Botanica Ethiopia

Having a yarn at Fitche

An Association is formed and history is made

As the car made its way out of the dust of Addis on the climb up the wooded Entoto Mountain, we could breathe the clean sharp air of the countryside on our journey to Fitche, about 2 ½ hours’ drive north through incredible scenery, now quite familiar to me and something to which I had been greatly looking forward.  What I was not looking forward to was embarking on another hair-raising dodgem-car ride, narrowly avoiding the “Al-Quaeda” (as they are dubbed locally) trucks and crazy minibus drivers.  Oh yes, I remembered this bit, and it is sobering to see the number of overturned minibuses and semitrailers by the side of the road.

But we made it thanks to Lakew’s skill at the wheel and pulled up at the Doyu-Armon Garden, now proudly sporting an entrance gate made from eucalyptus saplings, and mounds of red soil and sand ready to be ploughed in.  As I had been warned, the clay soil was cracking in the intense dry heat, threatening to crush the tender rootlets of the new plants.  Lakew said that his job over the next few days was to supervise the filling of a long stone-edged trench with the good soil so that the most vulnerable plants can be transferred until they are strong enough to survive.

Abiyu and Lakew showed us the line of Set eret (Aloe pulcherrima), surviving but looking a little burnt at the edges, and Tefrindo (Gomphocarpus purpurescens) looking quite happy.  Abiyu showed us the sap from the Tefrindo and explained how it is used to paint on warts.  Another area sported the erect pointed leaves of Wonde cheret (Sanseviera ehrenbegii), used for ear infections. We were shown other plants, looking a little straggly but protected with straw, and, with some concern, an empty borehole.  Lakew is onto it, arranging to have it dug deeper. Abiyu tells me that if the plants can be nurtured along to survive a year, they will be strong enough to flourish and cope with both wet and dry seasons.  So, progress has been made but we have some work still to do in getting the conditions right.

Lakew and Lizzie discussing the herb Wonde Cheret at the Doyu-Armon garden

We checked in to the Abiido International Hotel.  Disappointing to find that the bath didn’t work but the trickle of hot water from the shower was a surprise bonus and quite adequate to remove the dust of the drive and reinvigorate some stamina.  Heading to Shikerker’s house, I couldn’t wait to meet up with the community members who had been so generous with their herbal information for my research and it was a fun reunion.   Of course they asked where daughter May and son Alemayehu were and I had to explain that the travelling team has shrunk a little this time, but they were happy to meet Kristin who was in charge of both the film camera and (even more importantly) containing my (and Lakew’s) enthusiasm to keep us on strict track. That woman has impressive skills and increasingly I realise how much I need her to keep this project aligned with objectives and being the voice of experienced caution. Although I have to confess to that heart-sinking moment when she says (as she so often did) “Yes, Lizzie, but are you considering..?” and I was glad to see Lakew looking equally crestfallen as he is worse than I am in the Big Idea stakes.

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Inspiration from within: a meeting with an extraordinary Ethiopian

Lizzie with Tessema Bekele of the EDA

Last week we met with Tessema Bekele, the Ethiopian founder and now Executive Director of the NGO Emmanuel Development Association.

Tessema told us his inspirational story of starting from humble beginnings with a small project idea, to what is today management of a large number of highly successful projects with international funding and support.  The focus is on marginalised youth, school dropouts, orphans and business skills training, as well as helping to empower women, who are a marginalised group in themselves.

I asked Tessema what led him on this journey.

“My father, a Coptic Orthodox priest, died when I was very young.  My mother had to look after me, my sister and brother and it was very difficult.  I was lucky enough to be sent to priest school.  One day, I was running home from school and I hurt myself, cutting my toe.  My mother is cleaning it for me, and she says; ‘My son,your father wanted you to be successful.  He died three years ago, Tessema, do not be discouraged.  You see those children who are your neighbours, they are 11 and 12 years old and they have not gone to school.  You are six, and you go to school. You must work hard and help others.”  This was his inspiration.

He went to university, and after working some time in the air force, he went to work for World Vision.  In 1996 he applied to the government to set up a charity, and after some discouragement  (his plans were considered too ambitious), he was eventually given a licence.

Today the Emmanuel Development Association has grown to  provide education to 146,000 children in Ethiopia, establishing 40 junior primary schools and 8 elementary secondary schools. It relies on 175 office staff (volunteers from overseas),  75 local professionals and  4 project officers.  The Association has handed over 25 schools to the government, which uses the education template they have set up.  In addition to education, they’re involved in alternative energy programs, urban “trash to cash” projects and microfinancing to women’s groups. 2,750 marginalised women are now engaged in co-operatives and business activities.

“Do you have herbal medicine gardens?” I asked.  “No,” said Tessema, “but it is a good idea and we would support it.”

When I asked his views of the Botanica Ethiopia project Tessema was very encouraging. “We were small when we started…this is a good and important project,” he said.

He emphasised the importance of engaging community, something which is a major aim of Botanica Ethiopia, in order to sustain project benefits well into the future. Tessema’s story is one of optimism; we have much to learn from his experiences – not only how to do things, but more importantly, how to avoid some of the mistakes that can easily be made by those who are well-intentioned but sometimes lacking in experience and local knowledge.  It is a good story of a local who has had vision and enterprise, not to speak of persistence, in overcoming the difficulties and pitfalls which can stand in the way of a good project. And for the Botanica Ethiopia project, some useful and pertinent advice.

Despatch from Addis

Lizzie shares her first few days back in Ethiopia with the Living Pharmacy project.

Stepping out from the sanitised chill of the airplane into everything that is Addis Ababa, feeling the thrill of returning here mixed with anxious anticipation of all that we hope to achieve in this second visit for Botanica Ethiopia; this is the start of another journey.

I am travelling this time on my own from Australia, but met up in Dubai for a connecting flight to Addis with Kristin Gomes, a multi-skilled and multi-talented aid worker from America who has volunteered to spend a month with me overseeing the activities and bringing her wealth of knowledge to bear on the project.  Kristin also has the task of being Director of Photography with the filmwork documenting our progress.

We hit the ground running. Once we had settled into the guest house in the city, we set out to orientate ourselves.  This is my fourth visit, the Amharic language is coming back to me and is always useful to create a bit of hilarity wherever I go.  The sounds, the images, comfortingly familiar; this means I can get to work the next day quickly without too much distraction.  A few telephone calls later, some meetings arranged, and a quick email back home to the family to let them know of our safe arrival.

My first meeting was with Dr. Zemede Asfaw of Addis Ababa University, who helped to supervise my research at Fiche.  Warm reunion greetings over, Dr. Zemede introduced me to Abiyu Enew, the postgraduate student in Ethnobotany whom he is supervising to replicate my research and to conduct a wider ethnobotanical survey of the area.  Abiyu has done a great job, collecting specimens of many plants in the area for depositing in the herbarium at the University.  We arranged for Abiyu to join us on our trip to Fiche in a couple of days’ time where we will be talking to the women householders and to the herbalists to gauge their interest in establishing household herbal gardens.  We will be visiting the main Doyu-Armon garden to see the herbs that have been planted and to see Lakew’s work in improving the soil to support their growth.

Dr. Zemede also introduced me to a doctorate student from Cornell University in the States who is conducting agroforestry research in the northern part of Ethiopia.  Every time we meet with people here, more possibilities arise for Botanica Ethiopia and it is my job, and Kristin’s, to ensure that we stay on track in getting the fundamentals right.

Kristin’s words of caution come from experience:  “Lizzie, all these ideas are wonderful possibilities.  Now, put them on the shelf ready to bring down later…”  This is good advice –  a major focus of this trip is to make sure that what we are doing is sustainable, and to do that a solid foundation has to be built.

We are well on the way.  Our second meeting was with Lakew to organise our field trip to Fiche. We will travel there on Tuesday to spend a few days with the householders and herbalists, to determine their interest in developing individual household herbal gardens and to see how we can support them to do that.

Coffee with Solomon and Kristin in Gofa Sefir

Botanica Ethiopia goes the Distance!

Team Botanica Ethiopia ran like the wind on Sunday; We all  crossed the finish line at the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival in under an hour!

It was a sunny spring morning as we joined some 35,000 other runners over the Sydney Harbour Bridge, through the city and down to the Opera House Quays. The choppers were out early; we were cheered by spectators, drummers and placards along the route; “Got stamina? Call me!” It was a fun day.

And we even got a photo with a champion – The Ethiopian winner of the Women’s Marathon, Letay Hadish!

May, Michael, Lizzie, Alemayehu

Thank you to all those who so generously sponsored us. We raised a total of $800 which will help pay for permaculture training and advice for the medicinal herb garden in Fiche, Ethiopia. Stay tuned to the blog to see how the garden project is growing.

We’ve also passed on $100  raised through the event to the UNHCR East-Africa Crisis Fund.

Run for Ethiopia

Join the Botanica Ethiopia team at the Blackmores Sydney Running Festival next month!

Haile Gebrselassie. Photo: Eremelamela

In (almost) true Ethiopian style, we’ll be going the distance – a grueling 9kms and the Sydney Harbour Bridge – on Sunday 18th September, to raise funds for the Botanica Ethiopia Living Pharmacy project.

Botanica Ethiopia is an approved Australian aid and development project to establish a medicinal herb garden in Fiche, a rural community north of Addis Ababa. We’re aiming to raise enough money to pay for permaculture technique training at Fiche, to employ a night and day guard for the garden and support community members to manage the site.

You can either sponsor the team online or get sweaty with us on the day! Choose from four events; The Blackmores Sydney Marathon and Half Marathon, The Sun Herald Bridge Run or Family Fun Run.

To sponsor us:

  • Please go to our Charity Event page at GoFundraise to donate online. All donations over $2.00 are tax deductible.

To join us:

  • Register for your event online here or at
  • Go to our Charity Event Page to set up your personal fundraising page with Botanica Ethiopia
  • Simply email your fundraising page link to your friends, family, and colleagues and ask them to support your cause by donating online.

East Africa Crisis

We will donate 10% of all money raised through the running festival to the  UNHCR East Africa Crisis Appeal. The Horn of Africa countries – Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea – are experiencing the worst drought in 60 years and ‘the world’s most severe food crisis’. Last month the United Nations officially declared famine in two regions of Southern Somalia and a humanitarian catastrophe for East Africa.  12.4 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Read more about the East Africa crisis here.

Photo: Robin Hammond/Panos. G4SSport.

Let’s get training! Registrations close 16th September.

Lions, tigers and Ethiopian riches

This month, Oxfam launched its GROW campaign with a new report on food security. The campaign is for a world without hunger and the report shows how our global food system is failing the very poorest.

“Hunger is not a natural phenomenon. It is a man-made tragedy,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a GROW ambassador, last week. “People do not go hungry because there is not enough food to eat. They go hungry because the system that delivers food from the fields to our plates is broken. And now in this new age of crisis — with increasingly severe and extreme weather and dwindling natural resources – feeding the world will get harder still.”

For me, three facts stood out. The first was that 80% of the world’s hungry people are directly involved in food production. Oxfam says that the 500 million small-scale farmers in the world together feed one-third of humanity – but they themselves go to bed with empty stomachs. I remembered the figure that 80% of Ethiopians are small-scale farmers.

The next was that crops in sub-Saharan Africa will yield 20–30% less (and maybe even less) by 2080 because of climate change.

The third was that foreign investors had bought 110 million acres of arable land & water in developing countries in 2009 (the size of California and West Virginia combined).

I remembered our driver, exasperated with locals in the remote south who were using a steamingly-fresh bitumen road to walk their animals to market one morning; “The people love these Chinese roads because now their clothes are not covered in dust – but they don’t know they might die walking along here!” – Beeeep! I remembered Chinese cement factories and acres of European flower farms along the lakes region south of Addis Ababa. I also noticed much less obvious poverty on the streets of the capital than I had on a trip five years earlier.

In 2010, Ethiopia offered 7.4 million acres of virgin land to foreign corporations to grow food for export.

Cement factory and teff fields - South Ethiopia. Image: May Slater


With a history of extreme drought and famine, a future especially vulnerable to climate change and a present at the centre of a farmland grab by fast developing countries like China, India and Pakistan – How can Ethiopia protect its natural riches and provide for the health of its people into the future?

We spoke to Dr Tesfaye from the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation about protecting Ethiopia’s unique natural heritage and why this is important.

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Field work in the Great Rift Valley

The land behind Lakew’s house in Fiche drops 2000 metres into the Great Rift Valley; it becomes teff and grain crops, and salty white river banks, as far as the eye can see in any direction.

Actually, this tectonic rift, or trench, runs more than 6000kms from Syria in Southwest Asia, through Ethiopia and down to central Mozambique – and from here, all of Africa’s Great Lakes were formed.

It was on the slopes and crags of one cliff face (which we were also told is one of the top hang-glide launch pads in Africa!) where we would spend an afternoon in the high plateau sun; collecting and tagging native herbs for identification at the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation.

We set off with Lakew, Dr. Tesfaye and the Fiche men who knew this ground so well. We came back with a mini living pharmacy of plants and a troop of ten local boys, out of school for the afternoon, who called themselves ‘The Soccer Team’.

Here is some footage of this incredible place…

Around the corner from our guesthouse in Addis – between the mechanics yard and the bakery that sells fresh yoghurt and barley rolls on busy Abware road – is Milka’s shop ‘Wild For You.’

The bright sign out the front caught our eyes on a walk home one day – ‘Natural products of Ethiopia.’

The shop was only two months old when we stepped in, but its freshly painted yellow walls were heavy with Ethiopian artefacts, draped with bright dyed scarves and gabis (highland shawls for the cold) and hand made bead necklaces. There were paintings, rugs, pots and wooden stools for traditional coffee ceremonies, embroidered pillow cases, wild-forest coffee and honey, soap made from camels’ milk and frankincense, teas, jars of guava jam and green herbs for the skin and hair.

We were wild for it – and for the next month or so, we would pop in after a day running around Addis to have coffee with the owner, Milka, and her friend Kidist – and to see what new things they had in that day.

Milka Mebrutu

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Because early mornings in Fiche are crisp, we’d chosen a spot in the sun by the back fence of the garden to interview Zerefenesh about her herbal remedies.

We stood on the hill, introducing ourselves, with the land and the road out of town behind us. But as we began, we quickly lost our voices to the painfully loud, metal-grating-stone sounds of a semi-trailer that had lost its brakes; hurling down the hill, smashing through the front fence of the garden and flipping over onto the terraces just metres away. Its load of rough granite was thrown far,  the upturned cabin – crushed, and the front tyres, still spinning, were in flames.

We were helpless to know what to do other than to stop the children near us from going any closer. People came running from town and across the farmland around us to help; throwing earth and water and branches on the truck and trying to help the passengers out. No one was killed; all three crawled from the window and, amazingly, the worst injury was the driver’s broken arm.

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We arrived at Fiche and met with Dr. Tesfay from the Ethiopia Institute of Biodiversity Conservation, over a late lunch.

The Institute, a government body responsible for the preservation of Ethiopia’s ecosystems and genetic resources, is working with Lizzie on the research side of the project, along with Addis Ababa University.

Dr Tesfay is head of the Institute’s  seed bank – one of only 12 in the world – but he’s taken this week as leave to join us here in Fiche. Though born in Bale in Southern Ethiopia, he grew up and studied here. He obtained his PHD in ethnobotany  in Holland and his research work has since taken him around the world – to India and Sri Lanka, Mexico, Europe and through Africa. As part of his PHD, he discovered a number of unrecorded plant species, endemic to Ethiopia. Then, he said, it was an ‘under-researched place.’

Pressing herbs with Dr Tesfay and Lakew

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