The Ladies Who Tame the Snakes

Great yields and the use of earthworms impress man’s world

The earthworms or red wrigglers convert organic matter to fertile compost
Photo: © GIZ/Abinet Shiferaw (Hammer branding)

Vermicomposting is a technology that utilizes red earthworms, Eisenia fetida, to break down organic residues producing nutrient-rich compost and worms that can be sold or used as poultry feed.

It is especially popular with women since the recycling of nutrients decreases their dependency on external inputs. Women are often resource-limited and typically refrain from purchasing inputs adversely affecting their agricultural productivity. Vermicompost empowers them economically and can lead to increased influence on decision-making processes on-farm and at the community level.

Here is the story of Birke who fought against all odds to use this technology for her business ventures.

Initially the use of the vermicompost technology caused only grieve
@GIZ/Belvida Assankpon 

Birke Torba lives in the lush green hills of Bursa woreda in Southern Ethiopia. She’s a mother of three and has always been working hard to ensure her children can attend university. She and her husband grow barley, faba beans, false banana, potatoes, apples and different vegetables to support their children.

Everything was well until Birke decided to become a pioneer of integrated soil fertility management. Suddenly her children refused to stay in the house and eat the delicious food she made. They even refused to touch her, telling her she was tainted. She was heartbroken and close to abandoning a very promising technology: vermicompost.

The compost produced by the earthworms provides essential plant nutrients and increased soil organic matter leading to higher yields. The worms are fed on organic waste like grass and leaves all of which are easily available. Local customs forbid the interaction with serpents though, as they are the devil’s advocate and worms are not too far off. Hence, worms are not just dirty and disgusting but must be evil. Who would touch such tainted hands or eat food they prepared?

The children and the community were adamant that she stop vermicomposting and shunned her until they saw the incredible results: The green vegetable grew as thick as a man’s arm, the garlic flourished, potatoes and faba beans were double the size and the onions and leek were thriving. Slowly they all started to realize that the worms didn’t carry a curse but were instead a blessing.

Nowadays the children eat at home and the food is richer and more diverse. She’s a leading member of a farmer research and extension group now. Community members often come to visit to hear her story and learn from her success. Local politicians stop by to see her fields and marvel at her kale. She also started a successful seedling business, selling them to surrounding farmers. Her garlic sells all the way to Addis Ababa now and she can support her children without worrying about saving for mineral fertilizer. She rarely uses it anyway these days.

Vermicompost can be dried and stored or sold
@GIZ/Belvida Assankpon 

About the project

The country package Ethiopia/ISFM+ of the Global Programme Soil Protection and Soil Rehabilitation for Food Security supports capacity development and the distribution or sale of worms (about 36t in 2020) to farmers, especially women.

Vermicomposting is scaling rapidly and, aside from raising yields, can generate income by itself. One bag of vermicompost can be sold for USD 7-10 and the sale of surplus worms to peers or institutions leads to mean annual incomes of USD 100 per farmer.

Some crop yields doubled and even faba bean (top left), a legume, profits from vermicompost.
Top right: potatoes, bottom left: cabbage, centre: Abysinnian cabbage (kale), bottom right: leek
© GIZ/Abinet Shiferaw (Hammer branding)

Additional information

Global Programme Soil Protection and Rehabilitation for Food Security (ProSoil) (GIZ-internal access only)
Factsheet ProSoil Ethiopia (ISFM+) (GIZ-internal access only)


Julia Doldt, Project Advisor / Conseillère de Projet,

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