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

 

We’re on! Bokashi Myanmar is up and running

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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!

Flash flood and all the debris.

(ေအာက္မွာျမန္မာလိုပါေသးတယ္ေနာ္ )

We were caught in a flash flood one day and were surprised by all the palm leaves and other branches and leaves that suddenly filled the streets. The little orange waste container didn’t stand a chance!
Municipal workers were surprisingly quick on the scene and kept the traffic flowing.
But I’m assuming all that ”green waste” went to landfill not compost. Pity.
/Jenny

တရက္သား က်မတို႔အဖြဲ႔. မိုးရြာၿပီး လမ္းေတြ ႐ုတ္တရက္ ေရလွ်ံတာနဲ႔ ၾကံဳရတယ္။ ရန္ကုန္မွာေပါ့။ လမ္းမေပၚ ထန္းလက္ေျခာက္ေတြ၊ တျခားအကိုင္းအခပ္ အရြက္ေပါင္းစံုနဲ႔ ရႈပ္ပြသြားလို႔ အံ႔ဩမိရေသး။
လိေမၼာ္ေရာင္ အမိႈက္ပံုးေလးလဲ အခြင့္မသာလိုက္။ ျမဴနီစီပယ္ လုပ္သားေတြ အံ႔ဩစရာေကာင္းေလာက္ေအာင္ျမန္ျမတ္ေရာက္လာၿပီး လမ္း႐ွင္းေပးၾကတယ္။ ဒါေပမယ့္ အဲဒိ စိမ္းစိမ္းလန္းလန္းပစၥည္းေတြအကုန္ အမိႈက္ထဲပဲေရာက္ၾကမွာ။ ရြက္ေဆြးေျမဩဇာလုပ္ၾကမွာ မဟုတ္ေလာက္ဘူးလို႔ က်မေတာ့ထင္မိ။

#bokashimyanmar #landfill #yangon #compost

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Just the basics.

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Basic. Beautiful.
/Jenny

#someonecares #bokashimyanmar #yangonmarkets

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