Agnes is a mother who lives in Karamoja in the Napak District of northeastern Uganda, a region facing high rates of malnutrition due to ongoing poverty and poor access to food. Agnes often had to travel far to try to find work, and each time she did, she worried that her children left at home would not have enough food to eat.

In 2015, Concern Worldwide’s Uganda team piloted an initiative to help families like Agnes’s construct “keyhole” gardens. A keyhole garden, named for its shape, is round, raised, and supported with stones and/or bricks. A section is cut out in the middle to enable access to a composting basket. This simple garden fertilized by kitchen waste and designed to withstand the most difficult of weather conditions has changed Agnes’s life. Her garden has thrived and so have those of her neighbors – 10,000 gardens have already sprouted up across the landscape.

“My children are able to harvest (cow-peas), onions, and (local greens) directly from the keyhole garden and cook them,” Agnes says. The food her garden provides for her children gives her peace of mind when she must leave home to travel some 50 miles south to Nabilatuk to look for work.

Children proudly display the keyhole garden they constructed to help a mother who had just delivered twins. Napak District, Uganda. Photo by Concern Worldwide

Most families in Agnes’s district spend more than 65 percent of their money on food and many report borrowing money to feed their households. In Napak, 46 percent of the people are stunted (having low height for their age) and 39 percent are underweight. Concern hopes that keyhole gardens will help combat these daunting statistics by increasing the Karamoja people’s access to nutritious foods.

What’s So Special about a Keyhole?

Keyhole gardens can be made exclusively from low-cost, locally available materials and they require less labor and water than regular vegetable gardens. Unlike normal gardens, they can be built in rocky areas or on shallow, arid land. Their structure ensures soil fertility for five to seven years and they can support the production of at least five varieties of vegetables at a time, providing dietary diversity at a lower cost.

Illustration by Concern Worldwide

Families can use everyday kitchen and garden waste to nourish their keyhole gardens, eliminating the need for costly fertilizers and pesticides. The nutrients and water in the compost increases the gardens’ resistance to drought, enabling them to produce food year-round.

[Women] share tips for care and maintenance throughout their communities, such as planting onions around the outside of the gardens to deter pests.

In the Iriiri sub-county of Napak, more and more keyhole gardens are appearing within , or enclosures where several families live. In addition to the staples of cow-peas and local greens, some keyhole gardens feature tomatoes, onions, carrots, and eggplants. The district is a testament to how popular and integral the gardens have quickly become to daily life.

Illustration by Concern Worldwide

“In Napak district, approximately 600 households have established kitchen gardens. Some households have established two keyhole gardens,” says Charles Anyakun, a local health promoter.

More than 10,000 keyhole gardens have been constructed since the keyhole garden lesson was rolled out in May 2015.

Women participating in mother care groups learn about the importance of keyhole gardens for household nutrition and how to construct them. Then they share tips for care and maintenance throughout their communities, such as planting onions around the outside of the gardens to deter pests.

Entire Families Take Part

When first introduced, keyhole gardens were considered women’s work. Now young adults are following in their mothers’ footsteps and creating their own gardens, helping to ensure that the practice will be sustained by the next generation.

Men also soon realized the potential for added dietary diversity and began taking an active role in assisting their wives. Now, men are involved in digging soil, cutting sticks, collecting stones, fetching water, and buying seeds. More than 10,000 keyhole gardens have been created since the keyhole garden lesson was rolled out in May 2015.

For the first time, families are experiencing the benefits of having fast-yielding vegetables available for their children and households during both the wet and dry seasons.

The seeds used to plant the gardens were distributed by Concern and its partner or bought from a nearby market. Many families have harvested vegetables from the keyhole gardens at least three times over a three-month period.

This garden in Napak District shows the large number of different vegetables that can be grown in a single plot. Photo by Concern Worldwide

Profits Turn Cow-Peas into Cooking Oil

The harvested vegetables are mainly used for household consumption, while the surplus is either dried and stored for future consumption or sold in the nearby market. For the first time, families are experiencing the benefits of having fast-yielding vegetables available for their children and households during both the wet and dry seasons.

Beredetta is proud to have harvested six rotations of vegetables, earning herself [enough] to buy books for her children as well as seeds, salt, soap, and cooking oil.

The people of Karamoja take pride in the diverse crops they grow and the enhanced nourishment and diet they are able to provide their children. One mother from the region, Beredetta, is proud to have harvested six rotations of vegetables, earning herself 30,000 Ugandan shillings (approximately $10) from sales. The money has enabled her to buy books for her children as well as seeds, salt, soap, and cooking oil.

Keyhole gardens are changing the landscape and offering an escape from malnutrition for the rural poor. This innovative practice is a testament to the strong determination of the vulnerable people in Uganda to fight against malnutrition and stunting.

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Working with the world’s poorest people to transform their lives. And we tweet.

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