Ethiopia is a country with extreme weather.
When it rains it pours and if the earth isn’t corralled in terraces or protected by cover-crops, its fertility and even the top-soil is washed away during the June to August rainy season. I was there in November, on a field trip in the south of the country where the central plateaux is blessed with fertile volcanic soil and a verdant landscape, meeting farmers to find out more about the work of Send a Cow. Plus, as a gardener it’s always fascinating to learn new growing skills and see how other people grow and garden.
I never realised until I was there why Send a Cow’s educational work, introducing horticultural skills is necessary – that these skills normally passed down through generations can get lost during famine, political unrest and disease – and amongst the most important is making compost.
I met Ethiopian farmers who not only didn’t make it but threw manure from their livestock away! Now with the help of Send a Cow’s team they’ve elevated production of this rich, water and soil-binding improver into a fine art.
It involves layering manure, leafy greens, spent crops and wood ash into heaps that rot down to a rich mulch in just six weeks! Here in the UK it can take 6-12 months!
This compost beats the artificial fertilizers farmers can ill afford and it doesn’t wash away in rain, holds moisture in sun and boosts production for the long-term.
Send a Cow’s frontline staff teach farmers to use Desho grass – a country-cousin of the ornamental we know as Feather Grass aka pennisetum - to create home-grown terraces. Its wiry roots bind the earth so effectively it holds vertical earth-banks together transforming un-workable slopes into level terraces and supplying livestock with valuable leafy fodder.
The tropical sunshine can be harsh in Ethiopia, especially for seedlings, so newly sown beds are protected with the large paddle-like leaves of taro that keep moisture in the soil or under reed-roofed frames that shade developing seedlings like a parasol.
Sharing simple techniques like these has transformed lives and seeing them in action has been truly amazing. In just a few years, families are fed and have a surplice of beetroot, chillies and cabbages to sell at the market and money to send children to school.
The old adage that ‘to feed someone for life, give them a fishing rod’ is only partly true of Send a Cow’s work. Sure, the sustainable cultivation of carrots (amongst others) brings weather-resilience and wealth but the real benefit is reaped from the sharing of wisdom and when children graduate from school. We all must take responsibility for looking after the soil but for a prosperity beyond fishing and farming, cultivation of knowledge is king.