Permaculture and knowledge sharing in Kenya

This post deals with my most rewarding travel experience so far. This experience shows how mixing people of different backgrounds and cultures can result in knowledge sharing that in turn can create a better future for all. It happened last spring when I traveled to Kisumu, Kenya for seven weeks together with 20 other students from my university. The trip was part of a course offered by my university called Reality Studio, and the purpose of the trip was to do a design project in the local context in Kenya. The project I was involved in – dubbed A Common Tomorrow – started out as a very practical construction project but it ended up transforming not just a local plot of farm land, but also the lives of a number of people involved in the project.

shelter structure
A view of the site where I worked together with my classmates and local people. The structure in the front is a workshop shelter.

Tree planting, construction and cyclical resource management

The project started at a swimming pool in Kisumu where one of my classmates met the manager of Make Me Smile Kenya, a local non-profit organisation that mainly works with children. This NGO had an unused plot of farm land in Kajulu village just outside the city, and they had plans to plant fruit trees on the site. My classmate offered to help, and almost my entire class ended up participating when we planted 125 fruit trees on the site in one day. After the tree planting, four of us students decided to further develop the site as our course project.

One of the visions for the site was that it should be an educational site that promotes organic farming, and the fruit trees were planted without chemical fertilizers. Because monoculture farming had previously been practiced on the site, the soil was devoid of nutrients, and we brought nutrients back into the soil using cow dung and trunks of old banana trees. Different species of trees were planted in different locations depending on the needs of the species. The idea was that the trees would start the process of agroforestry, which is a system where trees and crops are grown together for mutual benefit.

banana tree
A newly planted banana tree that receives nutrients from cow dung and trunks of old banana trees.

After the tree planting we started construction work on the site. During the next few weeks we constructed two main structures – a workshop shelter and a toilet, shower and laundry block – as well as developed cyclical water and waste management systems for the site. Underlying the work we did were the principles of permaculture and taking advantage of natural cycles instead of working against them. We wanted to promote these principles through this site, and at the same time we wanted to make the site livable for future volunteers.

We wanted to use materials available on site as much as possible, but a lot of materials were also bought because of time restraints and because we wanted the structures to be more durable. We used earth from the site a lot, and this earth was first sieved in order to remove organic material and to get different types of sand and gravel for different purposes. This sand and gravel was mixed with cement to form concrete for foundations, and large stones were used as filling in order to minimize the amount of cement required. We reinforced the foundations with steel and a part of this was recycled scrap metal. We also tested using a mat made of woven recycled plastic as reinforcement. For the floor of the workshop shelter we used lime as binder instead of cement. Lime is environmentally favourable to cement because it binds carbon dioxide during its lifetime, and if the local soil had been more suitable and if we had had more time we probably would have used lime more than we did.

toilet construction
Simple toilet and shower facilities were constructed in order to make the site livable for volunteers.

Access to water is an important issue in the lives of the locals. Even though there is a water treatment plant close to the site, tap water is not accessible to most people in the village because of bad planning of the treatment plant. The locals mainly rely on surface water from rivers, and there is also a stream running through the site that we were working on. However, many locals do their washing by the stream which pollutes the water with chemicals. Before the rainy season the stream was also almost completely dry. We wanted to improve water security, and did this by installing a rainwater collection system and a greywater treatment system on the site. The greywater treatment system is open to the neighbors so that they can throw their waste water there instead of the stream.

greywater treatment
A simple greywater treatment system that cleans laundry and bath water using stones, sand and local plants that absorb chemicals.

We also developed waste management strategies for organic waste and human waste. On a farm, organic waste is a resource because it is a source of nutrients. We dug a simple compost pit for organic waste, and this compost can then be used as organic manure to fertilize the trees that we planted, along with other future crops. We also built a toilet that separates urine and feces, which makes it possible to maximize the use of human waste. This way the feces stays dry and can be better used as manure together with the organic waste. The urine contains a lot of ammonia which is good for fertilizing certain plants, for example citrus trees. In this case we dug old tires into the ground and filled them with earth. The urine from the toilet is piped to these tires, and over time the earth inside the tires becomes rich in ammonia. Citrus trees can then be planted on top of the tires, and once the trees grow their roots will penetrate the tires and the trees will access the nutrient rich soil.

systems map
A mapping of the different systems and flows on site.

Sharing of knowledge and culture

When we started the project, the focus was on the physical results, but in the end it turned out that social results were more important. From day one we were working together with a group of local men that the NGO had hired to help us. In the beginning there was a clear gap between the us and the local workers, but this changed considerably throughout the project. As we talked more and more with the local men, we could break down cultural barriers and build a different kind of relationship with them. Towards the end we also lived on the site, and this also made it easier for us all to understand each other and to work together as equals.

Even though they were hired because they were neighbors, some of the men had skills which turned out to be very valuable, for example carpentry and roofing skills. As the project moved forward and as we got to know the men better, we started giving the men more and more responsibilities in making decisions, and in this way they took ownership of the project. When we had our final public exhibition in Kisumu city, it wasn’t us students who presented our project, it was the local men who were presenting their new knowledge and skills. The men formed a team, called Team Rarudi, that could look for new employment opportunities using their new skills. Since we left Kenya, Team Rarudi has continued the project on site.

sand sieving
Sieving sand was one of the activities where we got a chance to talk with the local workers and realized the potential that the project could have for them.

The local men were not the only ones learning new skills, and during the project we also learned a lot from the men. When we needed to know which plants could be used in the greywater treatment system to absorb chemicals for example, the men could provide us with this information. Another thing I learned from the locals was how to do more with less. We had very few tools and materials, and when realized that something was missing, there was no time to go to town to buy things. Instead we had to improvise and use whatever was around us, such as plastic bottles. We also had to learn how to work with simple tools, for example the concrete was mixed manually in a wheelbarrow and then vibrated with sticks.

piping
A lot of improvisation was needed because of a lack of tools and materials, and it was clear that the locals – who were used to living with less – were better at improvising than we were. In this picture they are using fire to connect to pipes when we noticed that we hadn’t bought enough connecting pieces.

Apart from the local men who were hired to work with us, there were a number of other people involved in the project. One of these was a local milkman whom my classmate met in Kisumu and who turned out to be an invaluable help. Then there were the local kids. Every day there were more and more curious kids around who wanted to see what we were doing. We involved the kids in the project through games and dancing, and in this way they also learned a lot. One of my favorite moments was when I was working on the toilet construction and one of the local kids came to test if the beams were level – using a spirit level he had made by filling a drinking straw with water and blocking the ends with pieces of soap.

Our time in Kenya was short and there is definitely a lot of room for improvement and potential for extending the project. If you’re interested and have another 20 minutes to spare, I recommend watching this video made by my groupmate that explains more about the project. You can also check out this website dedicated to the project.

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