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Kitchen gardens and food forests: Lilian’s project helps Kenya’s rural farmers become self-sufficient

Small-scale farmers produce food for 70% of the global population. But as some of the world’s poorest and most food-insecure people, they’re a group facing the most immediate effects of climate change. In Kenya’s southwest Siaya County, Lilian Adhiambo Juma’s ICV Alumni Grant-funded project has been using ‘permaculture’ principles to prepare farmers for the future.

A group of farmers sit on plastic chairs in a field
© Lilian Adhiambo Juma
Permaculture is a way of thinking to ensure farming takes place in harmony with nature

What is permaculture?

So, what is permaculture? It’s an ethos of living lightly on the planet, ensuring that farming can take place in harmony with nature. Conceived as an approach to agriculture, the term now broadly addresses how we can grow food, build houses and create communities in an environmentally sustainable way.

“In Kenya’s rural areas, people are poor, But they’re forced to be creative to find solutions to farming problems such as soil degradation, deforestation and infestation."
Lilian Adhiambo Juma
VSO ICS volunteer, Kenya

“My project aims to lift the community from poverty to self-reliance,” explained Lilian, who trained 114 farmers and their families over a three-day workshop in three villages in Siaya County.

“In Kenya’s rural areas, the majority of people are poor,” she added. “They’re forced to be creative – despite lacking the platforms to explore their talents. My goal is to use common sense, low-cost solutions to their farming problems such as soil degradation, deforestation and infestation to help them earn – and all while restoring the landscape.”

“I recruited people from different social groups and backgrounds in my village by using my family connections. My brother invited the youth, my mother reached out to women and my dad helped recruit the men. It meant we had a diverse audience aged from eight to 65-years-old.”

A group of farmers walk together across a field
© Lilian Adhiambo Juma
Lilian established a 'demonstration plot' to enable farmers to try - and fail - with new techniques

Giving farmers the opportunity to fail

Lilian trained the farmers in a variety of areas, including how to care for the earth, the importance of sharing farming techniques with each other and how to fairly distribute resources. She then set up a ‘demonstration plot’ for the community to practice their new skills.

“These plots showed how permaculture can fix degraded landscapes and transform gardens into opportunities to create food – in the form of kitchen gardens and food forests,” said Lilian. “And at the end of the last day, we set up a farmers’ club together.”

After electing leadership roles, like chairperson, secretary and treasurer, the new farming collective got straight to work, raising the issue of a weed that had been affecting farmers’ crops. Lilian linked them up with a local farming teaching organisation already researching solutions for the weed.

And the knowledge came both ways. “Trainers delivering the sessions also learnt from the trainees about the traditional practices their families have been using for generations – some of which have been dying out because of the harm of pesticides and fertilisers,” added Lilian.

Four sacks filled with soil and crops
© Lilian Adhiambo Juma
'Sack gardening' allows farmers to grow crops vertically, saving space and maximising their products

Farming doesn’t just have to happen horizontally

The workshop wasn’t without complications, though.

“One of the challenges we faced was some of the trainees not having enough land to start up their own kitchen garden. For that reason, we trained them on ‘sack gardening’ – growing crops vertically in tall sacks filled with soil and manure.

“But in the rainy season, the weather can destroy these fabric sacks. Chickens also love to eat the vegetables planted at head height. To overcome this, I set up a small demonstration plot in my parents’ garden to become a study site and try new methods.”

A group of farmers pose for a photo in a field
© Lilian Adhiambo Juma
Lilian will be monitoring the farmers' progress with further visits and training

“The work starts with us farmers. Don’t expect people to lift a hoe for us”

This project was Lilian’s first time training her community on permaculture. “I was able to learn from my fellow trainer and gain confidence. I’m now ready to continue training rural communities on permaculture and providing support to trainees after the end of their workshop.”

Attendee James Odongo said: “These trainers have shared with us a lot over the last three days. But I want to challenge us by saying, don’t expect them to come to your place and lift a jembe [hoe] for you. It starts with us. Let’s go out and use the knowledge and skills they have taught us.”

And as for Lilian? Her work doesn’t stop here. She’ll be monitoring the progress of the farmers after two months through visits to the community, to understand their progress and the challenges they’re currently facing. On her next visit, she plans to train them on preparing organic manure, and in the long-term, provide capital on loan which will be repaid in farm produce.


Lilian Juma is a water policy analyst and environmental planner who volunteered with VSO ICS in Kenya in 2014. She’s passionate about adopting citizen science (scientific research conducted by amateur scientists) to enable disconnected, rural communities to share knowledge to grow together.

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