Eden Foundation

Eden Foundation: the key to prosperity for the poor lies in underexploited, edible trees and bushes.
Eden Foundation: the key to prosperity for the poor lies in underexploited, edible trees and bushes.

Eden’s philosophy: There are 250,000 known plant species in the world, but only 20 of them provide 90% of our food. We believe that the key to prosperity for the poor lie in underexploited, edible trees and bushes – the lost treasures of Eden. Our mission is to find those treasures and bring them to people who really need them.

In 1983, Arne and Bettan Garvi came across an article written by Dr. Norman Myers. It brought attention to the existence of 78,000 edible plants in the world, of which 75,000 had probably never been used for human food before. Triggered by the enormity of this untapped potential, merged with a strong desire to help the poor, Eden Foundation was founded in 1985. “Plants that thrive in the desert will conquer the desert” was the motto.

Since 1987, Eden has been running a project just south of the Sahara desert, helping the farmers and their families achieve a sustainable life with the means available to them. Their main problem is lack of food.

Our solution is to bring them trees and bushes that can grow naturally in this dry area and give food (without fertilizer and extra water), even in times of need. Since our arrival, Eden has served more than 2500 households in the region.

Their solution? They are continuously researching the natural already climate adapted trees and shrubs that provide human food for the area. They only choose plants that require ZERO irrigation and no special greenhouses. Just plant the seeds properly, and they will grow in the desert. They are teaching farmers on the edge of the Sahara to plant edible trees and bushes that they can use for food allowing the local population to adapt their natural resources into their local culture.

Eden Foundation

Esther Garvi’s incredibly inspirational personal blog

Related: Greening the Desert
Turning Sand to Stone
Using Nature’s Genius in Architecture

9 thoughts on “Eden Foundation”

  1. Based upon what is written on the Eden websites, I don’t think they have attempted using fertilizers.

    However, others that came before them have attempted using fertilizers and failed. Catastrophically. That probably has a lot to do with why Eden is avoiding fertilization.

    I’m certainly not an expert like the Eden Researchers, but I suspect that most fertilizers will tend to create fast growth, especially top leafy growth in young plants. This is most likely not a good thing in the Sahel. Those trees must develop deep penetrating roots in order to reach as much moisture as possible. If the plant gets a boost of topgrowth too early in its growth cycle, it may not get the chance to develop the roots needed to support the topgrowth when the dry season comes, and the plants may die off much easier. If the roots find too much plant nutrition too close to the surface, the plant may not bother sinking it’s roots as deep as is needed to survive over the long term.

    Minimal fertilizer may be exactly what long lasting trees require in the desert. It forces those plants to focus on very deep root development instead of early topgrowth.

    Again, I’m no expert, but that explanation seems the most logical to me.

    It’s all about finding the right plants that are already adapted to the harsh conditions so that they can survive and thrive with what Mother Nature is already providing.

    I have read somewhere on an Eden website that they do have a desire to expand their efforts to other regions and open up new fieldstations in an effort to reach more people. The funding for that would best be supplied by private sources.

    That’s where getting the word out is so important. Hopefully your blog post will help make more people aware of Eden’s work and encourage more individuals to become a “Friend of Eden”.

    On this note, I’m going to stop commenting. I’ve enjoyed this discussion greatly, Owen, but I don’t think it is fair to others for me to dominate the conversation like this. Others deserve the opportunity to get a word in. I hope they will.

    Thanks again for posting about Eden. Feel free to revisit their organization from time to time in future blog posts as you deem appropriate.

  2. There are 78,000 edible plants in the world. 20 plants provide most of the food. So there’s a vast, untapped food reserve that most don’t know about. That’s good to know because soon most commercially available food will be GMO.

  3. Projects like this seem to offer the most realistic, most practical solutions to alleviating hunger and stopping the expansion of deserts. It’s another example of low tech trumping high tech.

    To yesterday’s commenter: Thanks again for the heads up on the Eden project. We welcome good suggestions. It would be great to get more details. Have they discovered successful wild plant guilds? Have they created multi-story food forests? Is mulch helpful? What about adding some natural fertilizer to speed growth? Would it help to create low cost barriers (adobe, sand bags, etc.) to block the wind? Have they tried plant in swales? Are there similar projects springing up throughout the region? What’s been the government response? With the desert spreading 5 km/year you’d think they’d be throwing money at this.

    • Thanks for posting about the Eden Foundation.

      I have read their entire website, and have read Esther Garvi’s entire personal blog. It is one of the most inspiring efforts I have ever encountered.

      Owen, the questions you ask are addressed on their websites far better than I could ever hope to answer in my own humble words, however I will do my best, albeit less than perfectly.

      The key to understanding their efforts is to understand the extreme poverty of the nation of Niger. Keep in mind that the Garvi’s intentionally chose the most extreme least developed area of Niger in which to base their activities.

      If they can succeed in the worst possible situation, their PHILOSOPHY can work anywhere.

      The Eden Foundation does not attempt to tell farmers what to plant, where to plant, or how to incorporate the the plants or the food into their lives or into their culture. It is a critical cornerstone to interfere as little as possible in the lives and decisions of the people they are attempting to help. This is NOT a quick easy answer. This is a very long term project looking generations ahead. Eden provides seeds (free of charge) and information about what each plant needs and how to cultivate it. Farmers must make their own choices and control their own lives and their own culture.

      The Eden Foundation researches the local plants and learns what is required for them to grow. They do NOT go out attempting to manipulate anyone into changing their practices and their culture. It is up to the local farmers and villagers to decide for themselves what they want to do and how they want to implement it.

      Your statement that this is “low tech trumping high tech” isn’t seeing the full panorama of what Eden is doing. Such a black and white statement isn’t fair to the high tech science being performed by Eden. It is extremely detailed scientific research. Many of the plants they research do not measure up to their exhaustive testing. It must grow without irrigation or fertilizer, but that’s just the beginning. They must research what parts of each plant are edible and what parts might be toxic. Some plants are toxic if eaten raw, but extremely nutritious if cooked properly. Some plants have edible leaves, but toxic fruits. Other plants have edible roots and toxic foliage.

      Many plants they are researching have never been used for human food in recorded history. They must proceed carefully. If they were to promote farmers cultivating even one plant that turns out to be toxic, it could be catastrophic, not only to the farmers and their culture, but to their entire project. These issues are not ones to be taken lightly.

      Yes, the natural plants themselves are low tech, but high tech science has been critical in discovering the possibilities that each plant possesses.

      It’s both low and high tech. Each tech working together to create a greater whole than either could accomplish individually. Neither trumps the other exactly.


      Eden endeavors to educate the Farmers about the most promising plants, how to grow them, how to harvest nutrition from them, and how to prepare the harvest for consumption or sale in the local market.

      You asked about local guilds. I’m unaware that any such formal arrangement exists in the Niger culture. However, reading the Eden websites, I have learned that they take very seriously the knowledge of the local population, the stories told by elders who tell of the Sahel being a savanna before Europeans came to “teach” them to cut down the trees and plant annual commercial crops. Eden treasures whatever local knowledge they can gather from those elders and anyone else familiar with the local plants.

      In response to your questions about multi story food forests, yes and no. Their research is designed to learn which plants thrive in what conditions. Some plants thrive in shade. Other desert plants may need full sun. They endeavor to educate the farmers about each plant and what it requires.

      You ask about fertilizers. Most farmers in Niger do not have fertilizer. It’s beyond their means. Natural fertilizers, such as manure, tend to be utilized closer to villages in small gardens that rely on irrigation. While those nutritional sources are important, they are not the mission of the Eden Foundation. Farmers need plants that will grow out in their fields. We are talking about extreme conditions just off the Sahara Desert. Fertilizing large tracts of barren sand is completely beyond the means of poor farmers.

      You ask about barriers. Building earthen or earthbag walls across miles and miles of denuded desert is hardly a practical alternative. It is far better to discover the plants that can survive and thrive in the existing environment. While walls and barriers may be used effectively for small gardens, that is not the mission for the Eden Foundation.

      In fact, if you read about the beginnings of the Eden Foundation fieldstation, neighbor farmers discovered that the Eden trees being tested provided substantial windbreaks to their millet fields next door. Yields from those annual crops for farmers that were sheltered by the field station were bountiful while those neighboring farmers that were not sheltered were minimal.

      After seeing those obvious benefits. The neighboring farmers quickly started asking questions about the trees and if they could have seed to plant more to create larger areas sheltered from the wind.


      Standard practice before the Eden Foundation arrived was for farmers to cut down all the trees in their fields because they thought that trees attracted birds who would eat the millet in their fields.

      Eden has not only educated farmers, but ALLOWED THEM TO SEE WITH THEIR OWN EYES how trees can create windbreaks.

      Don’t get me wrong. Earthen walls and earthbags are amazing technology that I wholeheartedly endorse, but they may not be the best solution to every problem in every situation.

      I hope I have answered your questions, but I’m certain that my answers are inadequate. The best source of information about what Eden is doing come from their own websites.

      • Jay, thanks for trying to answer my questions. I did read much of their websites, but couldn’t find the answers I was looking for. What I’m describing is standard permaculture practice. Here’s a link to Bill Mollison’s design manual if you haven’t seen it: http://www.amazon.com/Permaculture-Designers-Manual-Bill-Mollison/dp/0908228015

        For instance, I’m not suggesting long earthbag walls, just tiny barriers to give young plants a small advantage. These could be built in just minutes and would probably greatly increase the success rate. Sure, it’s great if plants can survive 100% on their own, but if a small step can significantly increase the success rate then it’s worth considering. Ex: set a rock or two (or an adobe block, etc.) next to the plant to create a more favorable microclimate.

        Fertilizer: Right, I read much of their websites. I was wondering if they had experimented on the effects of adding just a small amount. A little bit of fertilizer might go a long way in plant health and growth rate.

        Low tech vs. high tech: I was trying to compliment them on their approach. Propagating wild plants certainly uses far less energy and materials than vast stretches of steel and glass greenhouses. Now, I’m not against greenhouses! I’m just pointing out the advantages of simple solutions since the problem is so vast. It would take many billions of dollars to build greenhouses across the Sahara.

        So any word about the government helping out? You’d think they’d be working hard on solutions like this. What am I missing? If some of the simple steps I’ve suggested are beyond the scope of individual farmers then maybe the government could provide some extra assistance.

        • I’m familiar with the principles of permaculture.
          My understanding is that teaching the specifics of permaculture is beyond the scope of the Eden Mission, however I could be mistaken on that. Eden is mostly an arid edible plant research operation. Most of what Eden is doing will naturally tend to move the farmers toward a Permaculture-style cultivation practice. However, it is pointless to attempt to teach permaculture to the local farmers before they are aware of any native trees and perennial plants that can survive and thrive in their extreme climate. However, based upon some photos I have seen, it appears that some farmers are utilizing at least a few permaculture principles already, but not every farmer.

          Eden seems mostly focused on discovering food sources that require the absolute minimum of special treatment. Instead of taking steps attempting to alter the climate to create microclimates, Eden seeks to find plants that will survive and thrive in the existing climate, EVEN DURING DROUGHT YEARS.

          If a plant is so fragile that it requires a farmer to create microclimates, logic dictates that such a plant is going to be in extreme peril during a drought cycle.

          Remember, Eden is not focused on annuals. They have targeted their mission to focus on Trees and Perennial Shrubs. The type of plants that need to be the anchors that once matured could create microclimates for other more tender plants.

          The beauty of the Eden mission is that these sturdy plant supply food year round with different species being ready for harvest at different times during the year. These plants supply food during rainy years and drought years. They are dependable. They are the foundation. Farmers will be able to feed their families from these plants even when droughts destroy their annual crops.

          These types of plants are famine preventers. A bad year of rain may impact a farmer’s finances, but he will still be able to feed his family well. That is a MASSIVE improvement in their lives.

          I’m sure that if a poor farmer has extra fertilizer he uses it on his crops, however, these farmers a so poor that it is extremely doubtful that they have any extra to use. Working with what Mother Nature already has to offer in their fields is the only logical course of action for the vast majority of these poor farmers. The fertilizer that they do have, probably produces maximum benefit in the family garden, not out in the fields where Eden’s mission is focused.

          Government assistance:
          I’m not certain, but I think the Government of Niger approved their research and possibly even donated the land their fieldstation is on.

          Beyond that, be careful who you ask for help. There are certain universal laws of human nature. Those who beg for government money, usually end up having to alter their practices and their mission to benefit those that control the government. That is almost never the poor. To my knowledge, Eden is a completely privately funded operation, and wants to stay that way. For good reason.

          Niger has had multiple governments and military coups during the first generation of Eden research. If Eden was funded by government money, it’s nearly certain that one government or another would have killed the program. Also, the people that were receiving money from one government are often targets of threats, abuse, expulsion from the country, or worse from the next government.

          I think it is wise for Eden to avoid strong ties with any particular government, while at the same time respecting the authorities who are allowing them to conduct their research.

          Eden’s non interference philosophy in the local culture, in my opinion, is absolutely crucial to their success. Farmers must decide for themselves what they wish to do. The beauty of the Eden philosophy is that they have created an environment where farmers are coming to Eden on their own volition. They are WANTING to shift their farming practices toward more trees and bushes. They see the benefits others are having for themselves.

          The local culture among Niger’s farmers before Eden arrived was that “only God can create a tree.” They thought that man could not possibly plant a tree. Only God could.

          Imagine if some stranger came to you, and told you to abandon your religious or highly principled beliefs, then told you how to live your life, what plants to grow, where and how to plant them, etc. Would you listen? Would you abandon your lifestyle?

          The Eden farmers have made a dramatic shift. It is a long slow process. They are learning that people can indeed plant trees. A shift like that can only happen with the willing cooperation of the farmers. Those farmers need to listed to their friends and neighbors. They need to see the results of another farmers efforts. They need to alter their belief system such that they can partner with their God, where the farmer plants the seeds that God has created for them.

          Outsiders like you and me may have many ideas. Many of them might work well in the society and culture we live in. However, assuming that a different society and a different culture will welcome our ideas is very presumptive.

          The Eden Foundation takes a very long view of their efforts. They think in terms of generations. They think in terms of farmers teaching children and grandchildren. It’s not only the farmers that care for the trees in the fields. It is the entire family. Children usually are the ones harvesting. Those photos on the Eden websites of happy faces of (well fed) children proudly and happily displaying their bowl or basket of fruit or leaves is not an accident. Those children know that those fruits and leafy vegetables will allow them to eat well. Those children know that when the older children, mothers, fathers, and grandparents take the food they harvested to the local market, that they may come home with pretty new dresses for the girls to wear. Good shoes to put on bare feet. That food represents a better life. They are happy and excited about that.

          They should be.

          In addition, those children are growing up experiencing directly the impact that trees can have on their lives. That experience will cause them to honor and treasure the trees around them. They will remember fondly going out into the fields with their brothers, sisters, and friends to harvest knowing that when they brought it home that they would benefit from it. They begin to see those trees as a form of wealth.

          That is a tectonic shift from a generation ago, where trees were habitually cut down and considered the enemy of crops because they brought birds who were thought to eat the crops in the fields.

          One step at a time.

          Niger must build its own culture in its own way. Farmers in Niger must observe for themselves what works and what does not. That is perhaps the most important principle of Permaculture is it not? A farmer in Niger will see what grows well and what does not. His children will see it too. They will pass it along to their children while adding more lessons they learn, and pass those along too.

          These people are not lazy. They work hard. They are not stupid. They have only been mislead and misinformed.

          They need to find their own way. When they are ready, they will seek out the detailed concepts of Permaculture for themselves. When that happens, we may find that they already are practicing much of it already and have more to teach us that we have to teach them.

          I would be happy to learn new ideas from them.

          I already have, by reading the Eden websites.

          • Government assistance: Being an independent organization is a good thing, I agree. And just to be clear I didn’t say anything about “begging for money”. I’m just saying if this program is effective then you’d think the government would want to expand or duplicate the process (possibly as a separate project) since the desert is spreading at 5 km/year. That’s hundreds or thousands of square kilometers of lost production. People know a good thing when they see it.

            Microclimates: That’s great if plants can live with no assistance, but most plants will benefit from a little help. Seeds are valuable, no? I’m not challenging their process. I’m just asking if they’ve tried some of these ideas.

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