Permaculture training brings diversity to Eswatini’s smallholder food systems

Bonelike Nkumane started her permaculture garden in 2018 after being selected as one of the 400 smallholder farmers to receive training from the RFS Eswatini project in permaculture and conservation agriculture. Two years later, Bonelike’s garden is a continual source of nutrient-rich, diverse foods for her family and other community members.

Standing in her garden, Bonelike Nkumane beams with pride. By adopting permaculture principles, she has successfully transformed her land into a self-reliant, eco-friendly, food-producing oasis.

“Permaculture is all about controlling and managing the biodiversity of the natural ecosystem. What’s good about [permaculture] is that it can be done anywhere in the country, both in drought-prone and wet areas,” Bonelike explains to the RFS project team.

Permaculture is a regenerative farming practice that creates food-producing gardens that are also self-maintained habitats. By modelling agricultural plots after natural ecosystems, it is possible to get more out of the land with less inputs. Permaculture is a process that works with, rather than against, nature.

The RFS eSwatini project, Climate-Smart Agriculture for Climate-Resilient Livelihoods (CSARL), targets 200 hectares of farmland throughout the country and serves over 15,000 beneficiary households. The objective of the project is to better equip small-scale farmers, like Bonelike, with the agricultural skills to improve their own food and nutrition security. This is done by focusing heavily on climate-resilient agricultural practices and permaculture techniques.

Bonelike Nkumane’s permaculture garden is full of organic cabbages, chillies, peppers, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs.
Bonelike Nkumane’s permaculture garden is full of organic cabbages, chillies, peppers, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries and herbs.

Bonelike comes from Magele in the outskirts of Hlathikhulu in the Shiselweni region of the country and started permaculture farming in 2018. She is one of many small-scale farmers who was taught permaculture techniques and educated in conservation agriculture through the RFS eSwatini project. The training was offered mainly to women farmers who showed a substantial interest in vegetable production. The primary goal was to provide these women with the education and tools necessary to become self-reliant by producing enough food to eat and to sell to fellow neighbours for a profit. 

Women like Bonelike are a primarily focus of the project. Empowering women through agricultural education not only opens doors to new sources of income, but also benefits household nutrition. With an improved understanding of innovative farming techniques and a productive garden in their own backyard, families have greater access to healthy, nutrient-rich foods.

“We first train them on the theory of permaculture, which is an innovation technology of conservation farming,” explains Sithembile Mtsetfwa, a project officer for the RFS eSwatini project. “They complete practicals, focusing on the specifics of permaculture innovation. At the end of training, we provide the start-up support in the form of seedlings for small-scale farming on their own 10 square metre plots.”

Unlike most gardens that are separated by crop in a neat and orderly way, Bonelike’s permaculture garden looks a bit wild. The plants and animals work together as a unit, rather than as separate production systems – just like they do in natural habitats.

In Bonelike’s permaculture garden, you can find red and white cabbages, chillies, cayenne pepper, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes and strawberries, alongside herbs like mint and coriander, parsley, basil and lemongrass. She uses the manure from her cattle, goats and chickens, along with compost from any food waste, as fertiliser for the soil, improving its quality. This eliminates the need for chemical fertilisers, reducing the cost for Bonelike.

In order to maintain soil temperature, prevent erosion, reduce evaporation and enrich fertility further, Bonelike uses a practice called mulching, which involves spreading biodegradable newspapers and grass straw atop the soil. Importantly, mulching also helps with weed control and water conservation.

She does not use any pesticides on her crops. Using a system called intercropping, she grows smelly herbs like parsley, coriander and mint as a first line of defence against harmful pests. Instead of pesticides, she uses plant-based sprays made from aloe, garlic, chillies and lemongrass, repelling the pests away rather than killing them. She also uses ash to prevent other persistent pests like ants and cutworms from eating her plants.

In collaboration with the Home Economics Department of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Food and Nutrition Council of the Ministry of Health, the RFS project is also building the capacity of small-scale farmers in food preparation and preservation. Through the project, Bonelike learned how to turn the cayenne pepper she grows in her garden into hot sauce and the cabbages into an achar that she sells to other families in her community.

After just a few years, Bonelike has become a permaculture pro. Her success has not gone unnoticed – Bonelike was recently selected as a lead farmer by the RFS project and is now responsible for recruiting and training five other women in permaculture techniques. Empowering and educating local leaders establishes lines of communication within the community that extend far beyond the sharing of permaculture knowledge. The women within these networks are able to share information and experiences related to other issues affecting the community, such as gender-based violence and alcoholism.  By creating space for more social cohesion amongst community members, women, like Bonelike, are able to forge strong relationships with each other that enable innovative thinking to collectively address these problems. 

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