Pioneering Permaculture in Ethiopia

Pioneering is an essential function in the establishment of eco-systems. It refers to the initial colonisation of previously uninhabited habitat by a class of species (‘pioneers’) which are specially adapted to living in the harsh conditions of an otherwise uninhabited environment. Pioneers are generally short lived with small and abundant seed and have long range dispersal mechanisms suited to their ecology. Often the seeds are wind pollinated. In habitats which are maintained in a perpetual state of degradation by over-stocking and unregulated grazing, the pioneers tend to have seed which is dispersed by animals — it may be sticky, spiky or with velcro-like micro-hooks on it — so the animals spread them around. In this kind of environment the plants themselves also support defence mechanisms — e.g. spiky, obnoxious, bitter etc., and this is why referring to someone as “a pioneer” in permaculture terminology is a veiled way of saying they may seem ‘difficult’ (as in imbued with the kind of defence mechanisms that pioneer species utilise) but nevertheless they serve an important function – that of “getting the ball rolling” so that other more sociable, lusher, greener, more palatable and cooperative species can move into the system.

Old Bill himself has sometimes been referred to as a pioneer. Most of us are well acquainted with his charm and wit! So, on that basis, I will take having being referred to as a pioneer myself as a compliment! So the point is that pioneers may not be very fluffy, kind and sociable, but without these spiny, stubborn, bitter little plants there would be nothing at all, but with pioneers, we have a chance to get succession going.

So where is this going. Well I’ve been working down in South Ethiopia for the past 5½ years now. The fact is that you have to have a few defence mechanisms to make it out here in South Ethiopia.

It is a place where humankind was born into a wealth of natural abundance. Ethiopia is ecologically very well endowed; fertile, lush and green, plentiful rainfall, a comfortable range of temperatures. It seems like people never really had to regulate their consumption of the natural resources. Compared to the cultures of much harsher environments, like Sudan, people here are not used to having to think about how they will care for land. They’ve always chopped trees for firewood and that’s just the way it is. The fact that the population has got to the point now where the forests are running out seems to be dawning on the society in general, but it’s not those that really suffer the consequences who are in a position to do anything about it, and those who are in a position to do something don’t really seem to care.

The mentality of aid dependency has become very deeply ingrained on the society in general. The land has become so degraded in many areas that people can no longer meet their needs, but the government is happy to use aid as a tool to manipulate political allegiances, while The North is happy to use its unwanted surpluses for the same at the international level. So Ethiopia, which should be feeding not only itself, but the region, remains a junky for western aid. And that has an effect on you when you arrive to try and achieve something on the ground here.

As a westerner you are seen as a source of money — you are just there to give money to people. That is what “ferenjis” do, whether it’s the missionaries, the NGOs or the flabby camera-wielding tourists who go to photograph the tribes on their human safari. White people leak money at the seams wherever they go, and that is an environment that is very hard to establish yourself in. You need a few defence mechanisms to do that. You need to be hard-nosed, stingy, a maniacal bureaucrat and build up a team of reliable people around you – preferably people you have trained yourself – who will deal with the rest of the society on your behalf. Of course learning the language and marrying into the locals also helps!

So 5 years down the line, here we have an Eco Lodge and a Permaculture site. My objective in coming here was not to set up a charity and hand out donations. Some people have criticized us for that. As though one should carve up their own body and hand it out to eat. My objective in coming out here was to show people how to look after themselves. How to stop begging and get on with building up their own independence. The first thing we had to do was establish ourselves. Now we’ve got our-selves registered under the PRI Master Plan as a satellite site. We are running a PDC and internship this month and we have participants signed up from around East and Southern Africa – Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Sudan, Uganda – as well as from Europe and America. What’s more, we’ll be training more locals and continuing to develop our community outreach program – the Permaculture in Konso Schools Project during the PDC. We’ll train some new teachers and make trips to the project sites to evaluate their progress as well as mucking in with some implementation on the school grounds. This will be part of the PDC itself.

But we are now ready to go further, indeed it’s essential that we do. With the project registered as a PRI master plan site we are starting to attract regional scale attention. We should have a world class system on display here to show the full potential of what permaculture can really achieve. We have to go beyond the pioneer stage and take things to the next level in the succession! As a pioneer, I’ve already done most of the hard work. I have managed to get the place up and running and develop it to the point where it can survive financially, cover its own costs – just beyond break-even – and I have spent six years experimenting, observing and developing the design to the point where I am really confident about what this project can really be. But I don’t have the resources to develop it beyond pioneer stage myself, and I need back up! I need the successional community to start moving and making this a young forest, putting up a canopy and making it ameliorable to a greater range of species. And for myself, I also need some freedom — like any pioneer, I need to do more pioneering!

People are asking for help to set up projects now in Sudan, Somalia and other parts of Ethiopia. I need people to share the responsibility of managing, owning and running the place. I am looking for ways to bring other people into this project, who can put additional finance into it to develop the infrastructure and systems, but also to help take responsibility for strategy, admin and management. If we can raise the capacity of the project we can start to tap into higher level local capabilities which are currently beyond reach – i.e. compete with NGOs in terms of offering high level local salaries to well educated Ethiopian professionals to run the place on the ground, day to day admin, etc. If the place can’t get up to that capacity it’s just always going to be a shoddy tin-shack – pioneer – job which nobody with influence here in Ethiopia will ever take seriously. The crazy thing is people are willing to come here from Europe, America and the other end of Africa to do training but local organisations look down their noses at us because we don’t have capacity to demonstrate the systems we talk about in our training!

So here is my idea, and I am putting this out there, because I want to find people who are serious about forming a team with me to work on this. Firstly we need to develop the organisational structure administering the project. Right now it’s a business solely owned by me. We have to plot a course which would allow development of the project but maintaining security of land tenure and negotiating the bureaucratic requirements of the government which would allow it to eventually be handed over to an Ethiopian-lead board of directors. The idea is also that those who finance the development of the project can also get their capital back out of it once it becomes successfully developed. How would this work then? Well, to start with we form a company with a board of directors made up from the shareholders. The company takes over ownership of the business and develops the infrastructure facilities and capacity of the project. With the systems and capacity developed this project has the potential to earn real income for several reasons.

  1. Konso has been designated a world heritage site and the tourism in the area is expanding greatly as a result.
  2. The town itself is expanding in the direction of our site, meaning that our location which was very peripheral will become quite central in the future with a large hospital and many houses being constructed near us. This will allow us to offer a range of services to the local community – bakery, internet cafe, etc. – which will be a stable and non-seasonal source of income for the project.
  3. The project has already been accredited by the PRI as a Master Plan site, and now has the capacity to attract more and more trainees from around the world. With the development of systems on the site we will also have the capacity to attract wide-scale interest from the NGO and development community in the whole East Africa region. This will allow us to run more regular and better attended courses working with well funded NGOs, who will pay for training staff and field-workers.

The vision is that two or more investors will enter the project and invest in its development to a full scale, international standard, demonstration site. The project will need to gain additional licences to allow training and consultancy as part of its specified service package, rather than just eco-tourism, as it currently is. With this achieved it will start to earn profits. These profits will either be re-invested into the project up to such a point where the board of directors agrees the project is developed to completion. Once this is achieved all additional profits will be used to establish a foundation. This foundation will be credited over the course of 5 – 10 years. In the meantime an Ethiopian NGO will be established as PRI Ethiopia, with board members that we select and train up. This NGO will be funded by the foundation, and once sufficient funds have been accumulated it will purchase the project from the investors, allowing them to reclaim their initial capital investment. At that point the project becomes property of the Ethiopian-administered PRI Ethiopia.

In terms of development of the project itself, I have developed the site design and am in the process of writing it up. I have been publishing a lot of the system up-dates on this blog of late and will continue to do so over the coming weeks/months.

Other than the systems upgrades I have outlined in the articles published in the past few months – I am planning the following:

  1. The grey water system design upgrade is here.
  2. As mentioned, we need to gain additional streams of income for the project from more stable sources than just tourists (which is seasonal) and (PDCs which are also on and off). Konso town is set to expand in our direction, meaning that physically we are well placed to offer additional services to the local community. We would like to open several facilities along the road-front at the SE corner of the site: a bread shop (we already have a bread oven), an internet center with photocopier, etc. As well as this a café could be opened at the road-front at the view-point on the north ridge, which can serve local clients as well as passing tourists, without them coming into the lodge. There is a new hospital opening to the north of our site soon so the patients and visitors should provide a local market we can tap into.
  3. We would like to establish a dairy and cattle fattening housing for 4 – 6 animals. We would grow most of the fodder on site. It would also provide manure for a biogas system, hence fuel for cooking and also lighting. As well as this we plan to establish a chicken system in what is currently “lower Zone 1”. Eggs and milk are two readily saleable commodities on the local market, as well as being readily saleable in the eco-lodge itself.
  4. We would like to expand our accommodation capacity to include “modern” accommodation (more suitable for guides and drivers) as well as “traditional”. These facilities will need associated shower and flush toilets with a new septic tank and black water system. Again this would allow us to get more local clientele. The bus station is also set to be moved to a new location closer to our site within the coming years – hence another more reliable source of income. We would also like to add additional traditional huts, but with a higher standard, at the back of the site near to the SW corner.

Here is a rough outline of the vision.

Before map

After map

Here in Konso, I have pioneered a desolate waste-land into a scrubby bush-land which is becoming productive, but now I need assistance to turn it into a fully fledged lush and productive food-forest. A pioneer can’t create an entire eco-system alone. Permaculture has the potential to feed all of Ethiopia from the abundance in ecological wealth which this country has at its disposal. We can get Ethiopia to feed itself.

Are you somebody who could potentially be interested/able to help me out with realizing this? Please get in touch to discuss further what might be required in terms of commitment — finance, time and energy. And please pass this on if you know anybody who may be interested: info (at)



3 thoughts on “Pioneering Permaculture in Ethiopia

  1. Hi there
    I would like ti give you hand in set up you project, my skills design include PDC in Australia I am qualified electrician with extensive training and experience in installation, maintenance and upgrade of renewable energy generation system (solar,wind,micro hydro)’ please let me know how I can help you

  2. Hi Alex,
    My name is Jess from Kenya – we were in touch a while ago re. working at strawberry fields. I am currently working in SW ethiopia – in Gambella and am 4 months into setting up a beautiful permaculture demonstration site along the edge of the Baro River.
    I would love to get in touch and ask you about a few things – but wante dto make sure you guys were still up and runnning?



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *