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2 Million Trained African Permaculturists

An hour long conversation with permaculture practitioner Michael Nickels about training 2 million African men, women and children in permaculture.

Outdoor ‘green board’ learning where the classroom is imbedded within natural design.

Outdoor ‘green board’ learning where the classroom is imbedded within natural design.

From picking asparagus in the Australian countryside to improving the livelihood of thousands of Africans, Michael Nickels’ personal drive and insatiable devotion to our planet have propelled him to the forefront of teaching and implementing permaculture globally. Join me on a walk through the decades and motivations of a humble man striving to spread the power of permaculture across the world.

Michael is a man whose deeds merit an introduction: his permaculture academy in Canada is established as one of the foremost permaculture learning experiences in the world today; his personal efforts have measurably bettered the lives of young children and teachers across several African countries and his Seven Ravens Farm on Salt Spring is a stunning example of eco-forestry done right.

Michael’s story began in Ontario where, as a high school graduate, the wanderlust experienced by so many of us swept him abroad to the Australian countryside where he spent his time “on the farm, shearing sheep and picking asparagus, apples and grapes.” For Michael, this first, honest brush with nature woke something deep within him. A stint in agricultural academia swiftly followed before earning enough money through his reforestation company and tree planting to purchase his own farm. From there, a casual word from a friend and a used book called Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison gave him a realization: he was already working within a permaculture framework. This set Michael off on a journey which would not only define the rest of his own life, but also positively affect many others.

Left to Right - Franko Green (operations manager of PPIZ), Michael Nickels (Seven Ravens) and Josephat Barasa (Practical Permaculture Institute of Kenya)

Left to Right - Franko Green (operations manager of PPIZ), Michael Nickels (Seven Ravens) and Josephat Barasa (Practical Permaculture Institute of Kenya)

Having spent several years planting tree nurseries in Kenya with local farmers and friends, Michael took his first steps toward permaculture education by going to schools and teaching about tree planting, something he considers to be “probably the single most important thing that we as humans can do at this point in time.” There, in those schools, he was struck with a motivation to do more, to provide more for these children.

That meant permaculture.

Michael travelled to over 50 such operations across Australia to garner as much practical knowledge as he could assimilate before hosting a teaching course on his very own farm back at Salt Spring with Jeff Nugent, a pioneer of permaculture implementation from Western Australia.

Fully equipped with knowledge, practical experience and a relentless work ethic, Michael journeyed back to Kenya. Within two months at his first school, the neglected land surrounding the school became a fertile, vibrant farmland from which the entire school could eat. With full stomachs came a leap in motivation and alertness: academic success skyrocketed, enrolment numbers doubled in two years and the children began to engage in organised athletics for the first time in their lives.

Students from Canada and Kenya working on the PPIZ working final plan.

Students from Canada and Kenya working on the PPIZ working final plan.

This first project in Kenya was a marked success and before long, Michael had completed work in seven different African schools. In each school he, along with a team of students, interns, volunteers, local teachers, children and parents, cultivated and revived the land. They created healthy ponds and trees, grew fruit and vegetables and wove surroundings as beautiful as they were functional. Never confined to the school grounds, Michael always implored the pupils to take their learnings back to their own farms and families.

Two years had passed since his first project when Michael followed up with a few of the local students with whom he had worked; what he witnessed at their farms reduced him to tears. Rags had become clothes, scraps had grown to full and wholesome meals and smiles abounded like so many fresh crops. They were rearing 20,000 fish a year and had increased the profitable output of the farm by a hundred times. They flourished, and Michael knew a profound joy.

“This is my life’s work; this is what I need to continue doing.”

With an enhanced sense of purpose, Michael painted a stunning image of his plans: establish five teacher training centres in East Africa which together can train 3,000 teachers and thus educate over two million children in only five years. He recently completed his third training centre and rather than bulldozing ahead, he has focused his efforts on examining the three existing centres and learning from them. These teaching centres offer two-week, practical Permaculture Design Courses (PDCs) with a strong emphasis on hands-on learning which can’t be achieved with chalk and slate.

Inner courtyard of the Practical Permaculture Institute of Zanzibar after Michael, his students and locals complete the dormitories.

Inner courtyard of the Practical Permaculture Institute of Zanzibar after Michael, his students and locals complete the dormitories.

Offering a little advice to those with a longing both to travel and to help local communities provide for themselves, he stressed the importance of “not trying only to achieve your own goals, but to really ask the question, ‘What is it that local communities really need and want?’” For me, this personifies Michael’s entire attitude: it’s not about building a platform for your own successes, but rather about doing whatever it takes to give the community the opportunities that they deserve.

Michael has positively influenced the lives of thousands of Africans and built a platform for teachers – both in Africa and Canada – to expand this influence across the world. Many students of Michael’s 6-8 week immersive hands on permaculture design courses had already undertaken PDCs at other institutions: it’s the practical experience and hands-on approach that make his courses unique.

Students at the Practical Permaculture Institute of Zanzibar showcase their design projects.

Students at the Practical Permaculture Institute of Zanzibar showcase their design projects.

When asked if he could mount a billboard anywhere in the world, what it would say, he replied simply “if you want to save this planet, plant trees.” It’s a simple message from an impassioned forester who really does want to change the world. I admit to being biased to Michael’s approach: I helped to create the first African training centre and experienced first-hand the result of his work for local individuals.

Michael’s courses take those with an instinct to improve the world, help shape and mould their skillset through practical permaculture and provide the tools to make it possible. If you’re interested in Michael’s courses check out www.seven-ravens.com. A special offering to Permaculture Magazine readers who see his courses as essential to their permaculture education, use discount code ALLPOINTS2016 to take $150 off the total price.

 

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