Author Archive | Kristof

The Amazing Dioscorea Species!

Dioscorea is the name given to over 600 species of yams found throughout the globe.  In Malawi we have several of these species to choose from to help diversify agricultural systems.  Some of these species can yield tubers that are 20-50 kg in weight.  They can be peeled and cooked similar to any potato.  The yams make a wonderful addition to soups and stews, they can be boiled, fried, or baked, they can even be dried and ground into flour, and they are rich in nutrients and antioxidants.   They can be harvested throughout the year, and if they are left in the ground they will just continue to get larger in size.  (note: be careful where you plant them as we have seen them break water pipes and even crack the foundations of houses!)

Here are a series of pictures that we took from one of our yam harvests.  This one had been growing in our courtyard garden for 3-4 years.  When we dug it out, we found massive edible tubers which ended up weighing over 40 kgs.  My wife and I, as well as the Never Ending Food staff and interns, ate from this one yam for almost a month.

A hectare of land is 100 meters by 100 meters, or 10,000 square meters.  Imagine making a 2 meter by 2 meter (four square meter) square in your field.  This is plenty of space to plant a yam.  If this were to be done on a hectare of land, it means that 2,500 yams could be planted.  If each yam reached 20 kgs in weight, it would be equivalent to 50,000 kgs of food (or nearly 48,000 kgs greater than the current maize yield averages).

In 2005, the government of Malawi launched their ‘Farm Input Subsidy Programme’ (FISP).  This led to millions of US dollars being invested to subsidize the cost of synthetic fertilizers, primarily to boost the yields of maize in the country.  It worked.  On average, Malawi went from an average of 1,300 kg/hectare of maize to 2,100 kg/hectare.

In addition, yams like to climb.  There is even one variety (Dioscorea bulbifera or ‘Air Potato’) which produces its yams in the air right on its vine as it climbs vertically.  This means, that yams can also be intercropped with trees, to act like a climber/supporter combination.  This increases food production vertically, and many of these trees (e.g., mangoes, avocadoes, citrus, loquat, etc.) can also yield food.  Other trees can be used as agroforestry species (e.g. leguminous ‘nitrogen-fixing’ trees), or for fuel, oil, fibre, medicines, and more.

Unfortunately, many people are forgetting about these incredible natural resources.  For many of our visitors to Never Ending Food, it is their first time to see or even hear about such natural wonders.  This needs to change.  Nature offers us all the solutions we need to feeding the planet, diversifying diets, and ensuring that we have year-round food security…all we need to do is learn the lessons that nature is trying to teach us!

Environmental Interpretation Centre!

Kristof recently completed an Environmental Education consultancy with the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre (under the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT)) to assist with the development of a new Environmental Interpretation programme.  In 2020, the Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (LWT) began work on Project GreenHeart, an initiative designed to upgrade the Centre’s wildlife rehabilitation facilities, develop brand new visitor experiences, expand the capacity for environmental education, develop new training opportunities for students and professionals in conservation-related fields, create nature-based jobs for local communities and promote a ‘green recovery’ from the COVID-19 pandemic.  As part of this project, efforts are currently being undertaken to  develop a new Environmental Interpretation Centre on the north side of the Lingadzi River.  This area will contain roadside access, parking facilities, a reception area, a classroom, playground, amphitheater, a riverside boardwalk, a bird hide, educational nature trails, and a bridge which connects the north side to the existing facilities on the south side.

Kristof was asked to design an Interpretive Plan which focused on the following areas:

  • Develop a creative new programme of learning experiences at LWC, ensuring that the goals of the programme are aligned with LWT’s overarching mission to save wildlife, campaign for conservation justice and inspire people to value and protect nature.
  • Include a diverse range of content including activities as well as other fun and practical ways of engaging children with the site’s natural assets e.g. materials, experiences, exhibits, games, competitions, scavenger hunts etc.
  • Prioritise learning experiences that are based on exploration, discovery and sensory engagement.
  • Liaise closely with other LWT teams that are designing new interpretive signage across the whole LWC site, to ensure that messages and themes in the new educational programme are consistent.
  • Ensure that the programme includes new and innovative ways of reaching and inspiring audiences alongside ‘tried and tested’ methods; and ensure that, where possible, these methods are informed by audience insights and needs assessments.
  • Review content from other similar settings and programmes to assess replicability for LWT.
  • Explore partnerships with other organisations and individuals to leverage additional expertise and opportunities (e.g. partnering with local cultural and arts organisations to showcase some of their nature-based work, bringing in other local partners to run complimentary activities and events etc).
  • Work with LWT staff to develop M&E methods to measure the impact of the new programme.

As part of his work, Kristof worked closely with the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre’s Education Team to map out trails and identify unique ecological aspects for each area.  These were identified as ‘learning stops,’ which may then be used to create signage, interactive activities, educational opportunities, or scenic rest areas.  Comprehensive lists were also created for the majority of plants, trees, birds, mammals, and reptiles found within the site.


They also came up with many ideas for experiential on-site learning.  These included classroom displays, interactive experiments, arts & crafts ideas, orientation signage, kiosks, interpretive panels, species identification guides, environmental lesson plans, and resources for self-guided walks.

A large part of the Interpretive Plan was to help outline collaborative educational opportunities and activities that may be conducted in unison with other organizations, or used to help bring more visitors to the Centre.  One major collaboration is the LWT’s role in assisting with the Lilongwe/Lingadzi Ecological Corridor System.  This is a detailed plan developed for the city of Lilongwe to help protect, rehabilitate, and conserve the natural ecological systems along the Lilongwe and Lingadzi River systems which run through the heart of the capital.  According to this initiative: “The Lilongwe and Lingadzi river system continues to be the most important source of water for Lilongwe City communities. The rivers and their surrounding areas also offer significant potential benefits for the City of Lilongwe: ecological, recreational, cultural and economic. However, the river system currently faces significant threats such as sand mining, pollution, urban developments, urban agriculture and climate change, which hinder the city from reaping these potential benefits. Another concern is the fragmentation of urban natural assets and green areas in the city; reducing this fragmentation is critical for improved resilience of Lilongwe City. River corridors are ideal for connecting various parts of a city, as well as provide the opportunity to unlock the benefits mentioned above. As such, the establishment of an ecological corridor system in Lilongwe City has been proposed. The future of this ecological corridor as the “heart and soul” of Lilongwe City depends on the large-scale and collective effort of all key role players. This work will help conserve the great value of the city’s natural assets, and allow the people of Lilongwe to benefit from the array of ecosystem services this ecological corridor may provide.”

While the entire Environmental Interpretation Plan will be a work in progress for several years (in terms of resource development), many of the learning opportunities are already up and running.  School groups, churches, bird watchers, families and individuals are already welcomed to walk around this amazing area and explore some of nature’s wonders to be found in the heart of Malawi’s capital city!  For more information on tours, educational opportunities, directions, and more, please visit the Lilongwe Wildlife Centre website by clicking here.

Never Ending Food Case Study in FAO’s New Manual!

Never Ending Food was asked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to present a case study of their Permaculture practices in Malawi to be included in their newly released manual on ‘Recarbonizing Global Soils‘.

The entire case study may be downloaded for free by clicking here.  The following are a few excerpts from this chapter in the manual:

“Never Ending Food (NEF) is a community-based initiative in Malawi, Africa which uses Permaculture design to address developmental issues of food/nutrition security, poverty reduction, climate change, and sustainable agriculture. Permaculture is a term coined in Australia in the 1970s from the combination of the two words permanent and agriculture. It is an agroecological-based philosophy, which uses consciously designed
landscapes to mimic the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems 2021.  Through a sustainable integration between landscapes and people, Permacultureserves to fulfill human requirements for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs (Mollison, 1988).

NEF is 1.2 hectares in size, which is the average landholding size per family for smallholder farmers in Malawi (FAO, 2015). Despite the fact that Permaculture principles may be scaled up to design large-scale commercial farms or even urban cities (OSU and Millison, 2020), 1.2 hectares allows for the implementation of methods which are replicable in both size and scale for the majority of Malawians. In terms of soil management, NEF integrates a diverse range of methods, including: mulch, compost, green manure, liquid manure, agroecology, ecological succession, vermiculture, crop rotation, diversified polyculture, agroforestry, cover-crops, low-to-no till soil preparation, aquaculture, food forests, woodlot management, and intercropping. It has been estimated that in tropical climates it can take up to 200 years to form 1 cm of soil naturally (Osman, 2013). The methods employed by NEF, such as mulching with diversified organic matter up to 15-20 cm deep (often with multiple applications throughout the year in various areas), serves to promote the continual and regenerative return of organic matter, adding up to 2-4 cm of soil per year (the equivalent of 400-800 years of natural soil formation). NEF also places a significant emphasis on the designing of ecosystems which reflect the natural patterns and functionality of forest systems. Through the establishment of perennial tree crops, NEF is able to provide for year-round access to foods, medicines, fuel, building materials, fiber, shade, windbreaks, soil stabilization, and nutrient cycling.

NEF uses Permaculture principles to help Malawi meet the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, which are designed to help countries achieve social, economic, and environmental sustainability by 2030 (United Nations, 2018). The goals specific to NEF’s work include: climate action, sustainable cities & communities, good health & wellbeing, zero hunger, responsible consumption & production, life on land, clean water & sanitation, no poverty, and partnerships for the goals. In addition, NEF conducts community outreach, hosts weekly tours, and runs an internship program to help train and certify community members in Permaculture Design. NEF has been influential in introducing Permaculture into national level programs through various development partners, such as the Ministry of Education’s School Health and Nutrition Program, which piloted Permaculture implementation in eight districts in 40 primary schools, 10 teacher development centers, and one teacher training college. NEF has also been able to assist large-scale implementers, such as USAID, in helping to show how Permaculture can be used as a ‘best practice’ for development activities (Greenblottand Nordin, 2012).”

Permaculture in FAO’s New Soil Organic Carbon Manual!

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has just released their new manual on cost-effective nature-based solutions to mitigate the effects of climate through the management of soil organic carbon (SOC).  This manual was developed through the participatory work of more than 400 soil management experts from around the world.

Kristof Nordin, co-founder of Never Ending Food, was asked to write the practice paper on how Permaculture practices can be used to assist with the sustainable regeneration and conservation of SOC.   The full volume of practice papers may be downloaded for free by clicking here.  The following are a few excerpts from this chapter.

“1. Description of the practice
Permaculture is a term coined in Australia in the 1970s from the combination of the two words permanent and agriculture.  It is an agroecological-based philosophy (Holmgren, 2002), which uses consciously designed landscapes to mimic the diversity, stability, and resilience of natural ecosystems. Through a sustainable integration between landscapes and people, Permaculture serves to fulfill human requirements for food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs (Mollison, 1988). Unique to Permaculture is the fact that it is based upon three ethics: Earth Care (care of all the earth’s biodiversity); People Care (ranging from individual health to the designing of sustainable urban cities); and Fair Share (an ethical approach to economics, the return of surplus, and the equitable use of natural resources) (FoodTank, 2018).

Specific to soil management and carbon sequestration, Permaculture focuses on the four areas where soils are conserved or increased: forest systems; under the water of lakes and ponds; in permanent planting systems; and where agriculture occurs under mulched or non-tillage practices (Mollison, 1988). As a holistic design system, Permaculture borrows best-practices from a wide range of traditional and modern approaches, so it is common to see a combination of many beneficial technologies being employed on a single site. In terms of soil management, this includes concepts such as: mulch, compost, green manure, liquid manure, ecological succession, vermiculture (worm farming), crop rotation, diversified polyculture, agroforestry, biochar, cover-crops, low-to-no till soil preparation, aquaculture, food forests, woodlot management, and intercropping (especially with legumes) (Horvath, 2015).

Two of the main tools used by Permaculture practitioners are guilds and zones. Guilds are groupings of living and non-living elements which serve multiple functions (Guilds, 2020). In terms of soil management, a functioning guild requires the use of groundcovers and things which feed the soil. This may include a diverse range of mulching materials, cover crops, the intercropping of legumes, various composting technologies, fungi, vermiculture, ecological sanitation (composting toilets), etc. Along with food for the soil and groundcovers, guilds also include: attractors/protectors, climbers/supporters, and miners/diggers. The task of the Permaculture designer is to choose the most advantageous and multi-functional resources that are best-suited to the conditions of the site. This promotion of functions, rather than specific species, is one of the aspects of Permaculture that helps to make it highly adaptable to any situation, site, or region.

Zones are a tool that enables designers to consider factors such as soil, water, energy, patterns, ecological biodiversity, human needs, and external influences (e.g. climate, wind, sun/shade, noise, fire). Zone 0 is generally the starting point (a house, structure, water source, etc.) where there is an accumulation of energy and resources; Zone 1 is a horticulturally higher-maintenance area, often irrigated; Zone 2 generally contains orchard-type production and smaller animals; Zone 3 is often reserved for larger animals and rain-fed agricultural systems; Zone 4 tends to be manage woodlot systems; and Zone 5 is natural forest (OSU and Millison, 2020). Zones are determined by available energy and labor constrictions, plot size, and the needs being met by the design. Zones can be scaled up or down in size to accommodate small urban households or large commercial farms.

2. Range of applicability
Permaculture offers practitioners tools that may be universally adapted to any living situation, on any sized site, in any climate, and in any part of the world. Sites are laid out according to a 3-step process: observation (allows practitioners to identify a range of factors, such as soil type, water sources, existing and future structures, natural resources, and needs analysis); mapping (plots existing resources and helps to identify areas for improvement); and design (a well-thought-out plan for the future sustainability and productivity of each unique site). Once observation and mapping have been completed, guilds and zones are overlaid onto the design to help ensure the beneficial integration of resources and conservation of energy.

3. Impact on soil organic carbon stocks
As a design system, Permaculture is not limited to one specific technique, climate, or location, but rather promotes a compendium of tools for practitioners to assess and determine what is most suitable, beneficial, and productive for each unique situation. For instance, Permaculture encourages the emulation of natural forest patterns (food forests, multistrata forest systems, agroforestry, silvopasture, etc.) to reap the benefits of carbon sequestration, perennial stability, diversified natural resources, increased biodiversity, and more. Species selection will be dependent upon an analysis of the inputs required, the outputs yielded, and the characteristics for each element in relation to a needs assessment of the site. The patterning and placement of elements are determined by factors such as climate, soil type, growing conditions, energy/labor requirements, functionality within guilds, and relevance to zones. Project Drawdown has estimated that a single Permaculture tool—multistrata agroforestry—has the potential to sequester 4.5 tons of carbon per hectare per year. If this practice were to be scaled up from the currently existing 100 million hectares, to an additional 39-66 million hectares, 11.3-20.4 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be sequestered. Similar estimations are made for Permaculture tools such as abandoned farmland restoration, biochar production, coastal wetland restoration, composting, managed grazing, perennial biomass production, regenerative annual cropping, renewable energies, silvopasture, tropical forest restoration, and many others.”

Congratulations to Victoria Mwalubunju!

Victoria is a student at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) who is working on her Bachelor’s degree in Nutrition and Food Science.  She just completed a month-long internship with Never Ending Food.  During this time, she was able to complete the theory, practical, and course work necessary to receive a Certificate in Permaculture Design.
As part of her design process, Victoria learned about the basics of good soil and water management (including: composting, eco-san, vermiculture, mulching, water harvesting, building swales, etc.).  She also learned about assembling guilds (e.g. climbers/supporters, groundcovers, diggers/miners, nitrogen-fixers, protectors/attractors, etc.) and using these guild systems in zones to help conserve energy.  Victoria studied the concepts of animal management, patterns, urban Permaculture, health and nutrition, propagation, and integrated pest management.  She was also able to participate in a field visit to the Permaculture Paradise Institute, and to observe educational tours that Never Ending Food offers to visitors.  For her process of observation/mapping/design, Victoria chose to focus on an area of Never Ending Food which is a public space with a gazebo for meetings and gatherings.  Her design included live-fencing to protect the site, pathways, rammed-earth benches for relaxing, and additional food-forest guilds to improve the overall value of the land.  Her final map and design work was presented to the Never Ending Food team, and we will begin working to implement many of her ideas within the next few months.
Victoria has now returned to school to finish working on her nutrition degree.  We are sad to see her leaving Never Ending Food, but wish her all the best in the future integrating her new Permaculture knowledge and skills into the field of nutrition!