Keyhole Gardens Lock Out Starvation in Lesotho

Sometimes, the best solutions are low-tech. For example, in the tiny African country of Lesotho, a simple organic gardening technique called "keyhole gardening" is allowing people to produce enough vegetables to nourish their families without having to invest in costly technology, fuel, fertilizer or pesticides. As the BBC reported on June 3, a number of NGO's have been teaching people how to use this technique in Lesotho, with incredibly promising results. A keyhole garden is a raised bed shaped like a keyhole and walled in by stone. In the center, a basket made from sticks and straw holds manure and later, vegetable scraps for compost. The garden is watered primarily through the basket in the center, which distributes the nutrients from the compost to the plants.

This gardening system has several advantages: it's compact, easy to care for, and incredibly productive. For example, the BBC article spotlights a family of 10 that uses the gardens to provide food for themselves. With just 3 keyhole gardens, this family has been able to produce enough to feed themselves and still has produce left over to sell. The gardens are approximately 2 meters across, so it's easy to get to the plants, and the raised beds mean that once they are established, even people too old or sick to bend down can tend them. This is important because of Lesotho's painfully high HIV rate. According to USAID, 1 in 3 people in Lesotho between the ages of 15-49 is infected. Obviously, this number represents a significant portion of the country's workforce. Therefore, a garden that does not require a lot of physical strength to care for is a definite advantage.

Also, large-scale agriculture is a Sisyphean endeavor in Lesotho. The soil there has been used and abused to the point that it is extremely difficult to farm it productively. However, small-scale agricultural practices such as keyhole gardens overcome this problem by feeding the soil inside the keyhole with manure and organic household waste. They also retain water beautifully, and can remain productive even during water shortages. In 2007, some Rice University students visiting Lesotho observed families feeding themselves with these gardens even in the middle of a severe drought.

The most promising characteristic of keyhole gardens is that they give African families the chance to be more self-sufficient. For generations now, American children have been told to "finish your supper, there are children starving in Africa." Why is hunger a perennial problem there? Wars, episodes of drought and depleted soil all play a role. On top of all of that, most of the aid that rich nations give to Africa does not address the concept of self-sufficiency at all. Our food programs are basically a racket that benefits American farmers at the expense of promoting long-term programs to help Africans feed themselves. For example, current U.S. laws stipulate that 75% of US food aid to other countries must be in the form of U.S.-grown food. In a good year, the system benefits both American farmers and hungry Africans. However, there have been cases where these rules have cost hungry people their lives, such as in Kenya in 2006.

In that case, the New York Times reported that farmers participating in a U.S.-sponsored agricultural program were supposed to be given enough corn to feed themselves until their own farms started producing. However, the Kenyan government would not allow the corn to be imported because the country's farmers had produced a large surplus on their own. 5 people in the village died while waiting for food that never came.

Sending food to starving people makes sense in the short-term, as a band-aid while we help them learn how to produce more food on their own. However, as the New York Times article points out:

Across Africa, the United States is more likely to give people a fish — caught in America — that feeds them for a day than to teach them to fish for themselves. Since last year, for example, the United States has donated $136 million worth of American food to feed the hungry in Kenya, but spent only $36 million on agricultural projects to help Kenyan farmers grow and earn more -- The New York Times
The best thing about keyhole gardens, then, is that they teach people to fish-or in this case, to garden.

At Celsias, we have posted some entries discussing the potential of micro-generation to produce clean energy. Keyhole gardens illustrate the same concept applied to agriculture. Of course, other agricultural programs will be needed to help permanently solve the food crisis in Africa. Some experts feel that genetically modified crops offer the best chance of doing this, but since most GMO seeds are owned by huge Western corporations, I don't see how making Africans dependent on companies like Monsanto will help them become self-sufficient. Sustainable food-producing techniques in the spirit of keyhole gardens seem to be the best way to help address the issue in a lasting way.

When I saw these gardens, my first thought was "Wow, that’s awesome that those people have food now!" My second thought was "I want one!" I already have a small organic garden, with tomatoes, green beans, zucchini and peppers. There's no food more "local" than food from your own backyard, and I love being able to grow heirloom varieties that aren’t available in stores. Now, I just might have to build a keyhole garden in the backyard and find something else to plant. If you're interested in building one, instructions can be found here (pdf).

Further Reading:

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Roger Pilon (anonymous)

Can you check the link to the pictures in this article? Pictures are not showing up!

Written in June 2009

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  • Posted on June 18, 2008. Listed in:

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