In the refugee-hosting town of Kibondo, in the Western Region of Tanzania, refugees and host communities alike largely depend on farming for livelihoods and food security. However, the agricultural model they adopt, often relying on chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and a limited variety of crops, reduces their resilience and ability to absorb climatic shocks such as floods and drought. By bringing an approach of Permaculture-based Resilience Design, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) aims to build both refugees and host communities’ resilience so that they are more self-reliant and less dependent on humanitarian assistance, an essential factor to the achievement of durable solutions.
Grace* is an active member of the host community whose farm sits at the top of a degraded hill in Kibondo district. Prior to DRC resilience training, in order to feed her family and generate a small income, Grace grew bananas, maize and cassava. She regularly resorted to the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides in order to increase production and fight pest invasions, unaware of their effect on the nutritional value of the soils. The land management practices on her farm, combined with its location at the top of a hill, made it prone to soil erosion, floodwaters and decreasing crop yields that compromised her resilience.
However, Grace’s farming practices, changed drastically after attending a resilience design training organised by DRC in October 2019. DRC’s resilience approach uses permaculture-inspired design science to build resilience in various contexts, including refugee and IDP shelters, homesteads, farms and the landscapes in which they are situated. The 10-day course was designed to train staff, local government, partners, and farmers on the principles of permaculture and the importance of integrating the natural environment into farm design. By doing so, stormwater that usually erodes and washes away precious topsoil is captured into long ditches on contours that traverse the farm, infiltrating water into the soil for long term hydration. This ensures optimum soil and plant health, while buffering Grace’s farm from the impacts that flood and drought have on her community.
Grace is particularly proud of her permagarden, where she grows a variety of vegetables that enable her to be self-sufficient. The permagarden was dug and fortified with many types of local materials such as manure, dried leaves, charcoal dust, green tethonia leaves and ash, which all help to build long term soil fertility.
A banana circle with a grey water mulch basin allows Grace to direct all of her household food waste and wastewater in to the hole to feed the bananas and other green vegetables even in the dry season. These nutrient-dense vegetables chosen include naturally drought and pest resistant indigenous varieties of pumpkins, beans, okra and leafy greens such as amaranth and jute. Other vegetables include tomatoes, cabbage, beans, cowpeas, lemongrass, and onions. The diversification of her crops improves the nutrition security of her family and make mealtimes more entertaining for her children whom, according to Grace, are now “very happy and have improved their appetite.” In addition, her increased access to vegetables has enabled Grace to generate an income averaging TZS 3,000 per week during harvest season, which she used to buy schoolbooks for her four daughters still enrolled in school. Furthermore, this increase in food has meant that Grace and her family have food security in the dry season, which is something they have not been able to rely on in the past. The family have also noticed a increase in the amount of eggs and chickens they have to sell and to eat, because there is more nutrients on the farm for the animals to forage on.
In addition to the permagarden, the farm design implemented during the training included swales on contour which deliver destructive flood water from nearby gullies and foot paths into Grace’s farm. The interconnected system of three long swales across Grace’s farm make use of rainwater that would otherwise flow past her farm, accumulate in volume and flow downhill, contributing to erosion of farms all the way down the hill. Instead, this water is directed into the top swale, which flows into the lower two swales where the water settles. This allows the water to slow, spread and sink so that moisture is retained in the soil long-term. Through the training, DRC also established a food forest which was planted in a way that also harvests water and nutrients for each individual tree. The food forest includes many different trees such as mango, avocado, banana, papaya, guava, citrus, neem and moring. A bamboo wall was put up around Grace’s farm, planted with a local bamboo variety, so that Grace can also use the bamboo for high quality building timber and charcoal. The bamboo also provides a material for constructing gardening trellises for vining plants that add more growing area, as well as habitat for pollinators and predators. Grace has reported that although her land is now covered in a diversity of different crops, she is experiencing very few issues with pests. This is something she has continued to be surprised by, as she does have much more insect life on the farm now but very little damage to her crops. Grace understands this as part of the natural cycle, where there is an increase in pests but also of predators so nature balances itself out - without the use of damaging pesticides.
Currently Grace and the team are working to reinforce earth and stone works in the dry season so that when it rains again, they will be ready to capture and harvest the water and nutrients. They are also doing lots of ‘chop and drop’ whereby the trees are pruned for any dead foliage and those dead leaves are left on the ground to cover the soil and fertilise the earth. Grace has also managed to harvest many kilos of seeds from her plants (as only regenerative seeds were planted initially) which she is saving for the rainy season to plant.
Not only has her new approach to farming increased her family’s resilience, but it is now a demonstration site frequently visited by her neighbours, local government departments and the wider community, curious to better understand the principles of permaculture and resilience farm design, and how they could benefit from applying them to their own farms. This has meant there has been a natural upscale of the resilience approach applied on Grace’s farm, as eleven of the women and families around her have also established permagardens as a result of seeing the benefits of Grace’s. They have all been helping each other and have been eating and selling food from their own farms and gardens.
The current food insecurity in the region is partly due to inadequate farming practices, lack of resilience to climatic shocks and the length of food supply chains. The preventive measures implemented in an effort to curb the spread of Covid-19 – and in particular movement restrictions – will inevitably impact food security, livelihoods and community resilience. This emphasises the importance of rethinking current agricultural models, which is why DRC promotes the localisation of food production through strategies such as bio-intensive, agroecological, agroforestry and permaculture-based resilience design approaches, including household permagardens or permaculture farms to prevent an over-reliance on imports and to mitigate the impacts of increases in food prices. These efforts to restore community agroecosystems boost food security and soil health, and buffer communities from impacts of climate and weather extremes.
*Name changed for safety and privacy reasons.