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Written by: Lerato Thakholi, co-founder of GROW

Sometimes grand opportunities present themselves when we least expect them, the idea is to embrace and make the most of them. In September 2012 an informal conversation between my friend, Paula Washington, and I led to the conception of the GROW project. The timing couldn’t have been worse as my University of Cape Town exams were coming up. But having just received funding to create a project that would bring people closer to food security, I saw no alternative but to work hard in school and to dedicate time to formulate the project.

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

The aim of GROW was to work in collaboration with the Marakabei community (a village 107km south east of Maseru, Lesotho) to build 29 keyhole gardens for the most vulnerable households in the community. The project was funded by A Good Foundation.

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

While making enquiries about suitable farming methods at the National University of Lesotho’s Faculty of Agriculture, we were introduced to a local innovation that would change the face of the project from a community garden to a keyhole garden at every household.

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

After a week of meetings and shopping in Maseru off we went; a weeks’ worth of supplies in tow, 10 spades, beetroot seedlings, rape, carrots, spinach and cabbage seeds packed to the roof in what is probably the smallest car to have traipsed the Lesotho highlands, our trustee Chevy Spark Lite a.k.a ‘Tick’ (as one local fondly named it). We tried to stay clear of hybrid seeds and seedlings so that people could collect seeds during the harvest and use them for the next planting season. But hybrids… you just can’t escape them.

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

For a period of five weeks the community built on average three keyhole gardens a day, bracing bee stings, a few thunderstorms, not to mention the summer heat. A visit back a few months later revealed that while all the keyhole structures were still standing, there was a problem of overcrowding of seedlings, it also became apparent that some sustainable farming methods were still poorly understood. Also, apart from the hail storms that damaged some crops, most of the crops were still flourishing.

The shear hospitality of the ma apara kobo (blanket wearers) still reverberates in my heart. Thank you to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security, the National University of Lesotho, our dear hosts Ausi Nthabiseng and Mme Mpolokeng and not to mention the friends that came through to help and last but certainly not least the community of Marakabei without whom GROW would still be just an idea.

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

A keyhole garden: 

Keyholes were designed by the National University of Lesotho to be the most water and energy efficient way to grow vegetables in the highlands.

They are incredibly effective because:

1. They filter grey (used) water

2. They resist frost

3. They hinder animal attacks

4. They can be made using completely locally available and free materials

5. The locals already understand how to build stone structures since their houses are built in this way

6. The shape and height make the garden stand out from the landscape, adding an air of importance to them

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington

The materials needed: 

1. STONES: Apart from holding the soil up, stones absorb heat from the sun and keep the soil insulated from the harsh winter cold.

2. CARDBOARD: Placed as the first layer, it acts as a boundary to stop unwanted roots from accessing the keyhole’s nutrients.

3. ALOE: Adds selenium to the soil.

4. ASH: Adds phosphorus, potassium.

5. TIN CANS: Adds aluminium to the soil.

6. BONES: Adds calcium.

7. STRAW: Reduces compaction by keeping the soil aerated.

8. MANURE: Fertilises the soil.

9. WOVEN BAG: Used to make up the centre of the keyhole (often a 50kg mealie-meal bag).

10. 4 STICKS: Used to hold the bag vertically (usually a foot longer than the bag).

© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
© Paula Washington
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