High up in the Koudeberg (aptly translated to Cold Mountain) amidst fynbos as far as the eye can see, permaculture aficionado’s Luke Boshier and Dianne van der Walt have founded the Koudeberg Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology (CART) to raise awareness, educate others and implement sustainable farming methodologies.
Rural it certainly is - little more than a ungraded gravel road leads up to CART, running behind their partner Farm 215 (a sustainable, fair trade certified retreat that promotes responsible tourism) well off the beaten track in the Overberg Region.
In fact, that’s largely part of its charm. CART visitors are students or like-minded souls wanting to learn, not the usual run-of-the-mill tourist. And there’s no shortage of information.
Koudeberg CART: Integrated systems
Using just four out of the 400 hectares available, Luke and Diane are building an integrated rice/fish/veg system based on Bali’s terraced rice paddies (check out a video), a soil-based aquaponics system, a biodigester, reed bed and water filtration system, while a thriving permaculture garden using circular Mandala beds supplies their kitchen with fresh vegetables.
Koudeberg CART: Meet Luke Boshier and Diane van der Walt
Taking into account the couple’s formidable achievements of the past, it should be no surprise that Koudeberg is testament to their determination to succeed. Once the owner of restaurant chain, Luke lived in the Karoo for many years, learned how to build and eventually ended up in MacGregor doing alternative building, working with alcoholics and criminals to reconnect them with the earth.
Apart from helping build the Sustainability Institute in Stellenbsoch, he’s also run several clinics, where his work with cancer patients was based on the understanding that a lot of cancers are caused in early development and manifest through crisis (which means you can heal yourself through regressing and reparenting yourself).
Similarly, Dianne is a force to be reckoned with. A horticulture graduate, Diane bought a hectare of land on a mango farm, slept under a tree until the house was built out of “mud, clay and cow manure”, before teaming up with Luke.
Obsessed with soil ecology, Dianne is also a teacher at Grootbos’ Growing the Future’s Programme, where she teaches eight unemployed local women how to grow their own food using permaculture methods. As an integral part of the running of Koudeberg, Dianne tells me that she hopes to create a space for people to come and learn, and for her to learn too.
After spending eight years in the Transkei, Luke and Dianne were offered the opportunity to start CART in the Koudeberg. As Luke shows us around the centre, telling us about his vision, his eyes light up and he becomes increasingly enthusiastic. “It can be challenging”, he confesses, “I want to show so many different systems that my brain is all over the place!”
Koudeberg CART: A vision brought to life
We start off at the site of the integrated rice/fish/veg terraces, where, using just 1000sqm they hope to produce 100 kg rice, 300 kg tilapia fish and tonnes of fruit, vegetables, nuts and grains per year.
Luke explains that there will be five terraces going down, with each horizontal alternative garden a vegetable garden.
“The ammonia from the fish in the rice paddies will move horizontally through copper pipes under the soil (creating nitrate), then fall through a vortex to the level below, moving nutrient and recharging it biodynamically as it falls through the system”, Luke continued.
Koudeberg CART: A homemade Aquaphonics system
Next up is the aquaphonics system. Using whatever materials they could find, including old geyser drip trays as the panels on which the food is grown, and old piping, Luke has set up an aquaponics system where about a dozen tilapia fish create ammonia, which is then siphoned into a small pump tank with a wormery above it.
The wormery slowly drips leachate (the undigested liquid at the bottom of the worm bin) into the water, which is then pumped under the grow beds where bacteria forms.
This then turns the ammonia into nutrient to be absorbed by the veggies (grown in soil, unlike traditional systems).
This nutrient falls into a duckweed pond which in turn feeds the fish and then returns above the pond, runs along some barley growers, and falls back into the pond, aerating the now-healthy water so that the whole process can begin again.
What’s really astonishing is that the entire system was set up in just one day. “Once you understand the cycle, it’s really simple”, says Luke.
Koudeberg CART: Treating waste and generating power
Luke points out where he’s busy finishing off a reed bed and settling pond, where the waste from the guest toilets can be filtered.
At the house he has a biodigester - which literally digests organic material biologically - in the process eliminating pathogens and many bacteria.
This treated waste is then filtered up through the reed bed, further sucking up pathogens, and is then diverted back to the duckweed plantation and all the fruit trees - ultimately enriching a small food forest. “Roots love water and the nutrient of water, but they don’t want to sit in it”, Luke says. “So we’re planning to dig a swale and fill it with stones, allowing the seepage to go off”.
Luke also plans to put in a Pelton wheel, which will generate two kilowatts of power from the water overflow (there’s no shortage of water on the farm) - enough to run the entire area.
He’s also working on a compost cooler “as a bit of fun” - the heat generated from the compost will rise, sucking in the kitchen waste water, which goes around the gutter at the bottom where there’ll be hessian sacks that will stay wet, and holes which suck cold air from the bottom. “As it warms, the whole process will be exaggerated”, Luke explains.
Koudeberg CART: Too much of a good thing?
Probably one of the biggest issues they’ve faced has been excess underground water - so much of the work has been diverting the water flow before they can even start.
We squelched along some newly-dug trenches, Luke gesturing at the source of all the water - the eye, which pumps up water from about 60 metres down, creating algae as it hits the atmosphere, a fantastic source of food for the fish.
Luke realised that this water has no dissolved oxygen in it, so he created a ripple bed so that the water can meander and become oxygenated. “There’s about 30 000 litres of water coming through here a day”, Luke exclaims, putting the sheer quantity into perspective.
Koudeberg CART: Creating an automated food island
He points out the dam, where he’s created a food island- an automated system which hosts the roots of lettuce, broccoli and spring onion in a soil and coconut husk medium.
In turn, this medium houses microbes that turn the ammonia released from the fish into nutrient, while the roots provide a source of food for the fish. “It doesn’t even have to be watered”, Luke points out.
Koudeberg CART: Demonstrating what can be done with minimal cash
What’s even more incredible is that most of the work done has been by hand - it’s difficult and expensive to get machinery to Koudeberg, and ultimately CART’s aim is to showcase simple and inexpensive techniques that can be used by the world’s poorest.
Koudeberg CART: Keeping food production constant
Luke gestures to phase two - the rabbit run, chicken runs and earthship, where he also plans to create a duck pond which will add even more nutrient to their irrigation water. The rabbit waste will help feed the worm farm below it, helping create some really good vermicompost.
A deep litter system (where carbon materials such as straw or pine shavings are added to the chicken manure on the floor and broken down into compost as the chickens scratch) is placed below a crop of barley (which feeds the chickens), while below it a big compost heap will generate heat of up to 70 degrees centigrade.
This will heat water, channelled to create a subtropical climate where they can grow coffee bushes. A huge hothouse will also be built out of clay and sealed with grass and can be used to work in during the icy-cold winters. “We want to keep the food production going at all times - even to grow things you don’t normally have in this area”, he tells me.
A brief history of CART in South Africa
Of course, Koudeberg is just one of CART’s projects. The very first Centre for Appropriate Rural Technology began in the heart of Sicambeni, a rural village near Port St John’s in the Transkei.
Aiming to experiment with and implement technologies that can be used sustainably in a rural environment, including effective water, waste, energy and building systems, Luke handed over the project to the community and now supports the project in an advisory capacity. “It pretty much runs on remote control now”, he says.
Koudeberg CART: Addressing migration to urban areas
Both Luke and Diane still retain strong ties to the Transkei. “If I had a wish or a message to get out, it’s that we have a problem with food - we need to start producing healthy, balanced food in the Transkei. We need infrastructure in there; we need to stop the movement of people away from their only chance of survival into unsustainable areas that are overpopulated and are environmental and social disaster zones.
Ultimately, we need to establish projects where it matters. We can’t keep pumping all this money into ridiculous areas where we’re just nurturing poverty. We need to start with a bottom-down approach, to take a step backwards and evaluate why people are moving out of the Transkei and what we can do to stop it”, Luke says.
As such, Luke and Diane now also teach permaculture, water conservation and natural building in Mgwenyana in the Transkei, after being approached by Contralesa (Congress of Traditional Leaders in South Africa).
“The school had electrical machinery for woodwork, computers, sewing machines - everything taught about how you can get to the city, but nothing about how you can uplift your own community”, Dianne tells me. “The coursework is divided into 20% theory and 80% practical, which included building toilets for the community. It’s incredible what we were able to do when given the space”.
Luke continues emphatically: “The Eastern Cape should be the wealthiest province in the country - it’s the home of the ANC, the grassroots. We have lots of people looking for jobs and farming is in their blood. We need to reignite this passion, to start educating people again and re-stimulate it from the bottom up. With responsible farming we can produce incredible amounts of food.
Unfortunately, the concept of empowering people in this country is just political rhetoric. Empowered people don’t need to vote - they don’t need to be governed. A guy sitting in Transkei with his own water, his own food and his own energy is the freest guy in the world. And the wealthiest - proud to be African”.
Koudeberg CART: Keeping the faith
Luke’s cynicism is hard-won. He has not only established projects in the Transkei, working with resistant tribal chiefs to create self-sustainable systems, but has also worked with the Ugandan government in their Peace Development and Recovery Plan (PDRP) to ensure sustainable home building and food production.
“I was in Gulu, where the movie 'War Child' was shot, and ethnic cleansing was the reality. I saw people whose spirit was completely broken. They’d tell harrowing stories of being forced to choose which member of their family would get killed and when they did eventually choose, the soldiers would rape and kill everyone anyway, and force them to watch.
There was just no way, even in my arrogance, that I could do anything for these people. All I could do was come up with a system to build shelter, to secure water and get food. That person has to go through their own process of rehabilitation”. Unfortunately, widespread corruption and self-aggrandisement left him disillusioned, but fortunately, not immobile.
The indefatigable permaculturist has also worked in Malawi, where he helped build a communal, self-sustainable village together with an organisation called the Malawi Homeless Federation - a group of women who pooled their limited resources together to develop a plot of land. The numbers speak for themselves - a total of 220 fifty square metre houses were established for under half a million rand.
Luke believes that the only way to move forward is to fundamentally acknowledge that our system has failed. “When we realise that, when get really serious about it, then maybe something can start happening”, he says.
Ultimately, by setting up their systems and infrastructure, Luke and Dianne hope that by creating an example of sustainable living and tackling the root causes of global poverty from a holistic perspective, they will help reduce the dependence of rural communities on factors beyond their control - thereby creating dependence on the self.
In future, they plan to build five two-bedroom cottages, the sale of which will help them buy their four hectares of land, and thus become fully independent.
Koudeberg CART: An invitation
“We needto bring in people who believe in what we’re doing. We don’t have to be custodians forever, we’re not here to hold onto some little kingdom, but to explore how far we can take sustainability in today’s prison of social and economic mutilation.
It’s an enormous vision, it’s very exciting. If we could find five likeminded couples or individuals, they could be part of what we’re doing. They could get a legal letter or ownership, could rent out the cottage when they’re not here, and have full use of the place, of all the food, the water and the energy and the potential income from renting it out. We’re looking at universities - they could have a cottage here and send students here when they need to do practical work.
We’re also always encouraging people to come help us out, whether you’re a rock worker or a website designer, or even an artist who can help us draw out the plans of what Koudeberg is going to look like in future - we’ll feed you and house you in exchange for your skills”.
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