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Within the city limits of Yangon, there is a community of some 20,000 people living without electricity, without water, and without waste collection. Even in this, admittedly, under-serviced city this is a low-water mark. They deserve better. Anyone does.
A French NGO, Green Lotus, who is working with the community, approached us to see if we could help with the waste management part. Our concept of structuring up organic waste and building soil resonated with their vision. And for us, it would be the ideal project to test our methods against all possible odds.
An urban farm would be the obvious solution.
But the problem is that the community has no land, and most of it is under water for half the year. There aren’t enough jobs, and money is scarce.
So… A farm?
Obviously we wanted to give this a go.
We spent some time out in the community talking with people and felt very strongly that we wanted to be part of this. We met a lot of people we liked, they seemed to trust us, even if they couldn’t really get their heads around what we were proposing.
Actually, it wasn’t even that sure we knew ourselves what we were proposing, but we knew that if we started somewhere, did something, we would gradually find our feet and make it work.
The French team was starting out with a waste survey. They wanted to find out what waste was generated daily and weekly by the sample group of 30-40 households. We interviewed each family in their home, asked them to collect their waste for a few days, and we went through all of it (later) by hand to see what we had.
Surprisingly little food waste from each family actually.
The reasons being one, that a lot of it is given to street dogs and the neighbours’ pigs and chickens; and two, that people here are poor, their diet is simple, and if they cook something they eat it. And because cooking facilities are for the most part very basic, they buy a lot of food ready-cooked in the market. Fresh fruit and vegetable peelings were noticeably absent in the waste we collected. There was however quite a lot of green waste, things like flowers from the family shrine and brown leaves swept up from the yard.
Next step was to analyse the market waste.
This turned out to be almost totally organic waste. And a lot of it — at least 500 liters per day, probably more. Now that’s something we could do something with!
We talked with people in the market, how did they get rid of the trash, what would they think about having it collected to be made into soil, what other factors were involved.
When we started this project, there was a small, unofficial landfill in town. The government provides no services here, so it was just a bit of land that had become a dump. On a waterway, which meant that quite a bit of the trash gets washed away in the rain.
However, some weeks later, this dump has been closed and there is now NO dump at all. The only possible solution for people is to dump their trash in the river.
So, an alternative seems even more valuable now than ever.
I guess we got, and are getting, a mixed reaction in the market.
Some people get it, and are pleased to see their waste being put to use. Even if they can’t quite get their head around how we’re going to do it.
Others are a bit quizzical. Like, why are all these Europeans going round and collecting our trash and getting so excited about it all?
But whatever. There are no problems, no resistance. And Aye Aye, our wonderful team member, is a whizz at making people feel good. She chats with the people in their market stands (in Myanmar, obviously), explains what we’re doing, has a bit of a laugh with them, picks out the plastic bits patiently so they’ll hopefully get the message, and let’s them know when we’ll be back.
She has a team of local women with her now, learning the ropes. Gradually, this part of the process is becoming theirs. And with it, hopefully, will come some pride in doing a valuable job. (The women by the way are paid for their work at local rates, a subsistence economy such as this has no space for volunteer work at any level).
Building a garden
This is much the same process we deployed in our own bokashi yard: collect lots of organic waste, ferment it in barrels, and dig it down.
The problem here, though, is that there is nowhere to dig it down. There’s a cement road through each main row of houses (dirt tracks between the others) and the houses that branch off this are largely underwater for half the year at least. They are built on poles and have precarious bamboo bridges and the like between them, but apart from a small verge there is little or no land.
And here we should build gardens?
We’re pretty sure we can do a lot with these narrow verges in due course.
But meanwhile our starting point is at the community center, a relatively new building built on poles like the rest of the settlement. It also has a verge area at front. And there is some free space between it and the next neighbour where we thought we could reclaim some land and build a garden of sorts.
The women in the team cleared the idea and we all gathered up one day a few weeks back to do the work.
The day was a miracle of teamwork and community effort.
Nothing at all was organised when we arrived, Inda (our team-member and natural leader) swung into action and structured it up and soon people were coming and going in all directions.
Someone organised a truckload of sand, a team of labourers appeared with bamboo poles, slats and tools, a team went off to collect all the waste from the market, another to collect coconut husks and brown leaves from the neighbourhood.
Within an hour, we started building our first bed. A bamboo enclosure, basically, in front of the community center where we layered up 12 barrels of fermented bokashi with about the same volume of brown waste (coconut husks, brown leaves, shredded paper). We topped it with sand and that was it.
In a week or so it will be ready to plant.
The next project was tougher. We decided on an area of some 10 meters by 3 or 4 alongside the building and started to fence it in with bamboo poles and panels. Standard procedure round here.
The water was some half meter deep, brackish and smelly, but we built the frame then started filling it with sand. By hand, of course. Gradually we ended up with a meter deep layer of sand that is relatively stable inside the enclosure.
This is where we will build our garden, using exactly the same method as we did out front. It will take a couple of months, as we are doing deep bokashi here — possibly as much as 300 liters of food waste per square meter layered with at least as much brown materials. It will give us a half-meter of top soil to work with later. Not any old soil, but enormously rich bokashi soil.
How we use it is not yet clear, it’s up to the local team. Create a garden, a market garden or micro urban farm? Or harvest the soil for use elsewhere and refill as needed?
It will come clear.
Interestingly, when we asked the women what they wanted to grow the response was immediate. Flowers! Beautiful flowers! Rare and delicate orchids, and other beautiful flowers.
Have to admit I was surprised. I was expecting to hear spinach, roselle, banana trees, cabbage. Food, basically. But it makes sense. There is so much daily hand-to-mouth here, so little beauty, so little luxury.
I hope they decide to grow their beautiful flowers in the end!
And the next step? We keep working on.
This project will take a long while, and as well as being potentially game-changing it’s also a chance for us to learn what works best.
Our first vision is that we can, in our community bokashi yard, take care of all the organic waste from the market. Every day. Month in, month out.
Our second vision is that we can, together, develop a form of social enterprise out of all this. Some form of “soil factory” where a valuable output is created that can be sold. Compost, fertiliser, small plants, fruit and vegetables. Whatever model makes best sense.
This way, the waste will be pulled through of it’s own accord. The story won’t be about waste management any more, because there won’t be any waste. It will be about using resources in the smartest possible way, making money, creating jobs, finding hope, growing food, making life more healthy and sustainable.
But still, the best part may just be the beautiful flowers.
I really hope there will be lots of them!
/Jenny from Bokashi Myanmar
See how we´re working! Collecting organic waste from the market