Locking Up Food Security with Permaculture

The United Nations created a list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, agreed upon by 193 nations, in September of 2015 with the intent to conquer poverty worldwide and usher in an age of eco-conscious equity by 2030. Honestly, every time I read them, I smile because they line up with my personal view on global development – I wish more people took the time to really think about what they mean long-term. However, that is also part of why Peace Corps Volunteers exist, in my opinion.

While some fund (thank you, US tax payers and Congress, for the $410 million 2016 operating budget), others need to implement the grass roots development required for sustainable change to take place. In an ideal situation, one would prefer to present possible solutions to multiple needs simultaneously. It just so happens that the organization I am partnered with here in Rwanda, COFORWA, happens to directly address multiple goals as part of their primary sectors of intervention:

Goal 6: Water and Sanitation
Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

One of the organization’s main focuses is to introduce new concepts and intervention methods in rural areas – that’s where I come in. An idea that was planted back in June has finally germinated and is starting to sprout in local communities and allow us to directly address additional goals as well:

Goal 1: Poverty
Goal 2: Hunger
Goal 3: Good Health and Well-being
Goal 12: Sustainable Consumption and Production

According to the Rural Poverty Portal, over half of Rwandese live below the poverty line with close to 37% living in extreme poverty. Childhood malnutrition and food insecurity has led to an extraordinarily high rate in stunted growth, 38%, of children under 5. One of the best ways to address these issues is to work with local organizations, health centers, and community leaders to incorporate new methods of access to quality nutrition and education.

The training I attended back in June focused around the theory and practice of creating a new style of garden. Many times, a major obstacle for nutrition is simply access. Rwandese grow up in a society where 80% of the population is involved in agriculture, so the overall gardening concepts are present. Seeing that high of a percentage might lead one to believe that there is no issue, however, when the agricultural sector only accounts for 1/3 of the GDP, the soil is often of poor quality due to extreme climate conditions, and the majority of plots are large and located far from the homes in the valleys between the hills – sometimes hours away – these issues start to make a little more sense.

Peace Corps Rwanda Food Security Specialist, Modeste Nsabimana, introducing permaculture theory to the trainees.
Top: Modeste explaining the concept of “triangle planting” that allows for more seeds to be planted closer together. Roots no longer have to compete for nutrients due to the depth and treatment of subsoil. Eventually, this leads to a greater yield in size and volume. Bottom: Explaining the layout and flow of the garden itself.

One potential solution is to build a permaculture garden (permagarden) using the theory of “CLOSE.” The idea is to build right outside the house, close to the actual kitchen. In order to build it, only materials that can be found locally are used. Soil is manipulated and treated with only organic forms of carbon, nothing synthetic. Instead of a large 10×10 or 15×15 meter plot, we build a small and maintainable 4×4 meter one. Utilizing techniques people are familiar with makes this a relatively easy process with the possibility to replicate and sustain over many years.

Clearing the area to build the garden

It just so happened that after I proposed this idea to my colleagues and presented on the topic in September, they immediately grasped the idea and ran with it. Currently, we are implementing a project in the Rweru Sector (small cluster of villages) of the Bugesera District with WaterAid Rwanda to provide access to water (it is a two hour trek to retrieve water from a “nearby” lake using multiple 25L jerrycans) and improve sanitation and hygiene practices. Introducing this new style of gardening as part of our efforts seemed only logical.

Adding manure, charcoal, and brown leaves to subsoil

Thankfully, Peace Corps Rwanda’s Food Security Specialist, Modeste Nsabimana was available to lead the two-day training – shockingly, I’m not fluent in Kinyarwanda yet. We were able to replicate the training I received for eight COFORWA staff and six local community members. Instead of an elevated garden dug to 20cm deep, a permagarden is dug to 50cm, all the while adding additional carbon (manure, activated charcoal, wood ash, egg shells) to increase the nutrient level of the soil. In addition, we created a system of berms, swales, and collection holes that allow us to intentionally manipulate the direction of water flow when it rains, drastically reduce run-off, and keep all absorption confined to our 16m2 area. As a result of this training, we hope to directly impact and support the needs of at least 30 households just in this sector alone by the end of 2016. Typically, after the third planting season, it is legitimately possible to see crop yields increase as much as 400% from previous years! Fingers crossed…

Full swing with the foreman carefully observing.
About to start collectively mixing the new top soil in front of curious onlookers.
Composting 101
Always use a machete under appropriate supervision
Triangle planting in action. Distance apart varies with type of seed, but theory and application remain the same.
Explanation drip irrigation via water bottle and how rainwater runoff is stopped, diverted, and absorbed into the berms, beds, and retainer holes.

Not only will COFORWA continue to work with local communities to ensure access to water and increase/improve sanitation and hygiene practices, but now they can include addressing Food Security as a sector intervention. To say I’m proud they took the chance on a brand new concept is an understatement. Only time will tell how effective the physical gardens are, but it was very clear during the training that many of the major concepts were connecting. I was sent proof the very next Friday when the trainees became the trainers. Not only were they creating these gardens like seasoned professionals, but other local community members and beneficiaries were actively participating…

First attempt where the students became the teachers. I’d say they paid attention in class.

Now, that is how an idea becomes sustainable! I really believe that this is going to benefit the communities we are working in long-term. We just submitted a Small Project Assistance proposal to hold another training closer to our office in two of the poorest sectors in the Muhanga District. Our target attendees are going to be the two sector Chiefs, two sector Agronomists, 12 Community Health Facilitators, and an additional 12 who will be the primary builders. That specific project is intended to address the needs of close to 100 households. In addition, we will be working to implement a similar project as part of a grant we have with UNICEF for another 150 households. The potential impact here is significant – I am just lucky to be a small part of it.

Permagardening is now in the Rweru Sector, Bugesera District through the partnership with community members, COFORWA, US Peace Corps, and WaterAid Rwanda.
Special thanks to Modeste Nsabimana, COFORWA, WaterAid, and the Bugesera Community for their contributions to this project. In addition, I would like to thank Peter Jensen, Peace Corps Food Security Specialist, for introducing this concept to the Peace Corps community.

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