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Keyhole gardens in Ethiopia: A study of the barriers to scale-up

Bedriya, beneficiary of KHG in Meta Hawibilsuma Kebele, March 2014Yohannes Haile is a public health professional working in Ethiopia with Catholic Relief Services. He has a Master’s degree in Public Health from Mekele University in Ethiopia1.


In 2005, the Government of Ethiopia established the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which aimed to address food insecurity in the most food insecure regions of Ethiopia by targeting households that are chronically and temporarily food insecure (PSNP, 2014). During the first decade, the PSNP focused on important public works resulting in improvements to rural infrastructure and enhanced access to education and health services. It included activities to mitigate the risk of economic and climate-related shocks, such as soil and water conservation activities, small-scale irrigation and integrated watershed management. The latest PSNP (Phase IV) includes support for the nutritional goals of the country and addresses long term income challenges. Catholic Relief Service (CRS) has been implementing a food security project with livelihood and maternal, child health and nutrition sub-components in six districts of Dire Dawa since 2012 in support of the PSNP. Keyhole gardens (KHGs) were used as a strategy to help achieve improved maternal and child health and nutrition and are the focus of this article.

A KHG is a two-metre wide, circular raised garden with a keyhole-shaped indentation on one side.

KHGs were widely used in Southern Africa by a number of actors2 involved in food security and nutrition programming; the learning and success has now been adopted in different parts of the world. The indentation allows gardeners to add uncooked vegetable scraps, grey water and manure to a composting basket that sits in the centre of the bed. Keyhole gardens are relatively easy to construct and emphasise the use of locally available resources. They mainly utilise locally available materials in their construction, including stones, spades, thatching grass for the central basket, small tree branches, manure, wood ash and soil.

The KHGs aim to help improve household food security and, in turn, the nutritional status of household members through the production of a wide variety of vegetables throughout the year. Pregnant and breastfeeding women and mothers of children under five from poor households were the primary target of the nutrition project. Health Extension Workers (HEWs) and implementing partners were trained on the step-by-step construction of KHGs and then trained the target households. Training also included the importance of eating nutritious food during pregnancy and lactation and optimal feeding of infants and young children. Cooking demonstrations at the kebele (lower administrative unit) level were used as a platform to discuss with mothers how to improve dietary diversity and micronutrient consumption using the vegetables they produce.

In total, 772 KHGs were constructed across the project area from 2012 to 2015. The project monitoring reports indicate an improvement in child-caring practices, food preparation techniques and feeding practices. In addition, a significant positive change reported was the priority of feeding children under five a more diverse diet. According to the mid-term project evaluation; 16% of children aged 6-23 months received four or more food types, a 7% increase from the baseline (9%); 17% of children aged 6-23 months received a minimum acceptable diet; and 74% of children aged 6-23 months met the minimum meal frequency. This exceeded the targets set for the third year (CRS 2015).

Despite these improvements, CRS staff and reports from project implementing partners indicated potential sustainability issues with the KHG technology. In preparation for scale-up of the KHGs in the CRS supported programmes, an assessment was conducted in July 2015 to verify KHG numbers, functional status and adherence to design specifications. The assessment revealed only 342 KHG were operational out of the 772 originally established KHGs; i.e. less than 50%. A barrier analysis (BA) was therefore undertaken to better understand what was happening.

Methodology for the barrier analysis

The BA used a rapid assessment tool to understand perceptions and determinants associated with the sustainable maintenance of KHGs. 90 women (purposively sampled) engaged in the original KHG project were interviewed. Of these, 45 were still cultivating (referred to as ‘doers’) and 45 had stopped KHG activities (referred to as ‘non-doers’).


The BA revealed six significant factors to sustaining the KHG:

  1. The non-doers were less likely to respond “Maintaining KHG is not difficult at all” and “KHG has no disadvantage at all” than doers did. Non-doers were also three times more likely to respond “It is somewhat difficult to remember and maintain KHG” compared with doers. This indicates the non-doers had reasons for finding the KHG difficult to maintain.
  2. Non-doers were more likely to respond “KHG can be used as a source of income by selling some of the produce,” suggesting they valued the economic aspect of KHG, whereas doers were more likely to respond “KHGs build a healthy family and saves the cost of buying vegetables” respectively.
  3. Non-doers were 2.4 times more likely to respond “It is somewhat likely that their child will become malnourished in the coming months,” while doers were 3.5 times more likely to respond: “It is not likely at all” to the same question.

Participants who had working KHGs perceived them as a means to build a healthy family and save on the cost of buying vegetables while also obtaining a source of income by selling the produce. KHGs were also perceived as a means of preventing malnutrition.

Conclusions and ways forward

The results of the BA have been used to develop a refined behaviour change communication (BCC) strategy to improve messages and activities to increase the impact of the KHG. A behavioural change framework was designed on the assumption “If priority group leaders are trained and monitored using a structured BCC strategy on establishing and maintaining functional KHG and on optimal nutrition and are empowered to share their skills, experiences and testimonies with key beneficiaries, then sustainable cultivation of KHGs will be promoted at grassroots level.”

The BCC strategy will be used to design activities in PSNP Phase IV and CRS programmes. Activities will aim to build confidence in target individuals around the intervention and reinforce their skills in maintaining functional KHGs year round.

Monitoring will include the numbers of mothers trained, KHGs constructed and maintained, and tools for BCC use. The new phase will focus on ‘lead mothers’, using a well defined BCC strategy. One KHG demonstration site will be established for at least 30 households (previously the KHG demonstration sessions were done at the kebele administration centre level).

The implementation area has repeatedly been affected by drought and this might affect the routine implementation plan of the project. CRS aims to mitigate this through use of drought-resistant crop varieties for the KHGs and by introducing roof-harvest technologies to reserve water for use in the KHGs.



1 Editorial support from Everlyn Matiri (Regional Technical Advisor -Nutrition, CRS and John Steelman (Peace Corps Volunteer, CRS, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia).

2 Consortium for Southern Africa Food Security Emergency (C-SAFE).

CRS, 2015. Keyhole Garden: Quality Improvement Verification Checklist Report July 2015. Catholic Relief Services of Ethiopia.

PSNP, 2014. Productive Safety Net Programme Phase IV: Programme Implementation Manual. Ministry of Agriculture, Addis Ababa December 2014.

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Reference this page

Yohannes Haile (). Keyhole gardens in Ethiopia: A study of the barriers to scale-up. Nutrition Exchange 6, May 2016. p14.



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