The Speed of Social Change in an Era of Climate Change
Nothing in nature is a straight line- social change, least of all. Over the past two years, I have had the privilege to work with a team of what is now 65 farmers and 13 regular staff in an effort to achieve what many doubt possible: scaling up the power of smallholder farmers to feed themselves and the world through organic permaculture practices. We have grown into Ethiopia’s first certified organic fruit and vegetable company, and the first permaculture outgrower company in the world. That said, this growth hasn’t been easy. It’s a beautiful struggle, and I’m overdue in sharing these stories. For the sake of friends, family, and fellow food justice activists, I am renewing my effort, starting today, to share a little bit about the work I’ve been doing out here with GreenPath Food in Ethiopia on the Permaculture for Peace website. My hope is that these experiences can spark conversations between others working at the intersection between international development, social business, and the intercultural exchange of ecological wisdom necessary for building a resilient food future.
Permaculture and Agroecology in the Gurage Zone
Permaculture is a system of agricultural and social design that mimics patterns in nature to create regenerative systems. Some researchers describe permaculture as a social movement that borrows from traditional farming systems around the globe, and then synthesizes common design elements and themes to articulate a set of ethics and guiding principles, creating a framework for sustainable ecological design. Some aspects of agroecological farming are alive and well in Ethiopia. Most farms are shaded by multistory homegardens and fruit orchards, and livestock are integrated into crop production systems. (In fact, the traditional kitchen is located in the stable, and meals are cooked right next to the cows!) On the other hand, Ethiopia has fallen victim to a push for agricultural modernization that has caused more harm than good. Destructive practices such as excessive tilling, use of imported pesticides and fertilizers, and a focus on producing nutrient-poor monocultures of cheap commodities have become entrenched in Ethiopian society over the past 30 years. In a volatile ecological and economic climate, smallholder farmers here are understandably risk-averse. My role has been to codevelop farming systems that produce an abundance of nutritious foods using locally available materials, while meeting the demand of international organic markets- in a place that alternates between flood and drought about four times per year.
Profitable Biodiversity Through Modular Polycultures
Diversity is the key to resilience. By growing a diverse array of crops, farmers are ensured yields regardless of fluctuations in local climate or market prices. Over the past year, my team has implemented a system of modular polycultures that we call “Permaculture Pathways.” Each permaculture pathway is made up an intentionally-designed polyculture that consists of 30% perennial and 70% annual crops that provide ecological services to each other while also having a value on the international organic market. While some agronomists advocate intercropping and others advocate crop rotation, our systems are designed to be a rotation of intercrops between a series of soil-building perennial crops. Each “intercrop package” costs around 100 ETB (about 5 USD) and covers 50 sq meters of space. (Our company doesn’t make any profit whatsoever from these seedlings, but we’ve observed that when people have to pay for something, they’re more likely to take care of it.) Based on a farmer’s budget or level of comfort, she can buy 2 intercrop packages or 20 packages. Under this program, we’ve seen biodiversity on farms accelerate from 1-2 crops per field to a mix of 6-8 crops on a single plot. There have been some fascinating developments under the permaculture intercrop package program that would be worthy of a Freakonomics episode- but I’ll save that for another post.
Modular Microclimate Management
As my inspiring colleague Peter Jensen likes to say, “You can’t change the climate, but you can change the microclimate.” A big aspect of the Permaculture Pathway design is the way it extends the growing season into the dry season through micrcoclimate management. By creating double-dug raised beds that are 50% organic matter surrounded by rainwater-harvesting microswales, and mulching and soil amendment topdressing on a fortnightly basis through fortnightly phone call push notifications, our partner farmers’ crops are healthy and productive without the use of synthetic fertilizers or expensive imported irrigation schemes.
Designing good Permaculture Pathways isn’t easy. Many dogmatic permaculturists assume that intercropping automatically increases yields. Sometimes this is true, but at other times crops compete with each other for resources and decrease yields. The farmers I serve depend on these polycultures for their livelihoods, and having a space to measure the effectiveness of different kinds of intercrops is incredibly important. One farmer was open-minded enough to offer up a portion of his farm as a polyculture research plot. We pay him for everything that we harvest, but his field is structured like a randomized split-plot design. On this site, my team is monitoring and comparing not only yield per hectare, but also nutrition per hectare and profit per hectare of GreenPath intercrops as compared to monocrops. I am grateful to some strangers from afar (Rafter Sass-Ferguson and Matthew Kessler) and the Dr. Paul Struik at Wageningen for guiding my team through the process of developing a research plot.
A Decentralized Network Designed for Smallholders
Some big steps on the Farmer Service Center end include the construction of our nursery, construction of Butajira’s first cold store, and the construction of our packhouse. These accomplishments are largely the work of my colleague Tigistu Kebede. In a country where big agribusiness superfarms and processing plants dominate, we have developed a model for decentralized farmer service centers that work with 100 farmers across a network of sites. Visitors marvel at the diversity of our nursery- we have more than 20 different varieties of crops available for sale to farmers as part of our intercrop packages. Our modern cold-store was built almost entirely from local materials, for about 5% of what large Agribusinesses spend on their imported industrial-scale cold stores is a boon to Butajira farmers. Traditionally, fruits and vegetables are not staple crops because they cannot be stored or transported easily. Through these technologies, we are able to give farmers in Butajira access to markets that are willing to pay a premium for crops that are organically and permaculturally grown.
Ethiopia’s Organic Advantage
Many scholars have written about the failure of the so-called “Green Revolution” in Africa, but as the permaculture adage goes, “The challenge is the solution.” Growing organically may be a competitive advantage that Ethiopian smallholder farmers have over other world food producers. While so much of international development focuses on training farmers to move towards urban and industrial professions, GreenPath’s aim is to help farmers pull themselves out of poverty by growing organically. There are, however, barriers to entry for organic certification: namely, the immense expense of certification, and the copious amounts of paperwork and monitoring needed to maintain certification. We have developed some pretty great online and offline systems to help farmers of various economic and academic levels earn their organic certification, and by extension, richer livelihoods.
Partners in Permaculture
The most important aspect of encouraging farmers to change how they farm is the relationships of trust that we build. Our dedicated Agronomy Team visits each farmer on a weekly basis to conduct harvests, monitor progress, and offer training in permaculture and organic growing techniques. Farmers realize that we are an integrated part of their weekly routine and local community, and that we aren’t going away at the first sign of trouble. We’re not a charity, with the gentle racism and classism that comes with that. We’re not a profit-maximizing agrocorporation, either. We are partners in permaculture business. We have survived floods, drought, hail, disease, and dismal regulatory paperwork together. While GreenPath may not be an overnight business success, real social change is happening- at an organic pace- and it is lasting.