Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Organic Agriculture and Composting in Rwanda

On Friday, I joined a small group from ASYV for a field trip to learn about organic agriculture in Rwanda. This group included a chemistry teacher, school administrative staff (myself), an informal education representative, two farm staff, and a landscape staff member. Our objective was to get some ideas on how to build environmentally sustainable practices into our operations and educational programs. We specifically wanted training on composting in the tropics and on plants that could be incorporated into our landscaping and farm to decrease pests without pesticides.

Entrance to the GOFTC demo farm

The training was at the Gako Organic Farming Training Center (GOFTC). The center opened in 2000 and has since trained over 60,000 farmers from Rwanda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Its founder and director, Richard Mynyerango, was our host for the day.

“No matter how big you are, a president, a businessman, or anyone, at the end of the day you still have to eat.” Richard said. The center is largely focused on just that: connecting people to the idea of healthy food and the how-to of growing it.

A terraced mound garden at GOFTC

While Richard and his center promote protecting the environment through organic agriculture, their approach is centered in helping people through an ecological approach. Richard said they are looking for ways that organic farming and conservation can boost peoples’ income, open new cottage industries, and shift people from subsistence agriculture to accessing markets. With the environment as his guide, he is searching for “anything we can do to improve the livelihood of the people.”

Many of the innovations that the center promotes are not necessarily new to the world, but they are adapted to local conditions for use by local people. For example, space is very limited in Rwanda. Not only is it a small country, but it is very densely populated. If people do not have enough land, then they may not be able to produce enough food. Since 90% of Rwandans are farmers, this is a huge issue. The GOFTC promotes several space-optimization schemes to increase the amount of food grown in the same space. Two that really stuck out to me were the mound gardens and the sack gardens.

A mound garden can double the growing space

Mound gardens are soil (and compost) piled up in a small hill. The chemistry teacher with us calculated that it doubles the amount of growing space. The mound allows more plants to grow because it increases the surface area available for growing. The sack garden is like a kitchen container garden on a larger scale. A durable sack is filled with soil and compost, staked with a post on 4 sides, and holes cut from bottom to top. Plants like onions were planted in the sides of the sack garden and herbs on top. Again, it is an increase in the surface area- and thus growing space- that is the real benefit of the sack container.

Sack gardens are used to optimize space

Other technologies they promote are rabbit, goat, or cow pens that allow for easier collection of manure and urine for use in composting or fertilization. They are also promoting dairy goats, but face a lot of resistance as there is a stigma about goat milk here in Rwanda. They experiment with different drainage systems and siltation traps to reduce erosion and catch topsoil that would otherwise be lost. They keep bees and remind people that if they use chemical pesticides on their farm, it will kill their bees. They experiment with mushroom production and with plants as-of-yet unused by most Rwandan farmers like bamboo. Perhaps most impressive to me is that these technologies are being tried by Rwandans for Rwandans; they are using materials that are accessible locally and are affordable for most people.

Rabbit hutch with easy manure collection (this hutch was
three containers high, again optimizing space)

One technology that has potential for renewable energy production in Rwanda is biogas. GOFTC has several underground tanks that allow for anaerobic (without oxygen) breakdown of its cow manure; they are able to use one of the end products of the breakdown, methane, to power their stoves (maybe their other electricity too). Our lunch for the day was cooked on a biogas stove, and it was delicious! We ate most of the food, but I am guessing what was left over was composted.

Lunch being cooked on a biogas stove

GOFTC promotes composting as a way that Rwandans can improve their soil fertility. From my observation, composting in Rwanda is not that different than composting in the Midwest or Eastern United States (or perhaps elsewhere, but I have only composted in those two regions). Decomposition is the same process, with pretty much the same biological and chemical forces at work, and humans are just managing it to get a desired product. Climate does affect the composting process. There are two main seasons here, wet and dry, which essentially produce opposite problems: too much moisture getting into your compost or too much moisture loss from the pile. The compost book that GOFTC uses is a UK-based book (All About Compost by Pauline Pears) that has two basic pages on composting in the tropics. For the wet season, it recommends using large leaves to cover the compost to retain moisture. For the dry season, the book recommends again using large leaves for moisture retention or to bury the compost in a shallow pit.

Compost site with greens and browns waiting to be processed

GOFTC builds small structures over their compost to reduce moisture loss, protect from torrential rains, and keep their compost form baking in the equatorial sun. The compost cover has a post on each corner and a basic roof structure of attached sticks and large leaves draped over the sticks. As GOFTC does a lot of composting, these structures were fairly large and provided nice shade for us as we observed. The method of composting that GOFTC uses is called lasagna composting (called that in America, but I am not sure if they have names for different methods here), and it involves building your compost pile with specific layers. They start with sticks at the bottom to provide aeration and room for macro-invertebrates, then a 30 cm layer of dry brown materials, a thin layer of dry ash, a soaking of water or animal urine, a 30 cm layer of dung, a layer of topsoil, a 30 cm layer of freshly dead green materials, dry ash, and then start over adding another dry brown layer. Richard presented a reason for each layer, such as for instance, using ash to add potassium. He recommended checking the compost every 3 days and then after 14 days turning it. Most of these “waste” materials are available on a Rwandan farm, and while they will break down anyway, composting them in a managed way can provide the farmer with quick and high-quality humus that improves their soils’ productivity. Richard said they get finished compost in about 4 weeks.

Smaller compost site at the demo farm
also has a pit for materials storage

I got the impression from Richard that organic agriculture is still in its infancy here in Rwanda, but it has serious room for growth. One major challenge is that most people here are too poor and cannot afford the higher prices of organic food. Organic food commands premium prices, but these are mostly from external markets, not local ones. Encouragingly, he said that the perception of the organic approach has changed in the last ten years from discouraged and un-modern to viable; he said even some agencies are beginning to promote it. Richard said, “no longer do the organic farmers walk with shoulders down. They now hold their shoulders high.” For the sake of the butterflies, birds, and the people of Rwanda, I hope that organic agriculture continues to grow and improve the lives that it touches.

Digging in!


  1. great entry jared, very cool space saving designs. what kind of fruit trees are there? by the way, as you know, i love composting. i hope all is well

  2. i wish i was an olive baboon!