Konso, Ethiopia – Agriculture and Culture

Following my recent trip to Siltie country I wrote a report on the Enset based agriculture of the area. Following that trip we brought some Enset plants back to Konso and we have planted them, 5 of them, on the Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge (SFEL) site in Konso. We put them on places where our “pit-composting” toilets had previously been. Enset is a hungry plant and likes a lot of manure. We will see how they do over the next few months.

In the meantime I thought I would give a brief overview of Konso’s own agricultural system, which is equally fascinating and completely different to that in Siltie.

Konso is a small ethnic homeland in the Great Rift Valley at 5’15’ N, 37’30’ E with an area around 500 square kilometres. Altitude ranges from 800 to 2200m but the traditional area of cultivation is between 1400 and 2000m. Konso’s capital is Karat town, which is is where we are based, at 1600m altitude, 85km south of Arba Minch, and 590km south of Addis Ababa. The Konsos are renowned in Ethiopia for their highly social mode of life and love of hard physical labour. Whereas most farming communities in Ethiopia live spread out across the high green plateau of the land, with a house here on this field and the next house over there on that field (a bit like in Ireland), the Konso’s instead live in intensely crowded hill-top settlements, with the community farmlands on the surrounding slopes below. There are good reasons for this. Firstly they occupy a rugged chain of basalt hills sitting in the Great Rift valley, which are steep and eroded, criss-crossed with ravines and gulleys. Secondly they are bordered by lowland pastoralists of various ethnic groups to the south, east and west. Since pastoralists are generally warlike and prone to raiding their neighbours for animals, Konso society has a defensive posture. The hilltop villages are fortified, but the Konso’s are farmers, not warriors, and up at the top of these rugged, eroded slopes they must heroically yield a living off the land through a combination of improbably hard labour and careful stewardship of the earth.

The village is, until very recently, constructed entirely of natural materials, ringed by massive dry-stone walls, at least a meter thick and two meters high with stone-lined pavements run between the housing compounds. The houses are arranged into family compounds, with small living-huts and some grain stores, raised off the ground on wooden poles. The family compounds are themselves fortified, walled with tree trunks and have low entrances that you cannot go through without bending down, making an intruder very vulnerable to attack from the inside.

Fat tailed sheep, goats and cattle are among the livestock kept
inside the Konso family compounds.

Animals including goats, cattle and the distinctive Konso fat-tailed sheep, are tethered under the grain-stores and fed on hand-cut food, especially sorghum straw. There are often also garden areas within the compound, with such food plants as pumpkin, yams, banana, cassava, sweep potato, chillies, cherry tomatoes or even tobacco. Animal dung and waste water may be thrown into these corners. These around the house annuals may be underneath coffee, bananas, citrus or Mexican apple, but most frequently the ubiquitous Moringa stenopatala, the celebrated indigenous staple vegetable of the Konso diet, forms an over-story above much of the compound. Known locally as “haloko” this fantastic plant provides an extraordinary spectrum of vitamins and minerals which keep the people strong and well nourished in the toughest of circumstances. It’s leaves are boiled like cabbage and eaten with dumplings of sorghum called “dama” in the Konso language. It is grown all around the housing compounds so profusely that it makes the villages shine bright green amongst the arid peaks of the Konso landscape. It is incredibly drought hardy and once mature will provide vegetable for the diet through most of the year without any irrigation at all.

Moringa stenopetala, the indigenous cabbage tree ("halako")

Moving out onto the farmlands around the village, we see what Konso is most famous for; its terracing. This has been constructed over much of the rugged landscape by centuries of communal labour. The terracing reduces soil erosion, and is carefully engineered to balance the competing needs of water infiltration into the ground and drainage in times of deluge, so that the terraces do not collapse. They are planted with sorghum, which is one of the most hardy dry-land grain crops there is, but it is still an annual grain crop, and will fail if the rains are inadequate. The sorghum is intercropped with a range of other species, especially annual legumes such as lablab bean, pigeon pea and various other types of climbing beans and bush beans. These obviously help maintain soil fertility. Other annuals include sunflowers, maize, millet, chick peas, pumpkins, amaranth, cotton and cassava. The cassava is in particular seen as something of a fall back. Should the sorghum crop fail it can be eaten even in droughts as the tubers which may have grown the previous year when there was good rain will sit in the ground without spoiling and can be harvested in times of food shortage. Alternatively it can be sold as a cash crop when it is not needed as it is quite valuable and is even exported to Kenya. Perennial shrubs grown on the extensive farmland include coffee and ch’at (Catha edulis — a non-food cash crop) and trees include Terminalia birowni, Cupressus sp. and Ziziphus sp. which are grown for timber. Terminalia (“weybetta” in afaan Konso) is the most frequently planted (or, rather, often allowed to grow naturally from seed) tree on the extensive farmlands. It is pruned to grow into long and relatively straight poles with the continual removal of side branches, which also provide animal fodder. It is so frequent on the extensive farmlands that it can be seen all across the landscape, defining the skyline where a crowd of its wiggly trunks usually stick up into the sky around the peaks of the ridges. Moringa is also planted on the terraces, though less densely than within the villages.

Terminalia Birownii ("weybetta") growing above sorghum. This is the most used
construction timber in Konso. It is very hard and quite termite resistant.

The terraces are fertilised with wastes from the villages, including partially burned plant residues and decomposed animal dung. The integration of many species on the farmland is achieved with great skill by the Konso farmers, and the trick they achieve is to balance the mix to get enough food in a bad year, but get the best yield of cash crop possible on top of that in a good year.

Preparing chat to send to Moyale, down in the lowlands on the Kenya border.
Konso people do not use chat, but grow it solely as a cash crop.
It is quite a lucrative cash crop too…

The sorghum crop forms the main staple in the Konso diet, eaten in two main forms — the “dama” dumplings, which are boiled balls of sorghum flower eaten with “halako” (the boiled Moringa leaf), and “chagga” a beery sorghum broth drunk mixed with hot water, which is extremely rich in carbohydrate and provides plenty of energy for heavy labour, but it also insures that people are generally drunk to various degrees.

Sorghum is the main staple crop in Konso. This local variety is not very
productive but is very popular as it is not palatable to birds, so needs less
attention than more productive "modern" varieties.

The Konso have also traditionally maintained sacred forests, which are semi-wild forest areas of spiritual significance protected from cutting under the traditional socio-spiritual-belief system of the Konso culture. Under this system (called “Waka fettha”) the tribe of Konso is divided into nine patri-lineal clans (or “kaffa”), each of which are present in all the villages throughout Konso. Clans have social responsibilities to their own members anywhere they go in Konso, and the clan system was intimately connected to the system of spiritual practise before protestant missionaries arrived in the area in the 1950s. One aspect of the system was that the clan chief’s or poqalas, the oldest male in the line from the founder of the clan, were obliged to live a semi-hermitic lifestyle in an area of forest which was reserved for that purpose, where they would commune with various spirits for the benefit of the clan and the society in general. This has meant that areas of semi-natural forest have been preserved often on the tops of hills for this purpose. Unfortunately these days the community, which generally lacks adequate toilet facilities tends to use these as sites for open defecation, so they are not very pleasant forests to spend time in, and it is not advisable to step off the beaten track when passing through them.

While the Konso agriculture is a lot more sustainable than most forms of subsistence agriculture practised in Ethiopia, there are some criticisms to be made of their system of land management. The major one is that it is extremely labour intensive, and, as usual, most of this labour burden falls on the women. For example, the animals are penned inside the housing compounds in the villages, and it is for the women to go out, cut their food and carry it back to the houses for the animals. This may be a result of tradition which developed to keep the animals safely inside, away from potential rustlers. It may also be that the animals will damage the terraces if let out to feed on them. The women also have to carry water to the villages for domestic use as well as for the animals themselves, usually from down in the valley bottoms. Then there is firewood. There is no draft either, the land is tilled by hand. The men will lend a hand on this one, but it’s by no means an exclusively male job. The stone for terracing is all lugged about by hand too. Men build the terraces, and the women carry the stones. And once the crop is harvested, the grain is taken to the market on the backs of the women too. In fact, all the donkey work is done by the women. There are no donkeys in Konso. From a Permaculture perspective there must be ways to design a lot of this labour away, without having to build massive amounts of infrastructure or use complex technological solutions which are beyond the communities’ means to access.

Other problems result from over-population – firewood consumption is stripping away the natural forests, especially in the lowlands and outlying areas beyond the reach of traditional cultivation, where the women usually venture off to collect cooking fuel. That the women have to trek progressively further and further to collect fire wood is reflected in the price of wood in the market. What would have cost 15Birr in 2008 now costs 40Birr, which is not just inflation. The high rate of reproduction continues apace in the Konso villages, with a culture that continues to value high fertility. And guess who bear the children. Men seem to spend a lot more time sitting around and chatting over the governance of day to day issues in Konso, and, of course, drinking.

Despite the use of annual legume crops and the maintaining of some tree legumes around the farmlands, the continuous cultivation of the main sorghum crop on the terraces is leading to soil depletion. The soil is tilled by hand and although some decomposed manures are added to the soil at tillage, the majority of the organic matter removed as harvested grain and straw is not returned to the soil. Much of the animal manures produced in the villages are burned or heaped in the gullies where they will be washed away when the rains come. There is consequently a gradual decline in the fertility of the land, albeit a slower one than in other areas of the country. Some of the terraces are still thought to have been continuously cultivated for hundreds of years.

Konso these days suffers from food insecurity. The UNDP’s Rapid Assessment Report: Konso Special Wereda, SNNPR (1999) states that; “since the 1950s, drought induced famines have hit Konso and the immediate area almost once every ten years.” “Konso was devastated by the droughts in 1973/74 and 1983/84”. The situation has not changed much with droughts in 2007/2008 seeing food aid roll into town again on UN trucks carrying wheat overproduced under subsidies on the other side of the planet. The mentality of dependency on food aid has become well entrenched, and there is a tendency to see the chance of getting money out of NGOs as far more important than any real efforts to develop really robust indigenous local food production which can withstand all the climactic conditions that area is going to face in the changing global climate.

Some of the solution may be in bringing in new techniques or species of crops which are able to produce in drought conditions. But if permaculture has anything to offer the Konso people in terms of helping them develop food security, then movement has to develop from within the community. Foreigners coming in with great ideas may be able to give a training or two and hand out some money to a few lucky people on the ground, but it won’t have any lasting impact unless it can live on within the community once they disappear back to where they came from.

Reducing the burden of manual labour on women and allowing them more access to education would provide the long term social progress that can pull the society out of complete dependence on local food production. Permaculture as a design system has the potential to deliver a more efficient mode of domestic and agricultural organisation which would reduce the labour burden. Simple solutions could help a lot – more efficient cooking stoves, water piped into the villages, community feeding lots with food brought in by vehicles, composting pit toilets to counter open defecation in the forests, etc. are all possibilities.

Overall the Konso are a truly remarkable people, especially the women — cheerful and friendly, despite lives of constant toil. Their agriculture too is very impressive; highly skilled in dry-stone work, they eek a living off the rocky slopes by skilfully integrating a great number of different species to feed a ridiculous number of mouths on some of the least hospitable terrain in the southern Ethiopian Highlands. They have much to show other ethnic groups in the region, who could benefit from emulating them. However, there is still room for improvement, like reducing the severity of the labour burden on the women, giving them more time to gain an education, while reducing deforestation and the birth rate.

To see more of this truly remarkable land join one of our PDCs at Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge, where we run the first permaculture demonstration site in Ethiopia — hosting international trainers and incorporating local knowledge from Konso, known as one of the toughest farming cultures in Africa. Our next PDC is scheduled for March 2010 and will be co-facilitated by Tichafa Makovere from Zimbabwe and David Spicer of the PRI, Australia. Book here!