Regeneration on the Rise: Adventures with Permaculture in Kenya

Categories: Permaculture

In January of 2014 I had the honor of embarking on a journey to Kenya to observe and participate in several projects and initiatives being developed by Permaculture Research Institute Kenya. As a photographer, writer, and a student of both permaculture and international development I was excited to travel with my friend and teacher Warren Brush to assist with and document Kenya’s first ever permaculture Training of Teachers (ToT). The ToT was a powerful experience and it set the tone for further travels throughout the country; travels which left the strong impression that Kenya is rapidly becoming a vital hub for permaculture work and education in East Africa. What follows here is a brief recounting of what I saw and experienced over the course of a very full three weeks.

Following a string of long flights from my native California, I touched down at Jomo Kenyatta International by night and was escorted out of the city and down the Mombasa Highway to Swara Plains Refuge.  Only twenty minutes away from the bright lights of Nairobi I found myself bumping down a dirt road under the stars, with Zebra leaping across our path, black and white stripes flashing in the headlights. As a guest of Gai Cullen—a board member of PRI—at her home in Swara Plains I was shown to a comfortable resting place and only upon waking the next morning did I begin to realize the significance of the place where I would be hosted during the permaculture teacher training. 

PictureSwara Plains is a large private reserve on the outskirts of Nairobi where herds of zebra still roam the savannah and cheetah still take refuge in the shade of yellow fever trees. The refuge resembles closely the pictures my imagination had concocted of beautiful Kenya, a land so bold and untamable that humans stood no chance of conquering its wildness. And yet, even standing within the pristine reserve the evidence to the contrary was unmistakable. At certain angles of view the herds of wildebeest and zebra are framed by the incongruous site of heavy industry pushing its way outward from the edges of the nearby city, and the insistent droning of a recently constructed cement factory at the edge of the reserve is a constant, inescapable reminder of just how capable humans are of disrupting and destroying wild landscapes.

Progress has come to Kenya in the form of explosive and largely unchecked industrialization. Populations of urban areas are expanding at rates that make the head spin. National and international corporations are running roughshod over flimsy environmental regulations, spewing industrial pollutants into waterways and paving over vital natural habitats. The 10% of Kenya covered by forest in 1963 stands today at 1.6% today, and an estimated 3 million liters of human waste are deposited in Lake Victoria each day. Not only is the Kenyan environment far from being immune to exploitative use, but its steady degradation has brought little in the way of gains to the average Kenyan. If that were not the case then the Kenyan people would not suffer from an unemployment rate of 42%, and 33% of Kenyan children would not be hungry or malnourished.

PictureStanding amidst the acacias and grasses of Swara Plains and observing the sprawling factories and haze in the distance provided a microcosm of what I was to encounter throughout my travels: a beautiful and naturally abundant land under serious threat from reckless development, with that development seeming to threaten many people’s lives, health and livelihoods more than benefitting them. As such, Swara Plains proved an appropriate and poignant locale to host the country’s first ever training of permaculture teachers, drawing from far and wide a group of amazing people from Kenya, greater East Africa, and around the world. An understanding of these themes was a unifying thread for this very special group, drawn from diverse backgrounds but committed to devising and supporting ways for communities to achieve greater abundance and resilience by maintaining mutually supportive relationships with the ecology.

The ToT was the first of its kind in more ways than one. It was a first for Kenya and it was a first for Picturelead instructor Warren Brush, who has taught permaculture courses all over the world but was for the first time using a permacultural approach to designing a curriculum for teaching permaculturists how to teach permaculture. The sentence is deliberately challenging in order to illustrate the many layers being integrated throughout the week long course. Unlike a PDC, which concerns itself largely with practical, physical processes and techniques, the ToT emphasized the development of a different set of skills. Rather than employing practicums on design techniques, the ToT worked to bring established permaculturists into a next level of readiness for leadership in their own communities and initiatives. Lessons emphasized how to use the principles and ethics of permaculture in one’s approach to teaching itself, with social permaculture, peacemaking, ecological entrepreneurialism, and pattern recognition as key themes throughout.

Participants on the course were clearly present as emissaries from diverse communities, all of which need a new type of leadership and a different way of approaching the question of how to create stability and well-being in a manner that is not only sustainable but actually cultivates regenerative relationships with landscapes and natural resources. And each of those participants clearly returned to their respective communities equipped with new tools to bring about just this sort of positive change. Pastoralists from the far Kenyan north departed with insights into peacemaking techniques to offer to warring tribes in their homelands. Project managers of existing permaculture-based initiatives gained tools to strengthen and expand their programs. Several staff members of development NGOs stated their intention of bringing insights from the course into their work in program design and management.

Above all, it was clear that people had come from far and wide—particularly from throughout East Africa—because they recognized the capacity of permaculture to engage with a variety of complex challenges in a way that is radically different from many approaches and desperately needed by communities throughout the region. By hosting the ToT, Permaculture Research Institute Kenya provided an opportunity for East Africans—and others—to develop their ability to lead their communities towards resilience without needing to look outward for external inputs or handouts. The emergence of permaculture as a tool for community-driven development in Kenya was evident not only in the popularity of the ToT but in the stories that participants shared of their own projects and programs, several  of which were specifically initiated by Permaculture Research Institute Kenya.  

As the ToT came to a close, I was able to gather first-hand experience of this by heading out on a tour of related projects with Warren Brush, Kenyan permaculture teacher Joseph Lentunyoi, and a handful of other students from the training. Pausing in Nairobi itself before moving out into the country afforded us visits to Amrita Children’s Home, a centre providing care for needy children and designed by Warren Brush,  and the permaculture demonstration garden at Wells Fargo courier and security company. Wells Fargo, a company serving 80% of banks in Kenya, utilizes a permaculture demonstration garden at their corporate headquarters to teach employees stewardship, pattern recognition and other skills important to the world of business and vital for healthy societies.

Continuing north, our journey took us to the region of Laikipia where Joseph Lentunyoi and PRI Kenya have founded the Laikipia Permaculture Centre and are consulting with a range of groups and communities to utilize permaculture as a means for improving livelihoods and increasing community security. Home to the pastoralist Masai people, among others, Laikipia is a beautiful and stark landscape of sweeping vistas and escarpments where people have lived for thousands of years supported by their careful tending of livestock and their patterned migrations to varied seasonal grazing lands. And as in so many places around the globe, the ability of Laikipia pastoralists to support their livelihoods in their traditional ways is increasingly threatened by climate change, the incursion of industry, and human use patterns greater than the carrying capacity of the landscape.

Joseph—a Masai himself—has established the Laikipia Permaculture Centre as a demonstration site to exhibit various ways in which permaculture can be applied to boost livelihoods and community resilience while regenerating the dry and denuded landscape. While many Masai have turned to agricultural livelihoods, crop selection and other practices are in many cases ill-suited to local climate conditions and quickly eliminate the limited fertility in arid soils. Demonstration at the LPC of drylands-appropriate water management, fertility building, integrated pest management and other permaculture methods have the potential to equip local people with vital skills needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions while additionally serving to reduce pressure on the environment, increase soil fertility, raise the water table, and encourage regenerative grazing practices such as coppicing and farmer managed natural regeneration.

In addition to spending time at the Laikipia Permaculture Centre, our group was able to visit with three Masai women’s collectives working with Joseph Lentunyoi to develop permaculture-based income-generating activities. With pastoralist livelihoods threatened and communities struggling to support themselves, groups of women have banded together in collectives to offer collaboration and support in devising entrepreneurial solutions to challenges faced. Paired with PRI Kenya, the women we met have developed apiculture, cultivation of aloe for soaps and cosmetics, and other permacultural methods for increasing security within their communities.

PictureThe last leg of my journey took me far inland to Rusinga Island on Lake Victoria, where PRI Kenya has partnered with Rusinga Island Organic Farmers Association in developing twenty demonstration permaculture gardens to educate the local population about sustainable agriculture. While the climate and ecology of Rusinga are nothing like those of arid Laikipia, the challenges faced by communities are nearly a mirror image. Like the once abundant grazing lands of the Laikipia Masai, the fisheries of Lake Victoria have dwindled under the pressure of overuse. As populations have outgrown the capacity of fisheries they have turned to use of livestock for support of livelihoods. Unchecked overgrazing of that livestock in tandem with deforestation of the upper slopes of the island have changed the entire climate of the area, raising temperatures and disrupting the norms of rainfall. With fewer available fish a shift to agriculture has been made nearly impossible by the same unchecked livestock grazing and a lack of affordable material for fencing.

In order to demonstrate what is possible when sustainable agriculture is combined with protection from livestock incursions, PRI Kenya and RIOFA’s project manager Dennis Siroh have overseen the establishment of fencing for the twenty half-acre demonstration gardens and provided extensive training in permaculture and organic farming. While fencing every garden plot on the island is not a sustainable solution to the challenges faced, demonstrating what can be accomplished through regenerative agriculture when livestock are restrained offers a powerful model that could achieve not only greater livelihood security for the local population but also a total reforestation of the island and a resultant restoration of the islands’ climatic conditions.
The challenges I observed facing communities throughout my travels in Kenya related without exception back to the Training of Teachers with which I had begun my journey. While practical methods and techniques are, of course, vital components of any attempt to build resilience in the face of environmental degradation, loss of livelihoods, and the many other problems faced by people around the world today, those methods must be underpinned by a fundamental awareness of the relationship between community and ecology. Increasingly, bright minds in Kenya and East Africa appear to be embracing this important understanding and working to apply permaculture as a powerful toolset for community-driven development and regeneration of the ecology. I am excited to see how this momentum builds in the coming years and to be a part of the vital role that PRI Kenya is playing in building awareness and supporting the development of strong leaders and healthy, resilient communities.
Sasha Rabin of Quail Springs California will be teaching in Kenya in a couple of weeks!  Click here for more information:  
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