Please, give me broken flowers

Dutch flower farmers in Ethiopia work with local miners to re-mineralize exhausted soils and use farm waste to make organic fertilizers.

Rocking Soils works in Dutch-Ethiopian flower farms.  These farms operate often in erosive soils with low fertility levels. Fertilizer is their largest production cost. At the same time they face problems to process their organic waste. The quality standards of the flower export market are high. More than 30% of the produced flowers are broken or damaged in some way and are rejected at the farm. More flowers break on their way to the airport and will not reach Europe.


Finding good cheap resources to feed soil’s system is a profitable venture. Composting broken flowers is a new trend. Compost enriched with rock dust improves the soil quality of these farms and minimize the need for other inputs to correct nutrient deficiencies and combat pests.

In Holleta, we work at a 25 ha farm employing 550 Ethiopian workers. The farm produces Hypericum, Eryngium and Hydrangea and is implementing a program to produce most of their inputs by composting and fermenting waste and prepare mineral solutions.  This program will improve soil fertility, reduce costs and create a toxic-free working environment. More and more Dutch and Ethiopian farmers see the returns of this system.

The impact of this project goes beyond the borders of the farm. Each of the 550 workers have small family farms back home. Family farms are the backbone of the local food supply chain. These farmers are learning to use local resources to grow their food and feed their families with healthy and affordable food.

After the dust comes the mud

The burn-and-plow strategy has severe negative impacts for the African farms. Eroded soils can barely retain rain water and crops suffer stress. Regenerative farming combines organic amendments with soil improvement measures increase the retention of water and nutrient in the productive soils and regenerate them each season. 

Just before the rain season, the activity in he Ethiopian countryside is frenetic. Farmers must get the land ready for the rains. Heavy clay soils need to be plowed between 3 and 4 times to receive the rains.  Plow, sow, add fertilizer when they can afford it, and clean the fields. Normally by cleaning they mean burning the vegetable rests from the previous crop.

My good friend Atle, a farm manager in the area of Rema, told me that farmers have their reasons to burn the crop rests just before the rain is coming. They might have it though they cannot tell me why they do it. They cannot tell me also why they plow so much. The motto seem to be to keep the land clean and rationally ordered, to make it look similar to the land of the photos in the folders of the products they can barely afford.

The combination of plowing again and again and burning all crop rests before the rains ends up with millions of tons of fertile soil in the rivers. More over, by adopting this strategy, farmers work many times more:

  1. first to break the compacted lifeless soil and
  2. second to gather all rests and burn them
  3. third to build all there anti-erosion structures to divert the water, infiltration ponds.

In the end, farmers work hard trapped in a -rat race- management system that only makes it poor. So if there is a reason for the plowing and burning system, it must be very powerful because the price farmers pay is very high probably too high. I ask my self: How about land management to improve soil fertility? How about mulching+ green manuring + use of microorganisms+ rock dust minerals system?

These are the simple technologies that can make the farmer work less and regenerate his/her natural capital -that is soil-


Water harvesting and the time machine


getting water from the first rains in Tigray, EthiopiaImage

Women know all about fermentation. They make beer and bread for generations. They have the skills to brew fertilizers. But women spend up to 6 hours a day on the average collecting water. Collecting rainwater task giving time to start a business, for example to brew organic fertilizers.

There is no African landscape without women carrying heavy loads of water.The lack of infrastructure for water supply in rural areas, forces women walk to fill their Jerry-cans and carry them for kilometers. A 20l Jerry-can is not enough for the household thus often the trip to the water source has to be done two or three times a day leaving no time for other things.

It is a fact. Soil fertility projects as well as many other development projects need to deal with the burden of lack of labor. Contrary to what it is normally reported the biggest burden is time, not skill. Women master the art of making honey wine, beer or cheese. During the workshops we find that women are much more aware of the process than men.  They can make compost and brew bio/fertilizers easily. They have the skill they just need to adapt it to soil.

Actually, on the average, a women spends 4,5 hours/day to carry water.water housekeeping and children. This leaves no time for something else. Saving some time to eliminate the burden of the time could allow women to make fertilizers, for themselves and even for their communities. But how to save  time?

We can make time in two ways: First, by using composting techniques that require less labor to compost (heap system) and the second is to less time in transporting water by harvesting rainwater.

A simple rain water harvesting water system of 1.000l. could save at least 550 wo-men hours. If only the half of this time would be used to produce and apply organic fertilizers at house hold (or community level) every single household could produce more and better food.

Moreover the quality of rainwater in rural areas is much better than any surface water source and many ground water sources.  Rainwater is a resource underused. A 1000 water tank, some pipes and a water-filter means an investment of 200 euro, per household (one year salary of a farmer). Where credit is not an option, the quest for cheaper designs reusing local materials, seem to offer the most promising alternative.