by Gaia U Diploma Candidate, Sheena Shah

Any permaculture project is a story. It’s not just designing the landscapes, but it’s really about designing your own life and shaping communities to become resilient. I recently read something that strongly resonated with me, ‘In teaching and learning permaculture we are tracking the story of every subject, from the story of the climate to that of the soil to the world of economics. We are less adept at tracking our own stories, however, and I’ve come to understand there are great rewards to be found in honoring that skill.’- Jason Gerhardt. Beamed by story and transition, I’ve embodied the principles in my own life; knowing where my food comes from, my experience at the children’s orphanage- turning wastelands by simply regenerating the land to productive green spaces using Permaculture. I want to invite you to read my story.

After taking my Permaculture Design Course in 2011 with Warren Brush here in Kenya, I spent almost a year volunteering at a local orphanage that I was helping to start up. When we established a school there, the overall permaculture development was generously designed and sketched by Warren Brush and his student at the time, Daniel Hansel. The staff and I started to implement their design and soon barren wasteland transformed into green production. I helped spearhead a tree planting project with a group of local and international permaculture students where we planted over 500 saplings which, over time, shaped the entire food forest. I also eventually started a children’s gardening project. The aim of the permaculture initiative on the site was not just to turn the land into full sustainable production, but to also teach the children and instructors the fundamental values of cultivating their own food and taking this knowledge to their communities.

My background in education played a pivotal role in this new development which led me to blog about the progress and what we were doing. This ended up catching the attention of our partner center in California. Parents and kids got more involved and sent organic, and heirloom seeds to the children here in Kenya for their kitchen garden startup. These experiences have deepened valuable concepts that have helped us prepare and respond in these times of great transition.

In 2012, I joined the Permaculture Research Institute Kenya (PRI Kenya), founded in 2011. The term “Permaculture” was still relatively new in Kenya, yet the practices have been used by farmers for decades. I managed the Education Program and events for 4.5 years until I recently took up the lead position at PRI Kenya a year ago and am now directing the organization. We work with farmers and community-based organizations across the region, from Maasai women in the North, Luo ethnic groups in Western Kenya and Kamba ethnic groups in Eastern Kenya. Ranging from different programmes and the building of local trainers with the support of donors and international expertise, PRI Kenya has trained over 300 people in permaculture and offered more than 100 scholarships to farmers and locals to date attributing to more and more permaculture consultants, groups and trainings across the country, East Africa and beyond!

At present, we support the Rongo Coffee Project in Western Kenya- a partner since 2015 to help revive coffee farming and farmers who abandoned coffee many years ago. Here, we are dealing with heavily degraded land, due to excessive use of commercial fertilizers and agrochemicals used in the past. This application of the synthetic fertilizers and agrochemicals resulted in dead soils leading to devastation for coffee farmers. What had been a staple crop and income was no longer sustainable due to the degradation of soil.

After just two years of permaculture practice in this region, farmers have watched soils come back to life and are seeing coffee tree yields increase per tree per harvest season. Organic farmers work to develop rich topsoil by creating mulch out of the coffee cherry pulp. Adding other nitrogen-rich elements to it, the farmers turn it for a full year to create compost to spread around the base of the trees. This allows the plants to develop a longer root structure, improving moisture content, reducing soil erosion, all contributing to a healthier water table and yield.

We have learned that coffee trees grown in shade, normally are much healthier compared to coffee trees grown on open fields. By simply growing avocado trees next to coffee trees, the shade provided from the avocado improve the yield of the coffee cherries by an estimated 1.5 fold according to our farmer’s analysis. Additionally, such cherries are bigger and brighter than those grown in an open field.

Together with a leading local mirco-roaster in Kenya, we have released Rongo coffee in major supermarkets and gourmet stores making this the first chemical-free farm-to-cup with a story! All this falls under PRI Kenya’s Regenerative Enterprise – essentially a separate for-profit company supporting farmers across the county. This is a success story that has encouraged the Rongo Coffee Farmers to build capacity and develop their very own permaculture model farms through a new pilot program – permEzone. This program supports family farmers in designing sustainable food systems and in the use of mobile phone technology to share knowledge and experience in regenerative agriculture, food security and long-term resilience.

We see Permaculture Design as one of the most potent and viable tools that we have to ensure a resilient and regenerative future for our communities long-term. We are also honored to finally be presenting a paper on Climate Change and Drought Resilience this November organized by the University of Hamburg and Strathmore University here in Kenya. Together with international scholars and partners, we successfully submitted a paper on permaculture giving valuable insight and successful case studies from our work here in Kenya and partners in Uganda. The paper was accepted and is finally being published. This is a real milestone for the movement!

It’s been a pleasure being part of PRI Kenya, the Permaculture movement, and Gaia University. We’re starting to see more and more young people come in to the fold now, facilitating, starting up their own projects and getting involved in community and urban planning. I’m thrilled to see other University students are now actively engaged in research, one thing that has lacked in the past but is now picking up and transmitting more attention to Permaculture!

An Invitation:

I want to use this opportunity to invite you all to register for our Water Harvesting for Food Security Course in Kenya!

PRI Kenya is excited to invite you to join us for a special five day Water Harvesting for Food Security Course with Internationally renowned Facilitator, Warren Brush. This course will take place from January 22nd -26th, 2018.

This course with the inspirational Warren Brush run in the majestically beautiful Laikipia in partnership with PRI Kenya and the Laikipia Permaculture Centre will be nothing short of amazing! A must do for anyone interested in regenerative design for food security and resilience. The practicals implemented during this course will have a direct and enormous impact on the Naatum Maasai community for long term resilience.

Take five minutes today to register here!

According to Warren Brush, who has worked in challenging areas around the World, including the Kalahari desert, this is one of the worst degraded areas he has come across and now wants to demonstrate the incredible potential this site has, to fully transform for the women! Don’t miss out on this super special course with Warren and the community!