An African gardening exchange

Ed Cumming reports on the charity Send a Cow, which helps African farmers get the most out of their land.


The famine in the Horn of Africa is a terrible reminder that in some parts of the world the weather and its effect on crops is a matter of life or death.

The charity Send a Cow provides animals, plants and expertise to help African farmers get the most out of their land. In addition, it has acquired a great deal of insight into growing in dry, arid countries and can show British gardeners how to save money and resources too.

Founded in 1988, the charity was started by a group of dairy farmers who were angry that European regulations meant that they were slaughtering healthy dairy cows. Realising how big a difference even a single animal could make to a poor village, they began sending cows from their own herds to Uganda. The charity has gradually expanded and now works in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Lesotho, Rwanda, Zambia and Kenya too.

Cows are important because, as well as providing nutrients and fats in their milk, their manure is a core component of compost. The benefits of compost are at the heart of what the charity teaches, particularly where farmers find commercial fertilisers too expensive. Where there isn’t room for cows, donkeys, goats and even rabbits can help, too.

Many parts of Africa rely heavily on a diet of a single starchy product, such as cassava or maize, so certain vitamins and minerals can be hard to come by. A small kitchen garden can help with this, letting owners grow vegetables, herbs and fruit in a small space, with limited amounts of water.

A popular technique is the “keyhole” garden. This design features a basket in the centre of the “keyhole” where compost is stored and water poured, making it easy to water the whole garden at once, with little waste.

Another scheme is the “bag garden”, in which fruit and vegetables are grown in sacks. In addition to the garden kits Send a Cow provides fruit saplings, seeds and even beehives. High-profile supporters of the charity include Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Carol Klein.

From years working in the world’s driest places, Send a Cow has also picked up tips for British gardeners, such as putting plastic bottles over plants to create a simple drip irrigation system, and digging trenches around thirsty perennials to trap rainwater. A recipe for natural pesticide, key ingredients baking powder and chilli, can be found on the website. You can also buy a keyhole or bag garden kit to try at home, with all profits going to the charity, or make a conventional donation.

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