The Word is Out: An Invitation to Expand

A couple of months ago we got a visit from Babu Albini. Babu Albini lives in a village towards the base of the mountain called Pofo. He is a bit of a legend. He built his house with his own two hands. That’s nothing special here, except that Babu Albini’s house is made of stone and it’s two stories tall with a porch. He’s had two wives and fourteen children. When he was a bachelor he took an interest in airplanes and built his own which, it is rumored, flew 12 feet. Somewhere along the journey he met a German friend who gave him an ATV with a matching helmet. Somewhere later on in this journey, people in Pofo heard about the garden program going on in Mkyashi and asked Babu Albini to investigate. So one morning we had an unexpected visitor, gave him a brief overview of the program, and made a date to come Pofo and talk about how and if we could help implement the program there.
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We had a great visit and it was rewarding to hear the excitement of people in Pofo. We told them our resources were extremely limited but if they could provide all of the labor for free we would provide the inputs they couldn’t get locally – rice husks, EM1, and some pesticide inputs. The people of Pofo also offered up some central real estate in the center of town, right in front of the church and the school, to start the demonstration garden.
We left wondering how much follow through there would be. People were excited and this really is a cheap program if you don’t have to pay for labor, but you never know how much people will follow through on things.
Last week Babu Ablini called us and said everything is ready to make compost, now we just have to go down and show them how to make it, then they’re on their way!

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Pesticide Update

Bugs. Can’t live them, can’t live without them. Some of them are crucial components to your garden eco-system, others are nothing but pests. We were told by farmers and gardeners in Mkyashi from the start the bugs would probably be our biggest problem. When we asked some of the more successful gardeners here how they handled bugs, they all told us they had to use chemical pesticides bought in town. Aside from the health side effects of chemical sprays, they are also financially unobtainable for the small scale farmers we’re working with. So we knew we would have to find some better solutions.
Twice per week we apply an organic pesticide made entirely from locally available inputs. It costs about 10,000 Tshillings ($6.25) to make 250 liters of pesticide. The ingredients include:
Green papaya
Aloe vera
Ginger
Peppers
Tea leaves
Other grasses and leaves
Vinegar
Molasses
Gin
EM1 (a special microorganism that we always have on hand for use in compost making, booster, and other products)
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We apply that to all of our plants twice per week along with a booster made from fish guts (free at the market because it’s a waste product), EM1, and molasses. It’s a weak pesticide but it has done a good job on everything except the Chinese cabbage and the kale. It’s cheap, organic, and edible; easy for families to make and has no health effects.
However, we have had to use some more aggressive measures to fight the red ants that have been attacking. The first strategy we tried was applying a more potent mix of the aforementioned pesticide. Next, we took hot ashes and put them around the base of the affected plants. This worked to temporarily disperse the ants, but they soon came back.
Next, we tried applying a pesticide made from tobacco leaves dissolved in water. This is thought of as a ‘’last resort’’ pesticide because it kills good bugs like spiders and worms as well as bad ones like caterpillars and ants. We applied it only to affected plants. We also tried adding kerosene to the hot ashes to further deter the ants. In the end we have managed to slow the spread of ants and disrupt their damage for days at a time, but we have not found a solid solution to the problem. We are continuing to monitor the spread of the ants and their effect on the health of the vegetables they target.
As I have mentioned before, we are happy to have these problems coming up in our demonstration garden. It gives us the opportunity to learn how to deal with different pests so when they come up in family gardens we know how to handle it quickly. It also gives us the opportunity to play with some interesting dilemmas.
For example, at what cost do we stick to our goal of being organic? If we can make a pesticide at low cost using easily available local materials, should we discount it because it’s not organic? I’m pretty sure that kerosene doesn’t count as organic, but mixing a bit of it with ash is our most successful effort yet against the ants. Is it worth letting potential food die if we can’t find an organic solution? If we find an organic solution but it is expensive, can we expect families to use their money to pursue that solution? And if we decide to supply it for them, is it worth sacrificing their self-sufficiency for our goal? We have decided that finding cheap, local, organic pesticides and boosters is our goal, but in the meantime we need to learn about as many solutions as possible so that we can share the knowledge with the community and let people make their own decisions. There are good solutions out there and in time we will find them.

Long Overdue Update

It’s been a fast-paced couple of months here on the mountain. We’ve made some incredible progress that I’m excited to report. Over the past two months since the last blog post I’ve written about 3 posts that became outdated before I was able to get to town and post them. Hopefully this one makes it.

The most exciting bit of news over the past couple months is that our demonstration garden is in full swing. We have even begun harvest some of the ‘’fruits’’ – vegetables – of our labor. Each day we get about enough vegetables for one family so we have been bringing the vegetables to some of the families interested in planting gardens to keep their excitement up and also help carry them through the period between starting work on a garden and actually getting vegetables from it. Check out the progress of our garden:

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Once our demonstration garden was planted, the next step was to start educating the community about what we are trying to do. The Sunday that we finished planting the garden, Bosco called the community together to learn about the project and then Mary gave a brief speech outlining the program, the benefits of organic gardening, and how we hoped people would get involved. The immediate response was great and we got about 15 families signed up for gardens. In the weeks that followed we have gotten over 20 requests from families for assistance to start their gardens.

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It was great to see such a positive and enthusiastic community response to the project. However, we have very limited resources to carry out our goals and we want to make sure each garden we help plant succeeds and has maximum impact for the family and community. Before we could start working with families to plant their gardens we wanted to make visits to each of their homes to identify the most qualified families. In identifying which families to work with first we had three criteria we were looking for. First, we want to work with families who have the ability to make and maintain successful gardens. There are a couple elements of ability. The first has to do with the demographics of the family. For example, a household that is just a grandmother and her young grandchildren may have a difficult time maintaining a full-size garden given the amount of labor involved. The second element of ability has to do with the actual land owned by families. The land must be large enough to support a garden, it must be in close proximity to a reliable water supply, and it must receive adequate sunlight throughout the day. The second criteria we were looking for in families was the potential benefit a garden would have for them. We want to work with families whose situation could be significantly improved by a steady supply of food or additional income. One family we visited told us not to worry about how far away from water they lived because they have a truck to carry it. That doesn’t quite qualify in a place like Mkyashi. The third criteria we were looking for in families was willingness – willingness to work hard on their own gardens and willingness to assist other families in the future.

After conducting our home visits it was clear to us that a couple of changes had to be made in the ‘’ability’’ criteria. First, we did not want to tell some of the families who could benefit the most from a garden that they couldn’t have a garden because we didn’t believe they were capable of taking care of it. Besides, who are we to tell anyone what they can or can’t do? They are the ones taking on the most risk if they are unable to look after their garden. Instead of counting families out because of ability or land size we will simply work with what’s available. If a family owns a small piece of land, they can start a small garden. They will still benefit from it and if it is successful they can expand it by replacing another crop like coffee or bananas. If we are unsure of a family’s ability we can start off by giving them a few beds and then expand if they feel they can handle more.

So far we have selected the first two families we are going to work with and we have begun working on preparing everything for their gardens. The first step in making a garden is to prepare the compost. Once compost ingredients are put together it takes between six and eight weeks for it go from its various inputs to good. Luckily we started that process long ago and the compost will be ready. The next step is to choose which vegetables to plant. Some seeds can be planted directly into the garden with no prep work. Others must be planted in a nursery first and then after two weeks they can be transferred to bags for a week before they can be put into the garden. We are about a week into that process, so that puts us about three weeks away from starting to plant for families.

While the nursery plants are growing the families’ land must be prepared. This can be a heavy job in Mkyashi as we often have to remove trees and roots. Once the big stuff has been removed, we cultivate the land to bring lower and more nutritious levels of soil to the top. We also get rid of any grasses and weeds that have been growing at this point. The final step before actually forming the beds and planting the garden – which we won’t do until seedlings are ready – is to measure out where each bed will grow. This can actually be the most difficult part of the task. Trying to form square angles and beds of correct size with nothing but strings and sticks is tricky. Doing it through a bit of a language and education barrier (try explaining the Pythagorean theorem in another language to someone who has never studied geometry) is even harder. Still, somehow it gets done.

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If all goes well our first two families will have their gardens in by the first couple weeks of July. We are still deciding whether to plant a full-size garden with a third family or work with three or four families to create smaller gardens. There are so many deserving families that we would love to work with, it is a tough decision and there is no way to make a completely objective decision about it.

We are psyched about the progress we have made with the garden program so far and the promising future we believe the program has in Mkyashi and surrounding villages, but we have had a few difficulties to work through as well. The biggest challenge facing us is the biggest challenge facing many small farmers in Mkyashi: bugs. We have a serious red ant problem. Each season here on the mountain comes with its own notorious pest. Right now we are in the cold season and the bug du jour is red ants. They scuttle underground to avoid the cold and feed on roots while they’re down there. So far they have only caused problems for our Chinese cabbage and our kale, but we are keeping a close eye on things. The Chinese cabbage has proved resilient, the kale seems stunted. This is actually a good problem to have in our demonstration garden because it gives us the opportunity to try out different strategies and pesticide recipes which we can then pass on to families. I will write more about this issue later as it brings up some interesting questions about the goals of the program and the popular debate about organic versus local.

It has been a busy couple of months and there are more posts to come about some of the other projects we’ve been working on. I have been lucky to have visitors from home this month and I even managed to sneak off to Kigamboni for a couple days to take a beach vacation. Between my being away and taking some days off with visitors it has been a great opportunity for Mary to practice being in charge and for her and me to work on our long distance communication for when I am back stateside. So far I’m pleased with how smoothly things have gone.

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There are more updates to come and it looks like things are really about to get exciting. I promise to update more often now, so check back soon!