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

We’re on! Bokashi Myanmar is up and running

Unknown-2.pngFOLLOW US ON FACEBOOK! “Bokashi Myanmar” 

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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. 

Bokashi yard

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. 

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Emptying yet another barrel of fermented market waste into our sandy yard. Each and every layer makes the ground more fertile.

We succeeded

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.

Amazing. 

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Making bokashi bran. By hand, at the moment. We’ll improve our efficiency as we go.

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

 

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We run our office Myanmar style. Meetings on the floor, at our low table. In our work clothes. And usually we make our guests do a bit of digging too!

Setting up shop

(ေအာက္မွာျမန္မာလိုပါေသးတယ္ေနာ္ )

Setting up shop here doesn’t seem to be so be so hard. A cloth on the ground and a truckload of veggies brought in from the farm. But there’s a lot of competition, these markets in Yangon are big!
And at the end of the day there’s a neat pile of waste by each stand. We’d like to get our hands on it!
/Jenny

ဒီမွာဆိုင္ေထာင္ရတာသိပ္မခက္ခဲသလိုပါပဲ။
ေျမႀကီးေပၚအဝတ္တစ္စခင္း၊ ၿပီးေတာ့ စိုက္ခင္းထဲကသယ္လာတဲ့ကားတစ္စီးတိုက္စာေလာက္အသီးအႏွံေတြပံုလိုက္ရံု။ ဒါေပမယ့္ အၿပိဳင္အဆိုင္ေတာ့မ်ားသား။ ရန္ကုန္မွာ ေဈးေနရာေတြကႀကီးတာကိုး။
တေန႔တာကုန္ဆံုးခ်ိန္မွာေတာ့ တဆိုင္ခ်င္းဆီရဲ႕ေဘးမွာ သပ္သပ္ရပ္ရပ္ပံုထားတဲ့ အပယ္ခံသီးႏွံပံုေလးေတြကိုယ္ဆီနဲ႔။ အဲဒီစြန္႔ပစ္အသီးအရြက္ေတြကိုက်ေနာ္တို႔စီမံခ်င္တာ။

Fish for dinner!

(ေအာက္မွာျမန္မာလိုပါေသးတယ္ေနာ္ )

Some scenes from the Yangon markets. They’re hot and noisy and full of people buying, selling, talking, shouting, laughing and working hard. Turn the sound on!
(And yes! We would like to make bokashi from the fish scraps😉)
/Jenny

ရန္ကုန္ေဈးေတြထဲကျမင္ကြင္းတစ္ခ်ိဳ႕။ ေဈးေတြကေတာ့ ဝယ္ၾက၊ ေရာင္းၾက၊ စကားေတြေျပာၾက၊ ေအာ္ၾကဟစ္ၾက၊ရယ္ၾကေမာၾက၊ အားႀကိဳးမာန္တက္အလုပ္ေတြလုပ္ၾကတဲ့လူေတြရဲ႕ အသံဗလံေပါင္းစံုနဲ႔ဆူညံၿပီး၊ ပူလည္းပူအိုက္ပါတယ္။ အသံသာတစ္ခ်က္ဖြင့္ၾကည့္လိုက္ေတာ့ဗ်ိဳ႕ သိရေအာင္။
(ေျပာရရင္ေတာ့..အင္း…အဲဒီငါးအႂကြင္းက်န္ေတြကေန ဘိုကာ႐ွီလုပ္ခ်င္တာေပါ့ဗ်ာ။)

#bokashimyanmar #yangon #markets #fishfordinner

Beautiful Yangon flowers

(😊ေအာက္မွာျမန္မာလိုပါေသးတယ္ေနာ္ 😊😊)

Yangon markets!
So many beautiful flowers. But even they have their time, and when they’re no longer fresh and lovely we could at least make bokashi of them and return them to the soil.

Bokashi at the Post-harvest technology training center

(English version below)

မႏၱေလးအျပင္ဘက္၊ထံုးဘိုမွာ႐ွိတဲ့၊ကိုရီးယားျမန္မာပါတနာျဖစ္၊ရိတ္သိမ္းခ်ိန္လြန္သင္တန္းေက်ာင္းကဘိုကာ႐ွိေရးရာကြၽမ္းက်င္သူတစ္ဦးနဲ႔..Inda..ေတြ႔ဆံုခဲ့ပါတယ္။
သူတို႔ေတြ..EM..ဆိုတဲ့အက်ိဳးျပဳအႏုဇီဝသက္႐ွိကိစၥေဆာင္ရြက္လာတာႏွစ္ခ်ီ႐ွိေနပါၿပီ။ EM နဲ႔ Bokashi ကိုစိုက္ပ်ိဳးေရးမွာအသံုးျပဳနည္းနဲ႔စိုက္ပ်ိဳးေရးဆိုင္ရာတျခားဘာသာရပ္ေတြကိုပါဒီသင္တန္းမွာသင္ၾကားေပးပါတယ္။
ေရ႐ွည္အလားအလာအတြက္က်ေနာ္တို႔ဘိုကာ႐ွီျမန္မာရဲ႕တြဲဖက္ပါတနာေတြျဖစ္လာႏိုင္ပါတယ္။

 

Inda met up with the bokashi expert at the Korean-Myanmar Partnership, Post-Harvest Technology Training Center, Htone Bo, outside Mandalay.
They have been working with EM for many years, run training courses in how to use agricultural bokashi and EM, along with many other subjects. A good partner for us in the future.
Thank you!
/Jenny

Urban farming at best

Urban farming is coming to life in Yangon — and it’s social too. Yesterday, FarmBiz had their first networking event at their farm and ”showcase”; their business idea is to help and inspire others to start chemical free farms in Myanmar.
Cool initiative! Next time we hope to have a table there and share our bokashi message. Thanks for inviting us!

#bokashimyanmar #farmbiz #urbanfarm #yangon

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Chemical free in Yangon

Some photos from the gathering at FarmBiz yesterday, an urban farm in suburban Yangon. They grow really healthy, chemical-free vegetables and are on a mission to inspire others to start farming the organic way around the country.
Fresh and healthy, but beautiful too. We really like this farm!
/Jenny

#bokashimyanmar #urbanfarm #yangon

 

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Even trash has a value

Recycling, Myanmar style. This is over the river on the Dala side of Yangon. Hard to get a grip on it all, but many people are involved in collecting, sorting and reselling trash. Some things, like glass and PET bottles have a value of sorts. Heaps of other stuff doesn’t. Soft plastic especially.
Organic waste has no value whatsoever, but we plan to change that. Soon!
/Jenny

#bokashimyanmar #trashtocash #organicwasteisgold

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