Integrating University Degrees with Permaculture Education and Community Development in Kenya

Putting in a Papaya Circle at Nyumbani Village

In an innovative PDC program, following the PRI ‘Master Plan’ template, University students from University of Wisconsin Stevens Point (UWSP) learn permaculture alongside Kenyan students, project managers and small-holder farmers at different community development projects integrating permaculture into their work. The course, which is spread out over three weeks to allow lots of time for practical implementation activities, gives ample opportunity for students to learn about implementing permaculture in a community development context, whilst providing real and long-lasting change for the orphan children and small holder farmers who are beneficiaries of these projects.

The course is run by John Sheffy who teaches at University of Wisconsin. John has worked as a Sustainable Agriculture Programme manager in both Kenya and Mexico and has ample experience of both sustainable agriculture and community based forest management in a development context. John started teaching permaculture with PRI-Kenya in Kenya and has been very inspired by teaching with Warren Brush.

During the course which was run over three weeks, fourteen UWSP students from a variety of disciplines learnt permaculture alongside 23 students recruited by PRI-Kenya from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania as well as a couple of international students from Australia, Belgium and Germany. It was a beautifully diverse group and they naturally integrated themselves during the class activities. Throughout the course lots of sharing activities were included and everyone developed a rich understanding of how Permaculture applied to everyone in so many different areas.

The three week programme offered an opportunity to spend more time in the field at the 3 host sites that were chosen: Nyumbani Village near Kitui, Drylands Natural Resource Management in Maiuni, and Amrita Childrens Home in Athi River.

Nyumbani Village is a 1,000 acre village that is home to 100 HIV/AIDS orphan families. The village has been applying Permaculture principles to make it as efficient as possible, particularly with producing its food and energy. To this end it has developed many acres of food forest, organic vegetable gardens, livestock, and broad acre forestry. The course activities were focused on working with the village families at their homes. Students planted banana circles at the homes of 50 families to recycle wastewater from their showers into irrigation water for fruits and vegetables. They learned how to build rabbit cages for families to expand their small animal husbandry and made cob rocket stoves to help save fuel wood. At the end of the course the student groups did their final design projects to redesign the 1,000 acre site, and presented their ideas and drawings to the Nyumbani Village sustainability staff. The efforts of the students were greatly appreciated.

Visiting a woodlot at DNRC with Nicholas Syano

The course also traveled to Drylands Natural Resources Management (and home village of Nicholas Syano of PRI-Kenya) where they expanded a food forest at the Maiuni Primary School that was started in the 2011 course. It is now a half acre of swales, fodder, fuel wood and fruit trees, ground covers, edible classroom and playground. The school teachers and children are tending it to provide fresh food for the school meals and generate income to pay for school expenses. Course participants worked with the large 300 member DNRC community group to install two 10,000L rainwater harvesting tanks at the houses of community members. The rainwater tanks are a creative offshoot of the group’s main woodlot planting project. The members vote annually on which members have planted and maintained the best woodlots. Those member’s names are put in a hat. Then when enough funds are raised by the group through things like our PDC course, they pull names for members to receive a rainwater system and the whole group helps to install it. It is a very beautiful process that connects planting trees to harvesting water, improved health through clean water, increased time that would have been spent fetching water, and decreasing costs for drinking water. Finally course participants helped DNRC prepare soil in their tree nursery for the next season’s 30,000 tree seedlings they were to plant.

Dancing after the rainwater system installation with DNRC

The last few days of the course were spent at Amrita Children’s Home, a children’s home standing on 10 acres near the industrial town of Athi River. John had visited the site in 2011 and assisted with the challenges they were facing. The students planted many types of trees in the food forest, mainly nitrogen fixing support trees to complement the fruits and timber trees they had already planted. Swales in the food forest were heavily mulched and sweet potato vines planted on them as a ground cover. Amrita had recently started milking a cow to provide their own milk and sell surplus to the community. A fodder bank of legume trees and Napier grass were planted near the dairy unit. Students also helped in the indigenous vegetable garden at Amrita and helped expand the already giant 20m diameter lotus herb garden.

Planting trees at Amrita Children’s Home

The rich cultural mix of students resulted in some spontaneous storytelling bonfire nights. Organized and orchestrated by the Kenyan students these nights were a mix of traditional stories, songs, and dances from the many tribes they encompassed, as well as reflections from the course activities and where people thought Permaculture was taking them, and of course a few good jokes.

This integrated programme has so far been a great success and provides learning for everyone involved as well as offering implementation of simple but very effective permaculture techniques at all of the different community projects visited. The feedback from the students was great, from both UWSP and Kenyan. John Sheffy adds:

I think the integrated nature of the course really enhances everyone’s experience and elevates the relevance and application of Permaculture as well as their motivation. Each year the previous students in Kenya develop their own sites and projects, making it challenging to decide which places to take the course field trips the next year. The UWSP students sometimes don’t have access to land, but often work on our farm or other farms. Many return home full of ideas and energy to Permablitz their families and friends. They think they are going to Kenya to help people there, but it has definitely been a life changer for many of them when they come home. We see that in how the focus of their studies changes, the community volunteer and work projects they create, and we even hear stories from some parents about what they do at home.

PRI-Kenya is now gearing up again for our next course with John Sheffy in collaboration with the UWSP from 30th May to 17th June, 2013. The course will run for one week at Nyumbani village, one week at the Drylands Natural Resource Centre, three days at the Amrita Children’s Home, and is once again open to African and international students alike. At the end of the PDC there is the option of coming along on a study tour to a Coffee Farm to study organic coffee agroforestry systems in Kirinyaga area, near the beautiful Mount Kenya. The tour will come at an extra cost.

Working on swales at Amrita Children’s Home

This two and a half weeks of intensive learning of permaculture for community development in Africa will have a focus on permaculture for food security and climate change resilience

This design course also includes a special module on Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) — a simple but wonderfully effective technique for landscape regeneration which works beautifully together with permaculture and which is rapidly being recognized as an important tool for regenerating dought prone African landscapes.

The cost of the course is:

PDC course:

  • Kenyan Students: 25 000-35 000 Kshs/ 300-400 USD
  • International Students: 65 000 Kshs / 750 USD

PDC + coffee farm tour:

  • Kenyan Students: 30 000-40 000 Kshs/ 350-470USD
  • International Students: 75 000 KES / 850 USD).

To register for this course, please contact Sheena on: sheena (at)

Fees for Kenyan students are assessed according to ability to pay. Fees include all tuition, food and accommodation and transport between sites, but not to and from the course.

We have many talented individuals here in Kenya who are dying to take a permaculture course and take that knowledge back to their communities to help improve livelihoods. We try and find ways to provide scholarships for as many as possible but demand is certainly higher than supply. A contribution towards our Scholarship Fund will make an enormous difference for someone here in Kenya, who can then make an enormous difference in their community with their new knowledge. We select local people we believe will be able to impact their community with their knowledge and those showing a great potential to become future African permaculture trainers. A contribution of 300 USD will pay for all tuition, food and accommodation for a local Kenyan at our permaculture course. Should you be interested to help, please be in touch with Sheena on sheena (at)



5 thoughts on “Integrating University Degrees with Permaculture Education and Community Development in Kenya

  1. Thank you Sheena for your article. It made me want to contribute to your scholarship fund despite not having done my PDC yet and not having moved to where I will set up a permaculture farm in the near future. I thought about how nice it would be if every income earner from permaculture challenged themselves to donate once a year to someone less privileged. I talked about it with my partner and she agreed, but somehow, I felt that it may not be ‘good enough’. If these talented individuals do not (and presumably cannot) pay for the course, then once they are done, what can they do? They have no financial resource to start implementing what the PDC has no doubtedly inspired them to do (can they buy seeds, plants, tools, etc)? Would it be possible to lower the cost to $200 for the PDC and make the $100 or even $200 (I would rather contribute $400) available to graduates as a loan? perhaps, as well as this, set it up so that the students pay back half the tuition cost ($100) – this ‘contract’ would ensure students do not drop out part way through and also value their education. [I know I value my education more because I worked hard to pay for it rather than my parents or anyone else.] I am getting this idea from micro finance schemes such as the one started/popularised by Grameen Bank. As the graduates pay back their loans, this money could be made available to the next student, and so on. Would this work in your situation and potentially in similar situations around the world? It could be a way for donations to “cycle” and train more than one permaculturalist per donation..

    What do other people think? Is this happening any where already? Should this be further discussed in forums somewhere? or has it been? Craig, could a badge be added on to the WPN system when/if donations are/could be verified? this might encourage more people to also donate annually and share their abundance (?)

  2. Hello, I am the founder and director of a girls secondary school outside of Nanyuki. We have been running an organic shamba for 4 years and we have a new man running it who needs a bit of training. How do we move forward with this?

    Jason Doherty
    Daraja Academy

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