In the very South of Ethiopia is Karat-Konso and we were to stay at a small permaculture farm in the highland town to gather ideas for our garden in Fiche.
Konso is named after the ethnic group of the area and is unique in that its people have maintained a tribal culture, dating back 1000 years and unlike any in Ethiopia. Governed by clan chiefs and councils of village elders, the Konso live in nine different walled villages on the arid hilltops surrounding the town. At this time of year it looked dry and scrubby, but the area receives two rainfalls a year and the locals are re-known for their productive terraced farming systems and hard work.
Like lava from the volcanoes that formed this land, Konso town looks to have sprung from the middle of nowhere. In fact, it is the gateway to the Omo Valley and receives a healthy flow of tourists travelling the southern route to Kenya. The kids of the region have learnt to milk a birr or two from tourists by breaking into the Konso dance when they spot a car along the plateau road. The road itself felt remote and the landscape unforgiving – until these children jumped out or we were engulfed by a rally of soccer celebrations, trophy held high amidst a crowd of men, women and children, singing and running to the next village “Ethiopia Number 1 Champion!”
We found Strawberry Fields on the hill into town and were shown along a path of papaya and cotton trees to our mud and straw Gojo Bets (traditional round huts). Dusty from the unsealed road, we each had a cold shower outside (one of the showers is heated through pipes from compost pits in the garden – but we didn’t know this then, and were happy just to be clean!)
From our spot on the hill, we watched the sun set over the valley and the farm below before enjoying a delicious meal under the stars of vegetables and rice, ginger tea and mangoes we’d brought along the road that morning. Vegetables have been difficult to find and our spoilt and sensitive ferenji stomachs were struggling from all the meat and bread!
Washed and fed, we took our solar lanterns to bed early. But up in town, the lights went out and a food strike began – the government had set prices on food and drink in an attempt to control inflation and store owners throughout the country were protesting. We didn’t know this until the next day, when we realised the reason busloads of tourists were descending on the eco-farm at breakfast, was because it was the only place around that could provide food – it came out of the garden.
Strawberry Fields was set up by an Irishman, Alex, 3 ½ years ago. When we asked why he chose Konso, he said “It just kind of worked out that way.” He met an Ethiopian woman and had a baby girl. He says the Konso people are especially warm, hard-working and resourceful. It is a close and safe community, and the rainfall is good compared to other parts of the country. As well as the lodge, he runs permaculture design courses and eco-tours, and hosts international volunteers who stay to work on the farm and give something back to the community. At the time we were there he had four English guys digging by the rabbit pens, which are kept for their poo to fertilise the soil (the rabbits, not the English guys!)
Alex gave us a tour of the farm. He showed us how they use grey water from the hand-washing bowls and kitchen dishes to water the banana plantations. The banana tree by the café was brown & poorly: “This one doesn’t seem to like the soap,” he says. But the others further down the hill were thriving in what looked like a very dry environment.
Permaculture is about creating an integrated life support system which balances the needs of humans and the environment. A whole and permanent farm or garden which mimics natural ecosystems to support human needs like food, clean water, air, energy, fibres for clothing and medicine – in the most productive and sustainable way possible.
Unlike large-scale modern agriculture, which will generally clear entire forests (and eco-systems) to sow acres of monoculture crops; different plants, vegetables, herbs and cotton are planted together here. The diversity attracts birds and insects, which in turn, help to control outbreaks of pests or plant diseases, and make the use of chemical insecticides obsolete. In the nursery, Alex showed us a bed of young avocado, papaya and moringa, a popular medicinal plant, thriving together. Next to this, was a bed of moringa on its own – the seedlings were weeping and the leaves were riddled with yellow bite holes.
Konso’s economy is agricultural, with the majority of the population working corn (maize) and various sorghum staples, or growing cotton and coffee as cash crops. But the soil here is pretty poor, says Alex. So poor, in fact, that when he brought the over-grazed and eroded land for the lodge, it had been written off by the locals as ‘Lokollota’ or ‘dead soil’. They planted trees like Acacia and Leucinia, and began mulching the chalky, cracking clay with manure and organic waste. This encouraged worms to break it up and build nutrients.
“The worms and ants are great,” says Alex. “Once you’ve got some soil biota, they’ll just start tunnelling through; pulling the compost down into the soil and the soil up into the compost, mixing it all up for you.”
“We use a drip irrigation system from the rainwater tank and we do ‘chop and drop’ – cutting the leaves off trees to use as mulch as well.”
In doing so, they’ve created an oasis in a semi-desert. Around the chicken pens, they’re able to grow carrot, corn, amaranth, tomatoes, onions, ginger, garlic, swiss chard, corguettes, beans and peas, small mexican apples or Tazmir and moringa, wild cabbage, beetroots, avocadoes, sunflowers, mulberries, pomegranate and of course, strawberries.
They grow small hot chiles and green chiles, coffee, sorghum, cassava and oil seeds like safflower. As herbs, they have lemongrass, mint, fennel, parsley, coriander and marigold.
“We’re going to plant more fruit trees here when it rains, but at this stage we’re really just trying to build up the fertility of the soil,” says Alex.
The Eco-Lodge is powered by the sun and the earth. At night, the garden is lit with solar lanterns and in winter, there’s the compost-heated shower to enjoy. Good toilets in Ethiopia are hard to come by, and it was with great relief that we could relieve ourselves in comfort (and without holding our noses) in the thatched long-drop toilets by our Gojo Bets. The sign on the back of door instructs; “Do your business; when you’re done, throw in one cup of ash and one handful of straw. If all rules are adhered to, there will be no smell!” And it doesn’t lie.
Can we use some of these principles in our own garden in Fiche?
Fiche is higher and colder than Konso, but the soil problems are similar, and our goal is to create a healthy, sustainable garden without the use of harmful chemicals, or excessive water and expensive fuel.
According to Alex, we should be able to grow avocados and apples for shade at that altitude.
“But if you want to break up soil, the best way to do it is to increase organic material,” he says. “Compost it, then mulch with dry, rough mulch and plant root species into it, like sweet potato or radish, because the roots of those hard plants direct water deep into the earth and they just expand and break the soil up for the worms and ants to get in.”
“Basically, you need a source of roughage and a source of cow shit; sheep or goat dung and some green material to mix in.”
As a start, Lakew agrees we will have three compost pits and use animal waste for manure. But our favourite idea, by far, was the toilet!