Last night the team returned from Ngwe Saung, a beautiful beach some 6 or 7 hours of shaky driving west of Yangon.
We’re feeling pretty happy, because we’ve started something there at the beach that hasn’t been done before.
We’ve helped stop the food waste at one of the biggest hotels on the beach. We’ve stopped it leaving the building, and we’ve stopped it going to landfill.
From now on it’s all going into big bokashi stacks at the hotel where it will become rich, organic compost for the hotel gardens. Perfect.
We’ve been talking with the Ngwe Saung Yacht Club & Resort for some time, they really want to make a difference in their local environment, and like us are concerned about the amount of trash being dumped in the local environment.
This is a brave commitment, and one that’s badly needed.
Since Ngwe Saung opened up for mass tourism a few years ago, visitor numbers have increased steadily — but the town has no effective way of dealing with the waste.
The solution up until now is that hotels are dumping all their trash — plastic bottles, old toilet seats, uneaten meals, dry palm leaves and coconut shells, copper wires, food scraps and light bulbs — in a huge dump site just off the main road into town. Wild elephants come wandering through, sometimes.
It’s hardly a sustainable solution. But up until now, there hasn’t been an alternative either.
The hotel brought us in this month to help them set up a bokashi composting system for their food waste. It’s been great. We have really enjoyed working with the hotel staff these last weeks, chefs, gardeners, housekeepers and management. Their commitment is real, even if, in the beginning, everyone was a bit nervous about dealing with this whole trash thing.
We set up the training in two sessions of two days, with some 10 days in between. The focus of the first session was the kitchen; the focus of the second was the garden.
Our first step was to do a waste audit. How much food waste does the hotel produce? What type of food waste is it, and when and where is it produced?
A large hotel like this produces 4 to 8 tons of food waste per month, we know that from experience. But it’s hard to know exactly until you get stuck in and measure it, go through the trash bags, talk to the chefs, get a feeling for how it all works.
And food waste is not all a bad thing. So part of what we do is look at what is in the trash and why: some is uneaten food from guests, but most tends to be prep waste. Things like pineapple skins, potato and carrot peelings, egg-shells, coffee grounds, you name it.
Second step is to train the kitchen staff in waste segregation. Kitchens vary a lot, and in this case they were already doing a great job. There was very little plastic in the food waste bins already, and when the head chef found some he made his frustration very clear.
Step three was to train the kitchen staff how to transfer the food waste to bokashi barrels for fermentation. No liquids, add some absorbent material (rice bran, tissue) and layer in a liter of bokashi bran per barrel. Lid on tightly. Store in the correct spot.
The chefs are filling some five barrels per day at the moment, so the work needs to be efficient but not interfere with their daily routines. At the moment, they’re filling the barrels at the end of each shift, but this may change later, we have to just work it out.
There’s two types of training: how and why. Filling barrels is how, but the chefs also wanted to know why they should be doing this. It creates some extra work for them, and no one does that for no reason.
We gathered up all the hotel staff in two shifts for a classroom session on food waste in hotels, the impact it has on the environment at all levels. Food waste is invisible for most people: something they hardly even see, and once it leaves the building they don’t think about it. As long as the workspace is neat and tidy the job is done, right?
There’s two parts of this: one, that organic waste is NOT trash (our mantra!) and that we all have some responsibility to do the best we can with it. And that organic waste is a hugely valuable resource. That we can use it to create healthy, fertile soil. And healthy soil = healthy food = healthy people (our other favourite mantra).
Ten days later we returned to find 66 barrels filled with fermented food waste and nearly all of them perfect. Impressive. The staff had set up a Monday to Sunday system for storing the barrels so everyone would know what they’re doing. (The barrels need to ferment at least 7 days, so each day the gardeners will remove the barrels for that day and the chefs replace them with new ones)
We weighed the barrels, and calibrated our earlier estimates. Basically five barrels per day still, on average. The added workload is around an hour per day, filling the barrels after each shift.
The hotel has a big team of gardeners, and we trained them in two groups. They were nervous before we started. Working with week-old food waste wasn’t the job they had signed up for. And it wasn’t immediately obvious to them why organic compost should be so much better than the chemical fertilisers they’re currently using.
An hour later, everyone was more relaxed. This wasn’t at all as bad as they’d expected!
Together we built bokashi stacks from shipping pallets, they will have 20-30 of them in the end. Each stack holds a cubic meter of compost; we like the pallets because they look neat, and are so flexible. If we want to move them, we can just move them.
The teams worked together to layer up the stacks: green, brown, black as we always do. They had collected up big piles of dry leaves and grass from the grounds over the last week and were amazed how much garden waste the stacks swallowed.
This will be so good, to get the garden waste processed on the property. Until now it too has been trucked away to landfill, everyone thought it was trash. Not any more!
This is extra work for the gardeners too, they were a bit worried they might get an extra load they couldn’t handle. But were pleasantly surprised how quickly it went, especially when they worked together in a team with one layering up the stack and two or three team-members bringing in supplies of bokashi barrels and dry leaves.
Each stack swallows some 20 barrels of bokashi food waste and the equivalent volume of dry leaves. Takes an hour or so to fill, once everything is collected up. So yes – extra work for the gardeners, but by the end of the day they were already looking forward to getting their first compost harvest in two months time.
From then on, assuming they fill a couple of stacks per week, they will also be harvesting a couple of stacks per week. That will be black gold for them in their extensive grounds, where everything is struggling to grow in beach sand.
And, as a bonus, there will be a lot fewer truck trips up to the landfill.
Compost stacks are great because they use up so many dry leaves, an eternal problem in big gardens. But there are many other ways to use bokashi; we showed the gardeners some other ways they could use the barrels in their plant nursery.
We started with setting up a soil factory for them in a big black rain barrel– the quickest of all ways to convert fermented bokashi to compost. Just mix 50:50 compost and bokashi food waste well, top with soil, and leave for a week or two. That’s it! Perfect way for them to see that this really works, but also to start creating an instant supply of ready compost for pot plants etc.
We also showed them how to build garden beds with bokashi directly. Into their raised bamboo beds (with frames of bamboo poles) we put a thick layer of dried grass. Onto this we emptied several barrels of bokashi food waste. Another thick layer of browns: dried grass was on hand so we used it. And on top, a layer of sandy soil, ready for planting.
Instant, and highly nutrient-rich, garden beds made very quickly. The pay-back will be very apparent when the tomatoes, chili and herbs grown in these beds are compared to the ones grown in the standard mix of sand, ash and fertiliser.
The gardeners got over their fear quite quickly and started to become curious. How does this work, actually? And why is it so important that their management are insisting on them doing it?
We ran a couple of “why” sessions, the first direct in the nursery with notebooks perched on plastic jerry cans. Pragmatic!
Gardeners rarely receive much training like this from outside, we were impressed by how interested they were, and keen to learn.
How does EM work? How do you build fertile soil? Why is it better to avoid fertilisers if you can and build soil instead? What resources are there on the grounds that have never been valued before — that are not at all “trash”?
They were still keen for more, so we did a final classroom session on soil, indoors, with powerpoint and all.
What is soil? Why is it important? What does organic matter do in the soil? Why do we need to give back to the soil? How is it related to climate change? What can we do to improve the situation?
And so on — what’s happening in the garden here is the micro version of what’s happening in the whole of Myanmar, what’s happening in the whole of the world. If we protect our soil, the soil will protect us.
Actually it’s that simple.
We’ll follow up regularly now, coach as needed, sort out any teething troubles. But technically they’re already up and running, it was easier than they thought, less scary, and once they understood why it mattered, it seemed like there was a real commitment from both kitchen and garden teams.
The real payback will be in a couple of months though, when their compost comes on stream and they can start using it in the gardens. The grounds are beautifully maintained, but improving the soil will make them more fertile and everyone’s job will be easier.
From our side, we learned a few things too. We’ve worked with this bokashi thing for so long we know it works, but we learned to appreciate and understand the fear that people have of change, of working with trash, of potentially getting a lot of extra work. For them, it’s all completely new and untested. Stressful.
We gained a deeper respect for good leadership. The management at NSYC are impressive: committed and professional. This is new for them too, but they made it happen, had the teams working really effectively, and made it clear that this was non-negotiable. Food waste is now history at NSYC.
We realised the value of sharing both hands-on knowledge and deeper explanations. The how, and the why. It really helped people feel more motivated when they understood the back story, that this was something bigger than they are, and that they are part of a big global awakening related to soil, food waste, and climate change.
And we appreciated that good training takes time. It’s not worth rushing through something like this. We want people to understand what they’re doing, learn the new habits while we’re still there, have time to think and discuss between themselves and ask questions. To feel comfortable and supported.
So this is how we will work in future, too.
And we are so very happy to have started this first project at Ngwe Saung beach with total commitment from the whole team on both sides.
This needs to work, for our shared future.
/Bokashi Myanmar team
Read more! Hotel food waste is history
The theme for World Environment Day this year was air pollution. A HUGE subject that gets way too little attention. Which is really a pity. Maybe that will change now?
There are so many aspects of it that it’s hard to know where to start. But one central part of the problem, in Myanmar and neighbouring countries, is the terrible damage caused by burning leaves. Especially when they are burnt together with plastic.
The air smells terrible, people are choking on their way to work, children are coughing during their lessons. People get sick and, actually, we have no idea about the long-term health consequences.
At Inle Lake, where our team spent some time recently talking to restaurant owners and others in the tourism industry, there are other consequences too. Smoke and smell and toxic air hardly go hand-in-hand with attracting tourists.
They want help from us to find new ways of working with dry leaves. Part of the issue is that people just don’t know what the alternatives are. Are there any?
Of course there are! Dry leaves are a fabulous base for any form of compost. Plants love to grow in them. They are a valuable part of the carbon cycle. And they should be used.
We made this short film for them that they showed on World Environment Day – and others have been spreading it further, which we’re happy to hear. The message is there are ways to use dry leaves in a simple way that can be handled on any street corner, suburban block, in any hotel garden or urban park.
It’s not hard — the issue, as always, is knowledge and methods.
These are things we know about at Bokashi Myanmar, after all it’s our work. We collect huge amounts of dry leaves every dry season to use in our composting process, and we have developed a few different ways of using them on different scales. Part of what we do is run training courses to share this knowledge (if you’d like to come to our bokashi yard with your team and learn, please contact us)
Our basic method of dealing with leaves and food waste on a larger scale is our bokashi compost stacks, you can read more about how to make them here. But we’ve also made leaf gardens as shown in the film using stacked bricks and a lot of leaves. Plants love to grow in these, and they are very quick and easy to build. All you need is leaves!
Another solution, that we have yet to document, is the triple cube: basically a set of three compost cubes made from shipping pallets in the same style as we do in the bigger yard. Cube #1 is used to store leaves throughout the season. Cube #2 is used to make bokashi compost as described in the previous link. Cube #3 is used to make a second round of bokashi compost while the first is maturing. And so it goes on. Simple and effective, and not big on space. Try it! Or come to our yard and we will show you.
Tradition, mainly — and lack of alternatives. There is some misunderstanding that the CO2 generated from burning leaves is good for trees, after all they breathe in CO2 and breathe out oxygen. Not correct, obviously, but a persisting fallacy.
Sweeping up plastic into the leaf pile is a convenient way of cleaning, and speeds up the combustion process. But it makes the already unhealthy air downright toxic. Plastic should obviously be separated, even if it’s an inconvenient work, and sent to landfill. Leaves should be composted and returned to the soil.
Many landfills won’t receive garden waste including leaves, and that is understandable given that most are facing capacity issues. But leaves left lying around on the street are likely to become homes for snakes and scorpions and that is not a good option. Dry leaves in dry season won’t break down on their own and it’s hard to compost them. But by keeping them wet (as in our brick garden above), nature will do most of the work. And by adding food waste in the form of bokashi, you not only help them break down quickly, you get an incredible space efficient and nutrient-dense form of compost. The best there is, actually. Just made from what you have lying around. Trash.
We are more and more convinced our mantra of “organic waste is not trash” is like a beacon for the future. It’s really needed to make this change, and set a new course for the future. The current course really doesn’t hold. Time to think new and start to get this right.
/Jenny and the Bokashi Myanmar team
Waste, according to the UN.
Open waste burning and organic waste in landfills release harmful dioxins, furans, methane, and fine particulate matter like black carbon into the atmosphere. Globally, an estimated 40 percent of waste is openly burned. The problem is most severe in urbanizing regions and developing countries. Open burning of agricultural and municipal waste is practiced in 166 out of 193 countries.
Improving the collection, separation, and disposal of solid waste reduces the amount of waste that is burned or landfilled. Separating organic waste and turning it into compost or bioenergy improves soil fertility and provides an alternative energy source. Reducing the estimated one-third of all food that is lost or wasted can also improve air quality.Source: https://www.worldenvironmentday.global/what-causes-air-pollution#waste
Last week we took part in the Food & Hotel Myanmar expo in Yangon, a huge event with hundreds of chefs vying to be the best. The hotels, restaurants and resorts of Myanmar were gathered in the huge venue to soak up the inspiration — get new ideas and make new contacts.
Watching these chefs at work was amazing! 400 of them were competing in the 6th Myanmar Culinary Arts Competition, producing some spectacular dishes. But not only did we get to watch, we were invited to take part and support them.
Our Bokashi Myanmar team was there from early in the morning to late in the evening doing what we do best – collecting food waste. We put one of our trademark blue barrels at every work station, and trained the chefs how to put all their scraps into the barrel. Maung Nan, Inda and Aye Aye from our team kept the process running smoothly, coaching them, checking the barrels, adding bran.
And in the case of Aye Aye, sampling everything that was on offer!
It worked surprisingly well! We provided plastic rubbish bags for plastic and other rubbish, but in a competition like this there are huge amounts of food waste (the best part of a ton over three days, 46 barrels). And ALL of the food waste ended up in our bokashi barrels.
The chefs were amazed, and surprisingly supportive. We were worried we would be getting in their way, adding to their workload and complicating things. But quite the opposite, in fact.
Apparently this is a world first. We got some excellent feedback after the event from Tony Khoo, Chief Judge at the event on behalf of the World Chefs Association. Immediately afterwards he wrote:
I have not seen in any salon culinary competition which I have judged around the world where there is a waste organic blue bin for competitors to throw away their trimming waste and this will be turned into recycle food fertilizer organic waste.
We’re excited about this, as it means our concept of managing food waste and turning it into high quality soil is a winner. It fits perfectly with the vision of the world chefs association to work for Zero Hunger and Zero Food Waste. They want to take this concept further, out into the world. Makes us happy!
How we will commercialise this vision and get the hotels of Myanmar to support it is another story. Collecting food waste bokashi-style is not the least complicated, but it can’t be done for free (transport! handling!). Currently, food waste collection in Yangon is more or less invisible: hotels, restaurants, companies of all sorts, simply throw out their rubbish, YCDC collects it, it disappears.
But even if the real cost is hidden from the books, it is very real in daily life. All waste from YCDC is trucked to one of the landfills around the city and dumped. No sorting, no methane management, no modern handling at all.
This is how you build a methane bomb. And occasionally it ignites.
Untreated organic waste decomposes badly. It doesn’t make soil, it does not make compost, it becomes a toxic mess that creates the worst possible greenhouse gases. This is because the immense piles of it prevent it from decomposing in a healthy way.
The anaerobic decomposition creates methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more dangerous than carbon dioxide. The gas builds up deep down in the landfill mountain, so that if a fire starts it is enormously difficult to put out.
Fires like this are obviously terrible for the environment. They are also devastating for the people of Yangon, and every other city in the country that burns their waste intentionally or otherwise. These fires cause health issues that can’t be repaired.
So how can the hotels of Myanmar help?
Hotels produce huge amounts of food waste — a five-star hotel with three or four restaurants will generate five to eight tons per month. TONS PER MONTH.
And at the moment, all of it will end up at landfill. Where it will rot and smell, but even worse produce methane that damages the atmosphere and causes people to be sick.
No single hotel can of course save the world, but every one of us has a part to play. We can stop food waste at source by finding smarter ways to use it in the kitchen. We can see to it that the food waste is diverted from landfill and is instead made into valuable soil.
Doing this – making fertile soil from food waste – completes the circle beautifully. It means that old food is used to form the base for growing healthy new food. Totally circular. And logical.
We’re talking to a lot of hotels around the country – the interest is strong, no doubt about that. But the subject is relatively new, and there hasn’t previously been a practical solution to the enormous dilemma of organic waste. Food waste has not been high enough up on the agenda.
But now it is sailing up the list. And from our side, we are determined to offer a solution that can work for as many hotels as possible, wherever they may be in the country.
Huge problems like this aren’t solved overnight. But everything begins with a solution on one hand, and a will to change on the other.
And that’s what we are hoping will make all the difference in Myanmar.
This madness has got to stop.
/Jenny and the Bokashi Myanmar team
Want to learn more? Please contact us!
And you’re welcome to download and share our hotel food waste service brochure now!
Read our previous updates here!
Happy New Year! It’s Thingyan!
Here in Myanmar, it is the end of the year. This week we start a fresh, new one — after a few days of water-soaked madness on every street in every town. It’s fun, and happy, and so totally liberating!
And it’s also a year since we decided to go all in and start Bokashi Myanmar.
Last year, in the weeks leading up to Thingyan, our bokashi team ran all over Yangon and Mandalay meeting people, learning about waste and rice mills and gardening and local business and market needs. It was more than obvious the time was right for what we’re doing, so we took a deep breath – and did it.
We started for real in July last year, and in the months since have worked hard to get our idea off the ground. That organic waste is not trash. And that we can, if we succeed, solve contribute to solving two problems in one.
Basically: take the organic waste in the cities of Myanmar and turn it into valuable soil. And start a #soilrevolution in the process.
We’ve started a company
Now, as we head into the new year, we know a whole lot more than we did a year ago. Thank goodness! And we’re more committed than ever.
Our team is growing, our methods are working, people are approaching us to find solutions. We have started a company, we are working hard to create systems and structures that will work for us, we have started a “bokashi compost farm”, and we are already starting to run training groups and study visits for gardeners, schools and community groups.
Starting a company is an important step for us. We did discuss, initially, whether we should be a project, an NGO, an INGO or a startup. In the end, it became quite obvious: a local company gives us the right base to grow independently, to make our own decisions, and to create a model for a sustainable, and completely new, type of business. There’s a thing called “Profit-for-purpose social enterprises” and we think that’s most likely what we are.
We have invested a lot in the startup we call Bokashi Myanmar. Time, energy, and personal funds. We’ve done that because we believe in what we’re doing and have always known it will succeed. Now the time has come to create a stable platform to build on for the future. And to do that we will think like entrepreneurs.
It’s basically a social enterprise, by charging commercial operators such as hotels and international schools for our products and services, we can fund the community projects that we so much want to do. Local schools, monasteries, slum projects, they are all important areas for us that we can help fund through paying customers in other areas. We will probably also apply for project funds in due course to help scale up community education and projects, that way we can do more, and faster.
Bokashi compost farm
The key to it all is our new compost farm in North Dagon. It’s a very cool place where we are receiving large quantities of organic waste from local markets, street side stalls, hotels, schools and corporates in Yangon. Our aim is to scale up to 1 ton per day; we’re on our way to that.
Ultimately, of course, we will have more of these compost farms around the city (or maybe a bigger one outside) and potentially in other cities in Myanmar. But just now our focus is on making this one work, and finding out the “recipe” for setting it up. The main thing is that from a technical point of view, we know exactly what to do after months of testing in both wet and dry seasons. Our green-brown-black system (which we describe in more detail here) is working well. It’s fast, and makes great compost. And we now have a very fancy high-speed shredder which makes a world of difference to preparing our inputs.
Our “compost farm” is actually just a normal suburban plot of land, 60 foot by 80 foot, in the suburbs. We’ve ringed it with banana trees and are filling it with compost stacks. There are always trishaws, trucks and carts coming and going with dry leaves, market waste, coconut husks and blue barrels filled with food waste. Pretty soon, there will also be a stream of ready compost leaving the yard — along with shredded coconut husk for landscaping and other useful products we have on our drawing board.
It won’t be a farm as such, we really have no space to grow more than a few symbolic things, but our aim is to establish it as a demonstration yard, a kind of show room and training center.
People are already requesting training sessions with us, and as soon as we have that structured up we will open for bookings. Our target is July sometime, follow us on facebook and we’ll keep you posted!
The other thing we’re really looking forward to is joining the Yangon Farmers’ Market! We’re starting in the next few weeks. Hope to see you there soon!
We’ll be bringing along bokashi barrels and bokashi bran so you can get what you need to start bokashi composting yourself at home. You’ll also be able to buy or order our bokashi compost, and stock up on some herb seedlings. Or just come and have a chat with us!
The market (which is every Saturday at Karaweik Palace Garden) also generates quite a lot of organic waste – so obviously we collect all of that and take it back with us. Helping to make the market a greener, cleaner experience for all of us.
So many people are talking to us about potential projects that sometimes we don’t know where to start. We are really a very micro team. But growing fast as interns and volunteers step in to join us, and bring their valuable skills. Our next (paid) recruitments will be people to help us in the yard, and after that to help us run the office.
Meanwhile, let me introduce some of the great people that have stepped up to join us:
We are so incredibly grateful for everything you are doing!
These last weeks have been busy: Aye Aye and Inda, two of the co-founders of Bokashi Myanmar, celebrated their wedding in March. Yay!
Stefi and Claire, two of our team members came from Belgium and New Zealand respectively to join the wedding and work with us here on the project for a few weeks.
Claire is an organic gardener with 30 years of experience who has worked with large-scale bokashi for many years. It’s great to have her on the team as she really knows what she’s doing when it comes to building gardens based on large volumes of food waste. She’s also done a lot of education over the years – gardeners, restaurants and schools – so it’s been really valuable having her around. And she’ll be back, for sure, to help us run any bigger food garden projects.
Stefi is running Bokashi Belgium, and along with being a bokashi expert she has been part of this project from the very start. We can thank her for our great new logo, and the fact that we now – finally! – have business cards. Stefi is based in Belgium, but a very real part of our team here, she too will be back!
EM nature farming in Saraburi
Actually, it wasn’t just the wedding that pulled us all together. We were all of us at the international meeting of our EM colleagues in Saraburi, Thailand, for a week in March. Fantastic experience in an interesting place — we learned a lot on the EM farm. And for us, it’s also valuable to meet our fellow bokashi-people from around South-East Asia.
Few are working with bokashi in the way we are: harnessing household waste to make it possible to grow food in urban environments. Most of our colleagues are working with EM in agriculture, fish farming, and water remediation – the potential is enormous. We have chosen another path, and are developing methods in our way that are reasonably revolutionary. Many are following with interest, this is a transition that is needed throughout Asia.
The good thing is that we are building a strong and global network in this field. Everything we are learning here, we share. The only way we know is transparency. Projects similar to Bokashi Myanmar are starting in other parts of SE Asia, notably the Philippines and Cambodia. We have colleagues in Bhutan, Nepal, Malaysia and Bangladesh that are following with interest. It’s an exciting time – and we are really happy to be part of it.
We’ve deliberately not started any big new projects in the last month – a wedding, an international course, a new organisation and a new yard have been more than enough. Oh, and I just realised I forgot to mention we have a new office too! Right next to the bokashi yard, so brilliant now that our organisation is starting to grow, and that the rainy season is soon upon us (hope the roof holds).
Our focus has been on making all existing projects work – and they are. The teamwork with RecyGlo is working nicely, and we are steadily adding new customers to the organic service. And soon we hope to have some exciting new developments to share!
Our school projects at Dulwich College and ISY are going well, they have eliminated food waste from their school AND got the students involved and excited about it. So well done! We’ve had a couple of wonderful school visits from some of the ISY students to our compost corner at U Thant House where they’ve been able to see what really happens with food waste — how it become soil, how new food grows, how much plants enjoy growing in this super soil. That what they do at school and home makes a difference.
The British Embassy has done a marvellous job starting up bokashi in the residence, in the family homes on the compound, and in the embassy office, the Council and the British Club. All the bokashi is reverting to the gardens of Belmont, the traditional residence, and the gardeners are doing a great job using it in the kitchen gardens there. Impressed. We are starting to work with other embassies and residence too; word is spreading.
And now – Happy Thingyan! See you soon at the Farmers’ Market, those of you who live in Yangon. Please come and buy our products, support what we’re doing, talk to us about how you can be part of it. We have a long way to go but are more than ever convinced that it will work.
It’s time. And it’s needed.
And thank you for joining us here!
Read the previous update here!
Our story started in March 2018, when a few of us decided to team up, put fear behind us, and make this happen. This is where it all started…
Read our previous updates here!
You can’t have missed that a 16-year old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, is saying it like it is.
The house is on fire, she says. And it is.
Politicians, leaders, and everyone her parents age and up, have fiddled around for far too long, she says. And it’s true.
Climate change is no longer something for discussion, it is a CRISIS. And the days for doing anything other than fixing this are behind us.
Greta is a huge inspiration to so many of us around the world. And all over, people are mobilising. Students are striking, politicans are (finally) committing, parents are teaming up with their children to change what they can at home, at school and in their communities.
We need way more of it. We need it on every possible front. And we need it now.
Here at Bokashi Myanmar has given us renewed energy to make a difference. We are COMMITTED to sorting out this organic waste mess. We are working really hard to make it happen, starting in Yangon.
But the magic thing is that we are getting support.
People are teaming up with us, offering to help, spreading the message. It does make a difference. Because we too are just people, and we too get tired. We really gain energy from feeling that what we do is worth it, and that we WILL find ways of fixing our little piece of the puzzle.
International School Yangon
In our last update we described the good work happening at Dulwich College. They have got bokashi working in the school and individual classes are digging it down into their vegetable patches.
The work is spreading back to the parents, who are impressed by what their children are doing, and probably feel under some degree of pressure from them, too.
Next up is ISY, the prestigious International School of Yangon.
The school has 500-600 students, all ages, and between them they have the globe well represented. We have been talking with the school for a year or so, but in January they decided to swing into action.
Four weeks after our first meeting we had a full recycling system up and running. RecyGlo are the company behind this full service concept.
To be honest, we were a bit nervous about starting up a whole school overnight with bokashi composting.
The school has 3 canteens, and students are eating in many different locations. Which means that food waste is generated in many corners of the school. And in this heat it has to be dealt with quickly.
The setup is this: blue barrels (our standard airtight 60 liter barrels) for food waste are located in the undercover carpark, close to the standard waste collection points. Colourful collection points for dry recyclables are located around the school.
Custodians collect the food waste from the various collection points and bring it down to the blue barrels where they pack it in, check for plastic, and sprinkle on the bokashi bran and keep it airtight. The school generates a lot of shredded paper, so this is used in the barrels to absorb moisture. It’s a good combination, and a lot of it can be used.
Training for the whole school
The whole school got involved in a training round which was connected to a kind of all-in school event. Student climate action from around the world was up on the big screen.
We did training for the custodians and kitchen staff, and trained as many kids as we could collect together.
These are smart kids, with the best education money can buy. They got it quickly. And the posters and campaigns they came up with – so quickly – in the kickoff session were inspiring. I’ve shared some of them here.
I happen to know some of the parents privately, and their feedback is interesting. The kids are asking their parents to get more involved. To look after the environment. This is true action, Greta style.
British Embassy brings bokashi into the garden
Another project that we’ve been involved with this month is getting bokashi into the kitchen garden at the historical residence of the British Embassy, known as “Belmond“.
Ali, a life-long teacher in Britain, and the ambassador’s wife here, is a whirlwind of energy and structure. She genuinely wants to make a difference, and — she is.
She started out by getting a bokashi barrel for her own kitchen and showing that this matters. There are five houses in the compound; next step was that she got together all the gardeners and staff together for training with us and got them inspired.
Soon, we hope to get the kitchen staff at the neighbouring British Club involved; they are already motivated so it won’t be hard.
The process is similar to that at ISY. Food waste is collected from the various houses in the compound and the gardeners are loading it into our standard blue barrels. After fermentation they are digging it down into the big kitchen garden.
And because the garden (a beautiful park of well over an acre) also generates a lot of brown leaves, they will also make a compost stack combining leaves, garden waste and bokashi food waste. A fantastic way to use the resources on hand.
Word of mouth
Something we’re seeing these last weeks is that word is spreading. Not fast, that never happens.
But slowly and steadily. People are not always ready to hop into bokashi composting just because they’ve heard of it, but the first step is to get the conversation going.
A few weeks ago, we had a presentation stand at a major function at U Thant House. This week we’re doing something similar at a large luncheon in the gardens at Belmont, the traditional residence with many embassy-related people from around the world.
We’re so very touched to be invited, and really happy to see this conversation starting. Long may it last.
We hope to be able to spread this message at every level of society. One good thing about food waste is that everyone has it. We are all equal in this.
We need to get people talking about organic waste, and taking action.
Dry leaves are a huge issue in this climate.
They fall, steadily, during these dry months. And because it doesn’t rain for half a year, here in Yangon, or hardly ever in the dry zones of the country, they don’t break down.
There are simply too many mountains of them to wait until the rains come. Nowhere to put them, and no way of handling them.
So they are seen as trash. And what happens with trash here in this country?
Yes, it get burned. Or swept into a drain.
Piles of leaves are swept up on every street corner in this country. Possibly as often as once a day they are burnt. Because the leaves are seen as “trash” they are swept together in a pile with plastic and anything else that is lying around on the street.
Plastic and leaves make a deadly combination of smoke. But people have been doing this for so long they don’t reflect on it. There is no other alternative, in people’s minds – they’ve never seen it done any differently.
That leaves can be used to make soil, or mulch, or compost, is simply not part of the equation. So they get burned. And people feel bad, they get sick, they get respiratory issues. And they most probably die some years earlier than they would need to.
We hope to provide an alternative in due course, help to change this mindset. We’re working with students on this. They get it, but have to be careful of course.
We’re also working with our local community.
Our compost farm will use huge amounts of dry leaves, so we’re trying to get people to bring them to us instead, in sacks and baskets. Or stack them up in rice bags (without plastic!) so we can collect them. We can use them all!
Our new yard is up and running
And the big new is that we got our new yard going. It was a difficult process – in true Myanmar style.
We thought we had it, then we didn’t have it. We thought they were cleaning it up for us (20 years of jungle) and then they weren’t. Electricity, water, a toilet…. just don’t ask.
But as of a couple of weeks ago it’s operational.
It doesn’t look much at the moment, honestly it doesn’t. But we know exactly what we want to do, and hope to be able to start producing commercial quantities of compost in the next weeks.
Our strategy is to build a series of compost cages in the yard, enough to handle several cubic meters per week when we get going. We’ll describe the method in more detail next time, but you can read more here.
Bokashi kitchen and market waste is layered, compacted, sprayed with CEM, and watered. We give it a few weeks to transform into nutrient-dense compost.
Our first stack was a great success. We managed to get ALL the jungle we cleared from the yard into a single stack. We layered green and brown as best we could, sprayed generously with CEM, and added some cow manure for speed.
After three weeks we harvested the lot and used it. That’s super speed!
Admittedly it wasn’t fine, grainy compost, more like a rough mulch, but it was enough for us to make the whole front area of our yard into a garden and to plant 50 banana trees.
We want our yard to look beautiful! And the things we planted are coming along already.
Dry leaves and coconuts
So now we’re scaling up the resources we’re pulling in: dry leaves, coconuts, bokashi from schools, hotels and restaurants.
Our goal is to reach to one ton per day but that will take a while. Soon we hope to be doing 10 barrels a day, that’s half a ton. And that’s not bad either!
So watch this space, we will have more stories again soon. For a more day-by-day reporting, you can see what we’re up to on facebook and Instagram, Bokashi Myanmar there too.
Thanks for your interest!
Read the previous update here!
Our story started in March 2018, when a few of decided to team up, put fear behind us, and make this happen. This is where it all started...
Our mantra is that organic waste IS. NOT. TRASH.
Every day it gets clearer to us just how important that is. The streets and backyards of Yangon are filled with trash. And the tragedy is that it’s the same story every you look. In cities, towns and villages in Myanmar, and in many other parts of Asia.
We’ve gotta do something about it.
Here. Now. Fast.
Lots of people are talking about plastic. We’re drowning in it, and we can no longer ignore it.
Here in Yangon we’re seeing a lot of good initiatives on many fronts — Thant Myanmar is working with awareness and education, Trash Hero and Clean Green Yangon are two of many spirited groups working with cleanups, organisations like Conyat Create are working to create the conversation that for too long we’ve not been having, companies like RecyGlo are getting involved on a commercial scale with recycling.
But it’s all about plastic (apart from RecyGlo who are working on many fronts).
And plastic, although it’s probably the most disgusting part of the waste stream, is just part of the story.
More to the story
Our story here at Bokashi Myanmar is ORGANIC WASTE. The soft, wet stuff that comes in some way from plants and food. Stuff that can perfectly well be returned to the soil, returned to nature, because that’s where it came from in the first place.
Organic waste is perfect for recycling!
It’s not complicated like plastic, that has to be sorted into many different categories before it can be recycled in the most effective way. It’s not complicated like metal, glass, batteries, electronics, building materials, that all have to be sorted and moved on to a responsible processing plant for rational and clean recycling.
Organic waste is easy.
Everything goes back to the soil. No sorting needed, no special knowledge or technology, or advanced processing plants.
The trick is to just give it back to the soil.
But NO ONE is doing this! And you can only imagine how sad this makes us. Because the soil is screaming out to be fed and we are wasting the seemingly endless supply of “soil food” that we could be feeding it with.
Two-thirds of the waste that goes to landfill in Yangon is organic. The other one-third is non-organic, the fractions like plastic, glass, metal and so on. That’s TONS** of organic waste that ends up on the tip every day.
Another huge amount, we have no idea how much, just lies and rots at the roadside or ends up in the nearest river.
Which, even if it disappears, is absolutely not recycling.
All of this organic waste should be used for feeding the soil.
We can do that by making compost, by fermenting and digging it down into the soil, by making organic fertilisers or liquid nutrients.
There are various options, but they are different versions of the same basic equation: what comes from the soil should go back to the soil.
So. Why has this not been done before? Why is it not being done now?
(**2,000-3,000 tons per day, in Yangon alone)
Organic waste is “too difficult”
We’ve spoken to a lot of people about this.
The general conclusion is A. that it’s too hard, and B. that no one knows how to do it.
And making matters worse, people generally don’t see the difference between the two basic forms of waste: organic and non-organic. The first step in this process will always be to separate the two. Because the recycling approach is totally different.
Here at Bokashi Myanmar, we have a completely different mindset.
We’re not interested in sorting out the issues related to recycling plastic, glass and metal — we’ll leave that to the many experts in the field. For us it’s way too complicated anyhow.
But we are good at recycling organic waste. In fact, we think it’s quite straightforward from a practical point of view. Logistics and education are another story, but actually making a great organic fertiliser or super healthy soil is, for us no big deal. It’s what we do.
And we really want to get the whole Myanmar involved in this part of the waste puzzle. Because it’s something we can do on every street corner, balcony, back yard, urban farm, or even “real” farm.
Bokashi is hardly rocket science, anyone can recycle organic waste using this method, but it needs to start happening in real life.
End of speech. How about our projects here in Yangon?
They’re going great!
We’ve had a busy few weeks starting up new projects and moving our existing ones forward. You can read more about our waste management project in the Ward 67 community and our partnership with recycling startup RecyGlo here, in our November update.
This month we have three exciting new stories to tell, and I want to tell you about a gourd.
First story: we are starting up a school garden project at Dulwich College, one of the leading international schools here in Yangon. A very cool project, as the students (the school has all ages) already have a nice kitchen garden.
But the soil? It’s good, but it’s all been brought in from outside and needs regular fertilising. Nothing circular about that.
Meanwhile, the school is working towards environmental certification in the form of a “Green Flag”. Recycling of dry fractions is underway and that leaves the wet. One of the teachers, Matt Grace, is now bringing bokashi into the school canteen.
All food scraps will go into the bokashi barrel from now on, the students will learn about how this works and why it is important, and then the different classes will add “their very own” bokashi fertiliser to their class garden beds.
So smart and inspiring. And there’s an educational angle at every turn. We’ll keep you updated how it goes! (And we have more international schools asking us to help them with this approach, makes us happy!)
U Thant House, an inspirational oasis
One of the most respected men in Myanmar history is U Thant. He was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971, a complex period of nation-building in which he provided a strong and clear leadership worldwide.
His house, here in Yangon, has long been abandoned but is now being restored by a family trust into a museum and educational center: the values he most stood for are those at the core of this new museum project.
U Thant House is an oasis!
The garden is one and a half acres of calm and shady peace here in the middle of Yangon. Next step, now that the house is more or less renovated, is to restore the garden into a true Myanmar-style haven. With indigenous trees and plants, and a totally sustainable message running through every part of the garden.
Like everywhere else in Yangon, the soil in the garden is poor. Sandy, undernourished. Like most other parks and gardens, the garden waste has been sent off to landfill or left languishing in a corner.
Our job, which we volunteered for within 5 minutes of visiting the house, is to help restore the soil, and to add what we can to help bring the garden to life.
We started a few weeks ago, working with the garden team at U Thant House a day or two per week to get the ball rolling. Ultimately, we hope to be able to share the bokashi story there with visitors, show what we’re doing, talk about why this is a valuable part of the sustainability story, help them learn if they wish.
To start with, we structured up the compost yard. And had so much fun in the process! We now have a very space-effective garden compost going that will produce compost for the garden, based on our bokashi methods (there is a difference to traditional composting; it’s faster, easier and more nutrient-dense. And extremely compact).
Next step, starting this week, is to start collecting food waste from the nearby market and next door school, and start building soil for U Thant House’s new kitchen garden with that. As well as boosting the compost no end with this essentially free and very valuable addition of nutrients.
It’s a brilliant circular story, sustainability at best, so we will work with getting it right. May take a while, but this is a fast-moving team with a lot of passion, so I suspect it will go faster than any of us think.
New bokashi yard!
Our next exciting news from these past weeks is that we think we have a new bokashi yard! Super exciting! We’re doing the last negotiations, Myanmar style, at the moment and hopefully it will all be clear this week.
It’s close to our existing yard, totally overgrown, but is twice the size with no house. So we have lots of space to work and can start receiving organic waste from the local markets (we have two), start making bokashi, and gradually start producing some organic compost and fertiliser products for sale.
We’ll also receive the bokashi barrels collected by our partner RecyGlo from corporates and households, swapping their full barrels with clean empty ones ready to go back to their customers for another round of food waste.
Cross your fingers this goes well!
And we’ll tell you next time how it’s all shaping up.
6 kilo gourd
Oh, and the gourd story I promised?
The other day we harvested this beauty. 6.2 kilos (we had a guessing competition, Inda won). It is grown in bokashi and sand and nothing else.
Our yard is a kind of desert, like many other houses in monsoon-drenched Yangon it has a half-meter thick layer of construction sand. Infertile and hard to grow anything in. But all the bokashi we have been digging down these last months, made from waste from the local market, has paid off. We’re harvesting these beauties every few days at the moment, and handing them out to the neighbours. Because there’s only so much gourd you can eat…
They taste great!
And, when you think about it, it’s kind of revolutionary. No fertiliser, no tricks. Just sand and bokashi. If we can do this, anyone can. Any old piece of land can be made fertile with the right approach.
Which means anyone can grow food anywhere. Even in an urban desert.
/The Bokashi Myanmar team
And! Super thanks to our colleagues at Bokashi Norway! They amazed us this year with a Christmas donation to our project that will be a huge help in renting our new yard and setting it up. We really appreciate the global teamwork, and all the heart that goes with it. Hugs to you all!
New projects and a ton of enthusiasm
Towards the end of October the monsoon peters out and finally stops. Well, there have been a few surprise storms and we’ve had to run in all directions to protect our small plants, but like everywhere else in the world, weather patterns are changing.
Living with a lot of rain half the year and no rain at all the other half of the year is just normal life here. Actually, there are two distinct climate types in Myanmar: here in Yangon we have the on-off monsoon climate, but in other parts of the country, further from the coast, the zones are drier. Mandalay and Bagan, two of the areas a lot of tourists visit, are part of huge regions that are more or less in permanent drought.
Either way, this puts enormous pressure on the soil. Whether it rains too much, or too little, it’s always the soil that will make the difference. A good soil, with a lot of organic carbon in it, will buffer water way more effectively than a soil with very little carbon.
Carbon is the stuff we usually refer to as humus.
Alive and healthy
It’s the stuff that makes soil good, gives it that special soil fragrance that you just know is alive and healthy.
Soil doesn’t ever have as much carbon in it these days as you would think. If someone has 7 or 8 per cent that’s amazing, and kind of unheard of. Many farmers are struggling with levels of 2, 3 or 4 per cent. Or less. Usually it’s not measured and not discussed; the conversations we should be having about soil are replaced with orders to chemical fertiliser factories.
So. Weather patterns. Climate.
A soil with a lot of carbon can buffer water. If it rains a lot, the soil absorbs and manages the water and holds the top soil in place while the water has a chance to drain away. Strong soil like this is sort of glued together in the right way, it doesn’t just dissolve and wash away.
A soil with a lot of carbon also drains better. And it hangs on to the nutrients that are in it.
Some parts of Myanmar have really sandy soil. That’s what we’re dealing with in Yangon. Actually, it’s not even sandy soil, it’s more like river sand. Former rice paddies have been filled with river sand to raise their levels. The sand drains well, great during monsoon, but it doesn’t hold nutrients well and is therefore not the most nutritional start for new plants.
Other parts of the country have rich clay soil. Clay is full of nutrients normally, a fantastic resource. But clay can also be very low in organic matter, and this makes it difficult for plants to thrive. It gets waterlogged easily, and can become so sticky that it can’t breathe — hopeless for plants that need oxygen round their roots.
Adding organic material
Adding organic material to sand provides it with more nutrients. It helps those nutrients stay in place. And it gives the sand more glue to hold itself together. A good sandy soil will will drain well even if it rains a lot. But it will give plants a better base to grow in than just sand.
Adding organic material to clay also provides it with more nutrients. And helps them stay in place. But it gives the soil a better structure, easier for plants to thrive in. It’s easier for the plants to breathe. And while the soil will still hold valuable water really well, the organic material helps it to drain better if it is too wet.
The strange thing about this is that the solutions for troublesome sandy soil and troublesome clay soil are actually the same. Add more carbon!
This applies just as much if you’re a gardener at home, a small-scale urban farmer, or a big-scale “real” farmer. More carbon into the soil works, every time.
So. Back to our project!
We got through monsoon and most of what we planted to test our bokashi beds is thriving. Now we have to learn how to water it every day! That at least wasn’t a concern when it was bucketing down all the time.
One of the most important things we need to establish here in our project, before we scale it up too much, is what combinations of sand, food waste and brown waste (such as leaves and coconut husks) work best. What type of beds work best for the plants in the wet and dry season, and what is the best way of making large-scale bokashi beds: above ground or below ground? What proportions?
We have experimented with many different variations, and planted fairly randomly in everything we’ve made. We’re not professional gardeners by a long shot, but that just adds to the fun. And proves to us the value of having good soil — even if we don’t do things perfectly, our plants seem to thrive anyway, because they like the soil we give them. And if they don’t, we experiment some more, to find out what would work better.
This is giving us a good base to stand on.
Time to scale up and move on to the next challenges!
The two projects we’ve got going so far – our own bokashi yard and the waste management/urban farm project at Ward 67 in conjunction with the French NGO, Green Lotus are going well. We’re consolidating what we are doing and looking at ways to increase the volume of organic waste we are handling.
In our own yard, the best purchase we’ve made so far was a new hand cart. Exciting! Now we can more easily collect organic waste from the nearby markets without having to involve so many trishaw guys. At this stage we’re still doing all this ourselves; soon we’ll move to a bigger yard and get some help with the daily logistics. But one step at a time.
Every Tuesday we work with the team at Ward 67, in the eastern part of Yangon (Dagon Seikkan). The women there are filling two bokashi barrels per day with organic waste from the market, we hope to increase that soon. On our Tuesdays together we empty the barrels, layering them up with brown leaves and coconut husks that they’ve also collected. Top it off with sand and wait for it to become soil.
The women have planted roselle and other plants in one of the new beds. So far so good, they seem to be healthy.
We do have a problem however with kids messing up. So the next step is to involve them in the project, show them what we’re doing and why, and encourage them to grow their own small plants. Maybe later, even help them to start a small garden at home.
This part of the project is being run by our colleagues at Green Lotus, the French NGO running the overarching project in this ward. We may be good at making soil, but all the social stuff that surrounds that is rather beyond us, so we’re really happy for the teamwork. And so are they.
Next project: corporate recycling
More recently we’ve teamed up with a Yangon-based company called RecyGlo. They provide recycling services to corporate clients on a subscription basis. The company just started last year, but the two founders have strong entrepreneurial backgrounds and a lot of skills, so the business is already running strongly.
Until now, RecyGlo has focussed on paper, plastic, metal, glass, all the usual “dry” stuff. Wet waste, organic waste, has been an impossible task for everyone up until now. In best case, organic waste is trucked off to landfill, mixed in with everything else. In worst case, it ends up on the street, or in the river.
Anyhow, the two founders came up to see us a couple of months ago, and have been trialling bokashi with some of their corporates. It’s working for them, and this month they are rolling it out to their other clients and anyone else who may be interested.
Quite a challenge
A challenge, and an exciting one at that. There are some pretty big question marks, obviously. Are people really prepared to pay for this service? (remains to be seen). Can they learn to fill the bokashi barrels correctly? (we will be providing training — so far we’ve made a quick and easy video to explain what to do) And: where will the filled barrels go for processing?
This is the interesting one. Our plan is, rather soon, to get a larger bokashi yard where we can receive organic waste from various sources. If RecyGlo gets it to us, we know what to do with the rest. We’ll combine this of course with the organic waste we collect in from markets. Ultimately, we’ll produce a compost-type organic fertiliser in our process. And a method that can be scaled up or down as needed.
We’re taking a step into new territories with this. But one that makes sense to us. It’s what we have on our vision map and, like all visions, the path from A to B is not always that clear. If it was, someone would have done it before. In this case, they haven’t. And it’s up to us to find out.
Which is quite a cool challenge, and one we’re ready to take on.
So please follow us on this journey! It will quite interesting for all of us to see where we are at this time next year.
We’re thinking big, acting small, trying not to let fear get in the way of anything we’re doing it. We would be a good ad for Nike actually, Just.Do.It. It’s fast becoming our motto.
/Jenny and the Bokashi Myanmar team
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
A lot of people are really upset about all the organic waste going to landfill here in Yangon.
Each time a council truck dumps its load of trash collected from the dumpsters of this megacity the stuff that pours out is predictable. One-third of the load is plastic and other non-degradable stuff. And the two-thirds is organic waste.
But organic waste should never be trash in the first place!
How come so much of it ends up at the tip?
We’ve spent the last three months working with this; our plan is to spend the next years changing the situation. Here, in Yangon, initially and later in the rest of Myanmar. To be honest, the whole of Asia is screaming out for a solution, but that’s more than we can get our head around just now.
We started Bokashi Myanmar this year with one big, wide vision. To stop organic waste going to landfill, or dumped in the river, or left to rot by the side of a road. And to start building healthy, fertile soil that can form the base for a whole new generation of urban gardening here in Yangon or any other city.
Our project started just under a year ago — with an idea, and a fledgling team. Bokashi is the name of the method we’re using: it’s a Japanese concept, based on fermentation, proven over several decades, and a damn fine way of making soil. It’s quick, and easy, and cheap, but the best part is that it gets carbon into the soil where it belongs, and out of the atmosphere, where it doesn’t.
How are we so sure about all this? With my team in Sweden, I have been working with bokashi for over a decade and it is a very, very good method. Just the piece of the puzzle we’ve been looking for globally in terms of sorting out waste management for the future. And regenerating soil carbon in the smartest possible way at street level.
So a year ago we started forming our team. I’ll tell you more about who we are later (or you can check some of our earlier posts), but there are five of us, two from Myanmar and three Europeans. At this stage. Pretty soon we’ll be growing our team, plenty of people would like to work with us it seems.
We spent a month in Myanmar earlier this year, all of us, researching the project and scoping out how to best do it. We met a LOT of people on all fronts — business, waste, community, NGO, recycling, householders — and it was totally obvious that we should take a deep breath, gather our courage, and make this project a reality.
In July this year, we started.
Monsoon season, obviously. The ultimate challenge in terms of making soil, starting a garden, organising anything. But we survived, and it was fine. Everything worked!
Our first step was to start a bokashi yard. A place we could have our headquarters, test all our ideas, create a demonstration site where we could show and tell and train. Produce the products we need, and start a rudimentary shop.
Clearly, with all the rain involved, we needed a roof over our heads too. Somewhere to duck in until the rain passed, organise our production and our paperwork, and have a beer after a long days work.
We found the perfect place — after some months of looking for something that would work at a price we could afford — in the northern outskirts of Yangon. North Dagon, Ward 45. It’s a normal house on a normal plot of land on a normal street in a suburban area. Close to the bus route but quiet as anything — birds and butterflies, nice neighbours and no cars. Ideal. We even have a bunch of wild cows that wander up and down the road foraging on the verges!
The garden was neat and nice — but basically just a yard full of sand with a few trees. The whole area used to be rice paddies once, which means it is submerged every monsoon. The problem is solved by those people that can afford it by filling their site with sand. So our yard is relatively well-drained (good!) but is basically a desert with almost a meter deep of sand (a challenge, to say the least).
The ultimate challenge for us and our ideas, actually, as we needed to prove — quickly — that we could create fertile soil using the waste we had around us and start a garden more or less immediately.
We started making bokashi directly. Barrels and barrels and barrels of it. We collected organic waste from our two local markets, from our neighbours, from the fruit shop on the corner. We fermented it all.
The process is simple, actually. We make a fermentation starter called bokashi bran out of rice bran and Effective Microorganisms (read more here) and molasses, and use that to ferment the food waste.
We give each barrel a week or two to ferment, then dig it down. This is our basic method: the concept we plan to spread throughout the country. Collect, ferment, dig down, grow. The whole process, start to finish, takes just two or three weeks. And it is possible to handle huge amounts of organic waste in this simple way.
The fermented bokashi can be used in a number of ways. We have one method for people living in apartments, another for people living in houses with yards, another for community projects and urban farmers.
The method we’re working with most, just now, is the latter. We’ve set up a corner to demonstrate the first two methods, but the real challenge is how to process big quantities of food waste in relatively small spaces. In effect, we are developing compost farms that can be scaled from very small scale to very big.
Actually, we were really lucky to have a visit from a New Zealand woman, Claire Mummery, in the middle of all this testing. Clair has worked with large-scale bokashi for many years in vineyard restaurants in NZ and has developed an excellent method that she shared with us.
It means we can get 200-300 liters of fermented organic waste down into a small area of just a couple of square meters. Where previously we were layering with soil (or in our case, sand, as we have no soil), Claire showed us how to layer with carbon. So now we dig deep trenches a meter or so deep, and alternate layers of coconut husks, brown leaves, shredded newspaper and rice husk with our fermented organic waste, or bokashi.
In terms of soil-building, this is optimal, as the brown materials have a higher carbon content than the fruit and vegetable waste, which have more nitrogen. We top off these deep beds, filled with the most amazing nutrients, with a layer of sand.
One week later we can start planting.
This is unheard of in the gardening world.
Normally compost is something that takes months and years, not just a couple of weeks. Bokashi is fast, but the magic is that you don’t have to wait for all the materials to turn into soil before you start planting in them. The first week or so the mix is a bit acidic, but after that it’s fine — and the fermentation has prepared the nutrients in such a way that the plants can take them up immediately.
Actually, a very convenient win-win solution. We get rid of our waste fast, and we can start growing in it fast.
This means that the time from a pineapple or cabbage being discarded at market until a new tomato or mango is planted in the mixture is just a couple of weeks. And the new plant will have all the nutrition it needs to grow big and strong, and produce new fruit and vegetables.
So this is what we’re doing in our bokashi yard.
We’re currently processing 60-100 liters of organic waste per day in our small yard. Just to see if we can, and if it works. We’ve sorted out a few deals with the cabbage guy at the market, and the coconut guy, and with the fruit woman too, and there is a squad of local trishaw riders who more than happily deliver it all to us at going rates.
All this experimentation is giving us confidence in what we’re doing. We’re getting some good flows going, and learning how to streamline our, admittedly, small-scale process.
Next step is to scale it up a notch. So we’re looking for a new, and bigger yard, not too far away where we can start up more of a process line. We hope to add a coconut crusher to the input end, and a roofed area where we can work, some proper space for all our incoming and outgoing materials.
We’re arranging with companies and others to get in our raw materials — organic waste, mainly — and will develop a range of different compost and fertiliser products as our output. For people that want to do all this themselves, we will structure up our training and demos and share our methods.
That’s our bokashi yard, version 1.0. We are really pleased, and excited about what our yard 2.0 will bring.
Meanwhile, we have a couple of other projects underway — same idea but in communities where this type of solution is so badly needed.
Tell you more about that in the next post!
/Jenny from Bokashi Myanmar
We’re making our first barrel of kitchen bokashi here and honestly, it’s this easy. We’re just putting it in the barrel, adding some bokashi bran to start the fermentation, putting on the lid and that’s it.
We’ll leave it to ferment for a couple of weeks behind the house, then make soil and start planting our new garden.
We’ll be doing demos and courses when we get a bit more organised, come join us then!
/Jenny and Inda, Bokashi Myanmar