In the far reaches of western Ethiopia, right at the South Sudanese border, is the region of Gambella. Here, about 18km from Gambella town, a project is underway which has the potential to completely transform rural Africa. With Africa’s rural population of about 700 million increasingly affected by resource constraints and climate change, it not have come at a better time.

The Gambella Eco Hub is the brain child of Sanne Van Aarst, the Programme Coordinator of the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre and Network (HOAREC&N), who wanted to build a demonstration site for the Horn of Africa region. It is one of the first projects under the HoA-REC Horn of Africa Climate Change Programme (HoA-CCP) in which land use management, conservation, community participation, eco-tourism and regenerative farming would come under one umbrella.

This programme is focused on promoting this model in five selected landscapes throughout the Horn of Africa: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan.

In order to do this, contact with a local community that would be involved and benefit from the project was made – and were then granted by the government and community some 450 hectares in support.

The project then brought in Kenyan couple, Jess de Boer and Sven Verwiel, who launched an incredibly ambitious permaculture set-up – essentially a form of climate smart agriculture. It meant that the entire site would be modelled from the natural ecosystem; a regenerative and self-maintained habitat which is created through ecological design, construction and integrated water resources management.

They constructed roads, dams and buildings using materials found in the area.

The building structures take a leaf out of the local community’s book, combining traditional systems and modern technology. Bricks for example (as seen above) were made using earth from the area which was combined with straw and pressed into a mould. This type of “adobe” building is extremely durable in dry climates and accounts for some of the oldest existing buildings in the world.

The project will also eventually phase in the use of solar pumps and small windmills for power.

Another key aspect of the project was to ensure that the community was self-sufficient, making sure there would have enough to eat. To do this, it started off by digging terraces and swales – a large trench that follows a contour – allowing rainwater to soak more effectively into the ground, preventing surface run-off and erosion. The impact is evident as can be seen in this ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot:

In an area with high rainfall and a very dry hot season the swales keep water in and allow vegetation and agriculture to flourish. This helped to create conditions that would not only help food grow for the community but also enable them to take the project onto a commercial scale.

In an interview with Sven Verwiel, he explained that an ultimate goal was to ensure a model of real community engagement, where they could eventually leave the community knowing it is financially sustainable.

This would be through permaculture, under the guidance of renowned Zimbabwean permaculture expert Tichafa Makovere, where the community is taught about organic methods to improve soil conditions, yields and combat pests, and also through the creation of different value chains. One value chain focused on honey and bee-keeping products – the results of a beekeeping programme in which 25 hives have already been set up:

Other value chains will eventually look to develop business models from fisheries products (the camp runs alongside a river and the project is also looking into fish farming as well as bringing catch-and-release fishing with tourists), shea butter and non-timber products such as moringa, neem, citronella, fruit trees, organic vegetables and fruits.

It is barely a year old yet the hub, under the managerial watch of Jess de Boer, is already showing how sustainable human settlements can be created. This was put to the test when South Sudanese refugees started pouring into the area – 40,000 are expected to settle – literally across the road from the hub, which used to be very much on its own.

The hub however is undeterred and has reached out to help the camp become more sustainable, including through trainings with some of the refugees on permaculture as well as planning gardens and waste systems.

This alternative way of living gives hope to the daunting figures of Africa’s population boom, the continent’s ability to feed itself, the stress on habitat and high unemployment rates. At present this type of permaculture set-up has received wides endorsement by experts in agroecology, but is yet still widely unknown and unconsidered for funding and policy support.

Once the hub is complete it won’t be long before governments in the region take notice of this “triple-win solution” which can help them improve their targets for agriculture, environmental sustainability and food security.

This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Samantha Spooner writes for Mail & Guardian Africa.

Image: An eco hub in Ethiopia.  (Photo/Gambella Eco Hub)