Lessons for permaculture programs

I developed six primary lessons for permaculture programs in Malawi and similar contexts based on research with two permaculture organizations, 16 smallholder households who practice permaculture, and 24 smallholder households who practice conventional agriculture in Malawi.

1. Permaculture implementation is a multi-year process. Non-governmental organizations (NGO) can teach permaculture implementation as a multi-year process to manage farmers’ expectations and support implementation throughout with staggered training and outreach.

2. Demonstrations of different permaculture applications at NGOs, permaculture examples in villages, and one-on-one informal teaching can be effective education and motivation tools.

3. To lessen social stigma associated with using permaculture, NGOs can conduct outreach with whole communities and not only program participants to explain permaculture and its goals.

4. NGOs can work through existing social networks to disseminate permaculture and encourage adoption, because, in addition to NGO activities, farmers learned about permaculture from relatives, friends, and neighbors who were using it, were motivated by the benefits they saw, replicated the practices others used, and supported each other.

5. Formal permaculture classes and access to different permaculture education sources was more important for farmers to intensify permaculture implementation and use of the design system rather than for initial adoption.

6. Permaculture education and programs should prioritize building on and reinforcing local knowledge, crops, and practices to help make permaculture education and programs relevant, respectful, and equitable.

Permaculture has applicability as a skills-based farming approach. However, the particular benefits that farmers may experience from practicing permaculture depend on farmers’ particular needs, problems, permaculture application, and the local context.

The farmers I worked with in Malawi experienced improved food access because permaculture addressed a key problem of consistent access to fresh fruits and vegetables all year. The expense of inputs is also a serious problem, so farmers benefited from permaculture practices that addressed their material constraints to agricultural production.

Therefore, farmers should apply permaculture in a way that specifically addresses their problems and that is suitable to and relevant within the local context.