minerals in the sub-soil are however not available to all plants – only deep rooted plants with special abilities (called nutrient mobilizers) can access minerals directly from the sub-soil. When soils get degraded such plants tend to proliferate and are generally known as weeds.

However, most plants, especially small herbaceous plants, like grain crops and vegetables, do not access minerals directly from the sub-soil, but take it from the upper layers. In a healthy soil, where the humus blends into the sub-soil, minerals and nutrients are generally available in organic forms and any plant can access them. In this situation weeds don’t tend to proliferate. But crops like wheat and teff or garden vegetables have short roots and cannot access deep minerals in the sub-soil. So when top-soil is absent the weeds tend to take over. Hence we add compost to quickly build up a top-soil layer in which nutrients are held in available organic forms. However there are other ways we can add those nutrients to the top-soil layer much faster and with a lot less labour than making huge amounts of compost. But that was for another lesson.

Chopping materials

After lunch we headed up to the project site to make some compost. Our ingredients were dry leaves from the kosso trees, fresh cut grass and weeds and manures of various animals, crop wastes, pulped sugar cane, gypsum, local rock dust and ash. We laid down the layers — green, brown, manure, adding seasonings and watering as we went. Gypsum contains calcium and sulphur, wood ash is rich in potassium and phosphate while the rock dust acts to familiarise the microbiology of the heap with the local geology of the area — hence promoting a relation between the top-soil and sub-soil. We assured them the heap would heat up hot enough to heat up a hot shower within a day or two but I don’t think they really believed us, at the time….

Building the heap

The finished heap

Saturday 20/09/14: Day 3

In the morning we had a talk about soils and nutrients. We had already discussed the importance of humus and soil life and the role of compost to restore these. Nutrients however can be mobilised faster, with less labour and applied more widely as liquid bio-fertilizer. We looked at two ways to prepare this.

Talk on nutrients

In the current situation in Ethiopia (like many places) the top soil has been depleted due to deforestation, ploughing, repeated grain cropping and subsequent erosion, so crops are planted into a degraded sub-soil medium. The ‘modern’ solution is of course to use fertilizers. But the farmers are keenly aware, as our discussions confirmed, that any gains in production due to synthetic fertilizers are swallowed up by the cost of the inputs. What’s more, fertilizers are extremely soluble and wash away quickly so need continual replacement. Over time these chemicals are poisoning the ground and productivity is declining further, and the farmers can see this. The only plants growing well are the weeds. To get rid of the evil weeds people are resorting to poison. But is this really necessary? In fact we can turn the ‘problem’ into a ‘solution’, quite literally.

The weeds grow well because they access the needed minerals from the sub-soil layers. If we take these weeds and ferment them we can produce a natural fertilizer with no toxic side effects, that does not degrade the soil, but makes available the minerals required for plant growth in organic form to the crops which can’t access them from the sub-soil themselves. We had observed three types of weeds growing well in the area (the students informed me of the names in Amharic), two of which are effective nutrient mobilizers: a variety of dock (“tult”), a kind of borrage (“densagenen”), and stinging nettle (“sama”).

However, in dealing with degraded soils we ideally need to add more than just nutrients. We also need to invigorate the soil life. To do this we first produce a soil life culture, just as we use a culture to make a good yoghurt, cheese or leet (for injera). So what we needed first was a sample of healthy soil micro-organisms. We located some samples of good quality black soil under different local trees. We mixed 10kg of this soil with 10kg of wheat bran and to this mixture we added 2l of molasses diluted in 10l of water. The mix should then be allowed to sit in a heap for 8 days, being turned with a shovel twice per day over that period, until dry. It can then be bagged up for storage as dry micro-organism bran. It can keep for over a year if stored in a dry, dark place. This inoculant is called Mountain Micro-Organism (MMO), because the mixed bran-heap looks like a mountain. In order to use the MMO, 2kg of the mix is placed in a sackcloth pouch (like a large tea bag) and added to 30l of water with 1l of molasses diluted in it. It is left like this for 4 – 10 days. 2 litres of this liquid can then be used for inoculating a bio-fertilizer brews. The liquid can also be added to compost preparations. However we did not have pre-prepared MMO to use in our bio-fertiliser preparation so we used a ½ kilo of baker’s yeast instead. Next time they can use the MMO though….

Preparing MMO

A Mountain of Micro Organisms

OK, so back to the liquid bio-fertilizer brews or “bioles”. We then showed the group how to make two types of biole. The first one by chopping up nutrient mobilizing plants which grow well in the area such as borrage, dock and stinging nettle, adding them to a solution of sugar (molasses), adding yeast (or MMO if you have it) and fermenting them in water. The second way we can make biole is by mixing mineral containing ingredients such as bone meal, milk, rock dust, wood ash and cow manure, mixing them in water, adding sugar (molasses) and MMO (or yeast) and fermenting the mix. And we made exactly these two biole mixes with the group. In the first mix, called “weed juice biole”, we don’t have to know what minerals are in it, we can just select species that grow well in the area — they are obviously getting the nutrients needed for good plant growth. Of course using a diversity of species makes sure we have a broader range of nutrients and selecting species we know are particular mobilizers is a good idea.

Grinding up bones

In the second mix, called “trash heap biole” we decide what goes in – bone meal has calcium and phosphate, ash has a lot of potassium, cow manure is a source of nitrogen etc. If we are going to do a good job with this we should have some idea about particular deficiencies in our soil and what we need to add to make up for them. For example if sulphur is lacking we can add some gypsum. If boron is lacking we can add some borax. In alkaline desert areas we can add some acidifying substance like sulphur, lactose (in the form of whey) or vinegar – but not so much that we kill the microbes!

Grinding up basalt

The bioles are brewed in 150l plastic drums for 30 days. The drums should have a removable lid with a gasket and a steel lock-ring to fasten it securely. It is important that the lid seals on air-tight, since the biole is an anaerobic brew. The fermentation produces a lot of gas — biogas! So the barrel will explode if this gas cannot escape, but at the same time we don’t want oxygen to get in. To get over this we fit a pipe fitting into the lid of the barrel and insert a length of hose pipe over it. This was done by drilling a 15mm hole in the barrel lid. We took a metal ¾-½” reducer (slightly larger than the hole) and heated it in a fire (not too hot or it liquidises the plastic) and then squeeze and turn it through the hole so that it softens the plastic and forms its own screw thread as it goes. We then fitted about 15cm of ½” steel pipe into the reducer (you have to be able to work with both metric and imperial if you want to understand my courses!) Taking a ½” hose we likewise softened it by heating and fitted it over the ½” metal pipe. The hose pipe feeds into a plastic bottle, filled with water, which is attached to the side of the drum. The biogas building up in the drum can hence escape by bubbling out through the water, but the water prevents air from getting into the barrel via the hose. It’s a water seal.

Yeast molasses mix

Adding water and mixing

So we prepared the two barrels with the group, collected weeds, chopped them up, added them to water, yeast and molasses and sealed the first drum. Then we got a hold of some old bones, some basalt gravel and some volcanic pumice. This was all crushed and ground using hammers and an old grinding stone amongst a lot of joking and chatting amongst the association members. We also added into the mix some wood ash, a cow’s stomach, 20kg of fresh dung and two litres of milk. All this we crushed, pulped and mixed in water with two litres of molasses added, half a kilo of yeast, then sealed it in the second drum.

Barrels sitting to brew

The mixes began off-gassing within a few hours. Within a month they should stop off-gassing and will then be ready for use. If they do not want to use it at this time, they can open it up, add some more molasses and close it again and it will continue to brew for a few more weeks and it can be kept for a long time this way – like many ferments it will improve with age. To use the liquid bio-fertilizer they will open the drum and remove an amount, strain it through a cloth to remove particles and dilute it 1:10 in clean water. This is then applied to the crop, vegetable and seedlings both via the roots and as a foliar spray. Of course if there is humus in the soil it will be better able to hold and stabilize the nutrients we add, so compost and bio-fertilizer should go together.

Well that was an exciting day. The group loved it. So did I. It was really satisfying to be getting such a positive response from this group. They must be the most enthusiastic local group I’ve encountered so far in Ethiopia. We had another two days left of the training to go. But that’s enough for now, I’ll tell you about the rest of the program in part 2.

Continue on to read Part II!


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  1. Love your article… all the explanations and the recipes… pictures are awesome…


    Looking forward for the second part….

  2. great practical lesson. thanks for sharing. i am also an aspiring permaculture student and want to try this on my land. where can i come and take this lesson. please help.

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