Ever since I arrived in Togo I have taken a serious interest in farming and gardening. This might not sound so strange to some of you, but anyone who knew me growing up would be quite surprised to hear that. Sports, technology, photography, and theology were more my things. But farming? No way! Why farm when you can just buy food at a grocery store?
But then we moved to a place where there are no grocery stores. A place where our neighbors, friends, and ministry partners have to grow whatever they need to eat. It was easy for me to ignore this for a while, thinking, “Well, they obviously aren’t starving to death, so they must be doing okay.” But when I began to learn about the immensely heavy physical and financial burdens that farming puts on families here, I realized that I needed to figure out a way to help. As usual, throwing money at a problem almost never solves long-term problems, so I began looking for solutions that were simple enough for village farmers to implement on their own.
Even as our ministry grew and we became very busy with making disciples and training church planters, I continued to see the needs of the farmers we worked with and hoped to find something that could complement our disciple-making work and bring practical help to local families.
In 2013, a former missionary in Togo named Dave Reeves came for a visit and told me about a farming technique (Foundations for Farming) he had been using and sharing in Rwanda with some pretty incredible results. What interested me most about it was the biblical foundation of the teaching and the fact that it uses all locally available, low-cost resources which any villager can find. One of the primary goals of Foundations is to restore the quality of the soil, which in most of Africa and especially here in Togo has been destroyed by generations of farmers using too many chemical fertilizers, neglecting proper care of the soil, and allowing the soil to be exposed to heavy rains and the blazing sun.
From 2013 until now I have been wanting to teach this method to the people we work with, but it wasn’t until recently that the Lord brought everything together by connecting me with an organization called Just Hope International. (You can read about that story here.)
So about ten days ago I welcomed three guys from Just Hope—Dave, Peter, and Bob—to Togo so we could begin to implement and train people in this method of conservation agriculture. We began in my backyard so I could see the whole process myself and gain some needed experience before teaching it in the village. We invited a local farmer named Frederic and a lady David had worked with in the past named Essowé. This training went great and provided a perfect environment for me to sharpen my understanding of the method.
Then on Wednesday of this week we gathered a group of 11 farmers, gardeners, and ministry partners from all over the Lamba region to meet at Komlah’s house in the village of Caouno. He had picked out a spot that he had gardened in the past, and he and other local gardeners built a fence around it to protect the crops from cows and goats. Because we are simply wanting to demonstrate the technique, we are starting with a very small plot of land that is six meters squared.
We started out the first day by discussing some of the common problems that local farmers have, which include inconsistent rains, poor soil quality, and the price of fertilizers. These three problems alone lead to crop failure, indebtedness, and even suicide by some every year. Throughout the training the guys were able to see how doing simple things like mulching and applying organic inputs like manure can help to conserve rain water, renew soil quality, and render chemical fertilizers unnecessary.
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Following this initial discussion we showed them how to measure out portions of rope and sticks which are used to ensure proper spacing between plants and rows. We then went down to the field and set up the plots, putting marker pegs down along both sides of the plot. This was probably the most difficult part for them because they simply are not accustomed to measuring or being exact with spacing, angles, or distances. In the end, though, they did a great job by working together.
Once we had that done, we dug out holes by following the markers we had put onto our rope, then added cow manure to the bottom of each hole, covering it with a bit of dirt. Since it’s the dry season right now, we had to simulate the first rain of the year by hauling watering cans from a little spring nearby. After it “rained,” we planted the seeds, covered the holes, then added a 15-20cm thick layer of mulch in order to protect the field from heat and erosion and to preserve moisture.
In between all of this hands-on training we had plenty of time to discuss things like proper weeding, mulching, watering, crop thinning, and lots of questions that the guys had. During this time we did some simple but effective demonstrations showing the positive effects of mulch and showing the difference between healthy and poor soil when saturated in water. (See the video below.) We also went over the four principles of Foundations for Farming, that we do all of our work: 1. on time, 2. to a high standard, 3. without waste, 4. and with joy. Each one of these principles speaks directly to areas of deficiency within the Togolese farming culture, and by the end of the training I think they really understood that this method of farming is not simply a physical endevor, but something that can change their mentality and outlook on life.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a group of Togolese men who were so excited to learn something new. This was a huge answer to prayer because farmers here can be pretty resistant to changing the way they do things; however, every one of the guys expressed that they were going to start a small plot on their land at home in order to try it out.
We see a lot of potential in this training and future ones we may do. If all goes well, we would love to see this farming method incorporated into our ministry as a tool that church planters can use to provide for their families, earn extra income to support themselves, and teach others as a way to build friendships which may lead to discipling relationships.
We appreciate your ongoing prayers for this farming project and for all those who were involved. This really is just the very first small step towards a great opportunity to bless and equip Togolese farmers with the tools they need to help themselves get out of a cycle of poor harvests, debt, and poverty. So please pray that these two demonstration fields grow well, produce a good harvest, and that the Lord uses them to show others that there is hope in Christ and in what he has provided through nature itself to sustain us.
Here’s a little video of some clips we shot during the training: