Making a garden in a swamp

Read about our project so far, it’s interesting! The October update here, the September one here, and the back story here.

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.

Foto: Jenny Harlen
On the way to our project in Ward 67 — always with an umbrella handy!

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. 

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Healthy soil, healthy bananas

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. 

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Collecting brown leaves, valuable carbon

Best combinations

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. 

Foto: Inda Cakka
Our brand new handcart!

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. 

Foto: Diana Tobias
First bokashi delivery to RecyGlo

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

Foto: Jenny Harlen
Kids happy to be at school
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Even the water pump was under water
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Layering carbon with fermented bokashi
Foto: Jenny Harlen
Every deep bokashi bed starts with a layer of coconut husks
Foto: Aye Aye
It’s becoming a garden

Community bokashi: Let’s make an urban farm!

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The hardest working guys on the block!

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. 

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See those small verges out front? We hope to build micro gardens there.

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. 

Sceptical? Interested?

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? 

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We started with a small pumpkin seedling in a cement sack of bokashi and sand. And now it’s growing big and strong!

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. 

Amazing. 

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Building the first bed, on the verge out front.

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. 

Reclaimed land 

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

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The local community center. Relatively new and cosy inside, built by sponsors, and soon we hope it will soon become a green oasis.
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This is the area we’ve now reclaimed to build a garden. Believe it or not. And the water pump is now on dry land!

See how we´re working! Collecting organic waste from the market