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Small Gardens Lead to Big Changes in Ethiopia


As an avid gardener, Andrew Carlson, Ph.D., professor and chair of history, understands the importance of being able to grow your own healthy food, a privilege many in Northern Ethiopia were unable to attain just a few years ago.

“I grew up and have had essentially a lifelong experience in Ethiopia. My parents were medical missionaries and then my dad started to work for USAID. He’s a physician and a public health expert,” said Carlson. “My father would take students from the University of Gander to a village in Northern Ethiopia, Kossoye. They would provide medical services and basic development work. He’d often take me with them. It’s beautiful. At a 10,000-foot elevation, you can see 150 miles into the low end of Sudan. It’s really incredible.”

Carlson was not only enamored with the beauty of Kossoye, but also the people he met there. It was during one of his father’s health intervention campaigns that he saw the effects of malnutrition.

“One of the problems that came from our conversations with people was the increasing malnutrition. Especially women and children were shorter and lighter than they had been in the 1960s when similar surveys were done,” said Carlson. “Although it was mostly agricultural families, they didn’t have household gardens. It struck me as an opportunity, and I started investigating.”

As a historian, Carlson leaned on his knowledge of Victory Gardens in the United States during World War I and World War II. “During the wars from 1928 through 1948, the federal government actually promoted household gardens and American families grew half of what they ate,” said Carlson.

The Carlson family created The Kossoye Project, a 501c3 organization, to combat the growing malnutrition crisis by empowering the citizens of Northern Ethiopia, especially women and children, to feed themselves and their families by growing their own healthy food. Carlson also sought to influence the food culture by making it more diverse.

“The program operated from 2005 to 2019 and in that time, we raised about $1.5 million,” said Carlson. “The gardening initiative spread through villages. We were providing training for literally thousands of teachers and distributed seeds to 200 elementary schools around the University of Gander. Other regions started to ask for help and started similar programs. By 2015, we were operating around 10 public universities and even providing seeds to the Ministry of Agriculture.”

Before The Kossoye Project, vegetable seeds were difficult to find. It was an issue that Carlson felt deserved its own unique solution.

“We started seed production and packaging businesses,” said Carlson. “We experimented and tried to figure out what worked best. We supported research on tomato and pepper seeds, and we introduced 12 new concept potatoes.”

By partnering with elementary school teachers and other community leaders for distribution, The Kossoye Project was able to make a direct impact in the lives of countless people by giving them the tools to provide nutritious food for their families while still honoring the cultural cuisine.

“Our understanding of malnutrition improved over time. We learned we needed to focus on the Vitamin A deficiency crisis. There are Vitamin A rich vegetables, carrots being number one but also chard, beets, and kale. Kale is actually the only indigenous Ethiopian vegetable,” said Carlson. “We distributed kale seeds, because they were inexpensive, local, people would eat them, and they are really nutritious.”

Due to a multitude of reasons, including political unrest and the increasing threat of violence, The Kossoye Project ended in 2019. The remaining funds were gifted to Save the Children Ethiopia and Mercy Corps.

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