Newlands Mashu Permaculture Learning Centre (NMPLC) was established as an NGO to provide training courses in sustainable agriculture, extension support, and, agricultural development planning. The 2 ha site at NMPLC comprises a training facility, ablution facilities, seedling tunnel and a Permaculture landscape that shows examples such as, rainwater harvesting, plant guilds, windbreaks, food forest, composting and vermiculture.
This was my first Permaculture project upon completing the Permaculture Design Course (PDC) at Findhorn in Scotland in September 2000. Upon returning to South Africa, I consulted two colleagues (Simon Bundy and Andre Duvenage) about the possibility of a Permaculture Learning Centre for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Newlands in Durban, who at the time was very keen to establish a “skills learning centre”. We then presented the Diocese with the idea of a Permaculture Learning Centre to train vulnerable members of the Newlands and surrounding communities in food security and to establish sustainable agricultural development projects. Upon acceptance of this proposal, I then assembled a project team and managed the planning, design and implementation process. Thereafter, I provided project management support for the operation of this Centre and for some of its outreach projects.
This design process has primarily followed a planning, design, implementation and operational process, with an overriding institutional support process, as shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Design Process
The NGO for this project includes a board of directors led by Father Wigbert Lange, and comprises 2 representatives from the Newlands Roman Catholic Diocese, 2 local councillors from eThekwini Municipality, and, 4 local community leaders. The patron for the Centre is Cardinal Wilfred Napier. A very capable manager, Walter Coughlan, with a keen interest in Permaculture and community development was recruited to manage the Centre, whilst I remained as an advisor to and promoter for the Centre. An experienced Permaculturist, Chatelaine Taylor, was also recruited and led the on-site establishment process for the Permaculture garden and the initial training courses.
The planning entailed the preparation of a base map with one metre surveyed contour intervals that was used to plan and design the Permaculture landscape using sector and slope analysis for the rainwater harvesting system, micro-climates, project phasing and overall land use. The planning also included the institutional structure for the NGO and an operational plan for how the Centre was going to market and support itself. The design included the building plans for the training centre and ablution block within the overall land use plan, which was submitted to eThekwini Municipality for formal approval.
The implementation of the Permaculture garden was critical and commenced whilst the planning approval process was underway. The site was first cleared and then mostly planted with sun hemp as a soil conditioner, and was later cut down and “ploughed” into the soil as green mulch. Four used containers were purchased and used as a site office and storerooms for the initial establishment of the Permaculture garden. The four containers were an integral part of the building design which continued to be used as the building process continued around them. The implementation of the buildings was undertaken by local contractors, whilst the establishment of the Permaculture garden recruited some community members that were recommended by the institutional structure for the project. The early establishment of the Permaculture garden also used the “free labour” provided by trainees who attended Permaculture courses at the Centre and then used their new found skills to “practice” in the garden in accordance with the Permaculture layout plan. A key aspect of the Permaculture garden is the rainwater harvesting system comprising swales, berms, detention ponds and a small dam (now wetland), as well as, the extensive use of vetiver grass, which has all contributed to the creation of many micro-climate zones for the cultivation of many fruits and vegetables.
NMPLC opened its doors in May 2002 with its first Permaculture training course and associated outreach project for beneficiaries from the Cato Manor Development Project (www.cmda.org.za), which at the time was the largest multi-dimensional inner-city urban development project in post-apartheid South Africa. As word spread about the Centre, many other development agencies began to fund Permaculture training courses for urban agricultural components within housing projects and other community development projects. The Centre has relied substantially on sponsored training courses and project outreach work for its primary income. The Permaculture gardens have also managed to earn some money for staff members who sell fresh vegetables to the church market and elsewhere.
Over the years, the funding for training has been substantially curtailed by various government entities and the limited funding resulted in a change of tactics by NMPLC wherein on-site training has become the norm as the initial task for the establishment of Permaculture gardens by trainees, with agricultural inputs, such as, tools, organic seeds, trees, fencing, mentorship being provided by NMPLC. As a result of the funding cutbacks, the Permaculture gardens at NMPLC have not been extended and given the attention they need. Nonetheless, the Permaculture garden design is sufficiently robust wherein the vetiver grass rainwater harvesting system has preserved many micro-climate zones, which can be easily replanted with vegetables.
NMPLC has been at the forefront of creating awareness about Permaculture, organic farming and sustainable agriculture within eThekwini Municipality and beyond. Over the years, NMPLC has created much goodwill and established good relationships with many development agencies, corporates and government entities. In its early years, NMPLC contributed significantly to the eThekwini Urban Agriculture Forum which was trying to co-ordinate and initiate urban agricultural development projects, and out of which eventually emerged a dedicated eThekwini Agricultural Management Unit (AMU). The contribution by NMPLC and its network has also been instrumental to influence the newly established AMU to fully embrace Permaculture / organic farming as its key guiding principles for sustainable agricultural development projects.
A recent “investor” in NMPLC is BORDA (www.borda-net.org), who in partnership with eThekwini Municipality and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, are constructing a biodigestor at the NMPLC site wherein the sewage from a nearby trunk sewer line will be diverted into the biodigestor which will result in a substantial amount of water being available for irrigation as well as organic fertilizer.
The latest news is that as a result of the continuing cutbacks in government funding for agricultural development projects, NMPLC has “reinvented” itself by being “returned” to eThekwini Municipality as one of its flagship training centres and agri-hubs for the AMU. It is anticipated that eThekwini Municipality will be able to provide dedicated funding to maintain and operate NMPLC. Whilst this ownership move to eThekwini Municipality may lose the autonomy that NMPLC has enjoyed and the critical balance that an NGO can provide in the community development arena, the move is anticipated to bring much needed funding stability.
The 2 ha site has only been 50% developed with a Permaculture landscape, and much more can be done by realising the full potential of this project once the Centre is complete.
NMPLC has provided a fertile Permaculture learning experience for many. It has sensitized government entities, corporates and communities towards sustainable agriculture. It has trained a significant number of government officials, extension officers and community members in Permaculture. It has contributed significantly to various agricultural development planning initiatives within eThekwini Municipality and beyond.
Personally, NMPLC has provided me with an incredible opportunity to work with creative like minded colleagues to establish Permaculture within eThekwini Municipality and beyond. NMPLC has been a memorable growing experience for me in that I had to learn how to let go of a project after having conceived it and let it grow and mature on its own momentum, albeit, with some advice from time to time. The resources and expertise of NMPLC has also given me the confidence to undertake many agricultural development projects.