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Farmville 2.0: Biointensive Farming innovation in East Africa

Biointensive farming and double dug beds
Double dug beds

One of the things that really sparked my interest during our trip to East Africa was seeing the innovation happening in the agriculture sector. In America, most of us are so far removed from our food and the food source whereas in rural Africa, everyone is a farmer. While visiting our partner Village Volunteers in Kitale, Kenya, many of us realized how much we take the produce we purchase from the grocery store for granted—no matter what season it really is, it’s so easy to purchase our favorite fruit and vegetables year-round which is defiantly not the case in rural Africa. There, everything has a season and if a particular crop is out of season, it just does not exist in your diet at that time.  Living in rural Africa for a few weeks also made me realize how time consuming farming really is.  From the time you plant your crops to the time you harvest and have food to feed your family, several weeks or months have gone by so I found myself really appreciating and savoring the fresh ingredients prepared while I was in the villages.  However, what really excited me during this trip was learning about the techniques for sustainable agriculture, which given the current global food crisis is becoming more and more important in development work.

During this trip, I was introduced to an agricultural technique known as Biointensive Agriculture. Basically, it’s an organic agricultural system which focuses on maximum yield from the minimum area of land while simultaneously improving the soil. Sack farming is also a popular technique, where virtually anyone can grow crops out of potato sacks.

What is Biointensive Agriculture?

Biointensive farming sack garden
Joshua shows us a sack garden.

Biointensive Farming, also called Biointensive Agriculture, is a technique that was launched by one of Village Volunteers’ partner NGO called Common Ground. Here is the definition of Biointensive Farming from the training manual, which you can download by clicking this link:

Biointensive farming is a self-help food raising method based on building and maintaining soil fertility and using NO chemicals. It is simple to learn and use, based on sophisticated principles dating back 4000 years in China, 2000 years in Greece, and 300 years in Europe. It was synthesized and brought to the U.S. by the English master horticulturist, Alan Chadwick, then further developed and documented by Ecology Action.
Important aspects of the method include:

  • Double-dug, raised beds
  • Composting
  • Intensive planting
  • Carbon farming
  • Calorie farming
  • The use of open–pollinated seeds
  • The whole gardening method

Chemicals are generally promoted when the soil is degraded, or the plants, trees, or animals are unhealthy. The biointensive farming model aims at restoring soil health and designing an environment that creates healthy plants, trees and animals. Biointensive training provides specific ideas on reducing and eventually eliminating the use of chemicals fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and the like. It addresses the healing process of the soil’s fertility and structure to put nutrients back into the soil and the give the soil the ability manage different levels of water.

Right now, we work with Village Volunteers specifically to fund their water filter project. Part of our visit to Kitale was to learn how else Jolkona could partner with Village Volunteers in addition to the water filtration project, and Biointensive Farming may be a perfect fit. (Stay tuned!)

How can innovations in farming power a village?

We found innovation everywhere in this village. Joshua Machinga, the director of the program and founder of Common Ground, runs one of the best primary schools in the area that is almost fully self-sustaining. How does he do this? The school owns land that utilizes the techniques of Biointensive Farming. Crops feed all the children healthy meals, they also teach nearby villages and farmers about Biointensive Farming methods. Essentially, the technique taught teaches farmers to dig their crops deeper in order to maximize land use and to be able to plant twice as many crops compared to traditional farming techniques. Joshua also teaches Agroecology techniques where natural enemies are used instead of pesticides to ensure a sustainable ecosystem.  I was fascinated by this technique that I had never heard of until I returned and learned that many agricultural experts would argue this is one of the best solutions for fighting both the food crisis and climate change.

However, back to the program in Kitale, season after season, this program allows the school not only to increase their yields to feed all the students, but it even sustains a business model where the ability to profit from the surplus crop and invest funds back into the school. The land is also rich in brick soil they use the soil to make and sell bricks. Again, putting any profits made back into supporting the future of the school.  We need more social entrepreneurs in the world like Joshua’s who are looking for innovative solutions to create transformative and lasting change in their communities.

Stay tuned for more Jolkona projects to help support this program to spread biointensive and agroecology farming techniques throughout Kenya!

Joshua Machinga explains biointensive farming
Joshua Machinga, the director of the program and founder of Common Ground.

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