From volunteering on farms in his local community to studying at the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya and Oregon State University, Yongo Otieno Wycliffe is a Kenyan activist spreading the word of sustainable development to the younger generation. I wanted to find out more about Yongo’s story and Kenya’s relationship with permaculture.
What was the first step of your journey of sustainable development?
I volunteered in my own community and neighboring communities with things like gardening, cultivating and farming.
Was permaculture part of your work from the beginning?
No, not quite. I made a friend from the US during my volunteer work and she introduced me to the concept of permaculture. She enabled me to study the subject by offering to pay for my education. I had the opportunity to study with many different teachers, including some from Tanzania and Uganda. Now there’s a method and thinking behind our farming choices.
What did you do with your new-found knowledge?
I wanted to share my knowledge but had nowhere to begin. We started a crowdfunding campaign and bought a small plot with five acres of land. This area is a model, showcasing the possibilities of permaculture. It is also a place where people of different cultures come together.
Permaculture also ties into social good?
Yes absolutely. We have some political issues coupled with tribalism in Kenya which cause people to fight amongst themselves. In the Trans Nzoia County Matisi Area, our Share Peace Permaculture Center is a creative way to reach the younger generation, getting them involved in productive and fun activities. We want to show people that no tribe is better than the other by bringing them together. People gather here to dance, act and play. Through a range of activities, we aim to share knowledge about permaculture but also reduce involvement in drugs and the crime rate, foster peace etc.
Kenya is known for its cattle. What does permaculture have to do with livestock?
We are shifting mindsets by letting farmers know they must keep their animals in zones. In permaculture there is a concept known as zoning. You design a farm with various zones: your house is Zone 0, where you stay and sleep, Zone 1 includes things that require more attention such as hens who lay eggs daily. Bees on the other hand don’t require much attention so you can keep them further away in Zone 5 for example. There are five zones in total, but before you plan and zone you must observe and interact with the land, learning what areas are fertile, the amount of sun they receive, how things interact and so on.
You are a teacher- what are the biggest mental blocks people have regarding permaculture?
The way of thinking, some people get confused about the principles. However, most people quickly understand the ethical part: once you care for the earth, the earth will care for you. When you use GMOs for example, at some point the land will become unfertile. If you use compost, then you are “copy pasting” how the forest naturally is. Soil is like a human, it will reflect how you treat it. Once you treat it well, it will take care of you.
Is this also how you explain things to your students?
Yes, with plenty of examples so it sinks into their brains. Ethics are easy, but some principles like renewable energy- storing it and using it later- take a little more time to convey. We mainly focus on hydroelectric energy, as well as some solar.
And who are your students?
So far, our age range is about 5 to 45 years of age. We focus on the youth and let children do things first, so we don’t stunt their excitement and initiative. We then later explain and correct their actions; they learn by doing and reflecting.
Where do you see the project in five years?
We want to transform as many young people into teachers as possible. We want the project to be self-sustainable and have the youth benefit and learn from others. Our center should also function as a classroom and offer volunteers the opportunity to stay at the farm. Ideally, we will have people teaching the different aspects, so somebody teaching the ethics behind it and me teaching the principles of permaculture for example. The project is still young and in need of assistance. We appreciate any form of support, from funding and ideas to knowledge and volunteers- everybody is welcome.
What is your long-term goal?
We want people to be producers, not just consumers. We plant perennial crops, such as fruit trees which take a little longer to be ready to harvest. Therefore, we also plant annual crops such as kale and spinach which take about a month before they can be harvested. The garden is active the entire year-round and will hopefully show people what they can do on their own land. We want to develop the local infrastructure and strengthen the connections within society while giving farmers independence.