ZEPHANIA Phiri was rendered jobless by a railway company he worked for, accused of dabbling in political activities during the Rhodesian era.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Distraught and without a penny to his name, Phiri returned to his rural home in Zvishavane to face poverty and suffering that he had escaped by working in the city.
Determined to make something out of his life and for his village, he bounced around a lot of ideas.
Today he is a renowned indigenous permaculturist and pioneer of water harvesting in Zimbabwe.
“I had all the time to really think about our situation and it wasn’t long before I realised that water is the key to everything if you farm in Zimbabwe, especially in arid places like Zvishavane,” said the 87-year-old Phiri.
Over the years, he developed a sophisticated water harvesting system for his farm. Thousands have visited his farm to learn.
In 2010 colleagues and friends gave him a lifetime achievement award for his work.
Out of that event grew the idea to set up an award in his name.
His efforts were finally rewarded this year on October 24 when an award was launched in the presence of government officials, civil society, farmers’ organisations, the private sector and international agencies at Baraza Pavilion in Harare.
During the launch of the Phiri Award, the inaugural winners received various prizes for being the most innovative with the top position going to Bouwas Mawara from Mazvihwa, Zvishavane.
The initiators of the Phiri award; the Farm and Food Innovators, said they had drawn inspiration from Phiri whom they described as a fine example of someone who responded to a difficult situation in a creative and meaningful way.
The group of eight members said they were against the stereotyped images of people waiting to be “developed”.
“Life is tough in the rural areas of Zimbabwe, often very tough. People are getting on with their lives and there are those experimenting and trying out practices, responding to what life throws at them, be it a cyclone, a drought, a piece of land covered in rocks or even moles eating their crops,” said one of the initiators John Wilson.
The group’s approach stresses productivity while also paying attention to ecosystem processes, soil health, nutrition, sustainability, local knowledge development amongst farmers and others in the food chain, and the rights of farmers and consumers.
One of their aims as a group is to dispel the notion that solutions always come from experts.
“We often underestimate the degree of innovation that is going on. In order to start giving recognition to this innovation, a group of Zimbabweans have set up the Phiri Award for Farm and Food Innovators,” said Wilson.
Five farmers who have put to practice the innovative way of farming agreed to share their ideas on how they managed to overcome hurdles to get to where they are now.
They said they often faced ridicule from communities and in some instances were labelled insane or people high on drugs.
Cyclone Eline devastated William Gezana’s farm in Chimanimani in 2000. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, he immediately set about reclaiming his land. With various techniques he has rehabilitated his farm and the perennial stream destroyed by Cyclone Eline. He now works with others around him on watershed management.
Wilson Sithole’s father allocated him two hectares of land in the Rusitu valley in the 1980s. The only problem was that it was an unproductive piece of land covered in rock boulders.
Undaunted and with a clear plan in mind, he has over the past 20 years turned this land into a productive banana, citrus and pineapple farm in which all water is harvested by ditches and contours. He is a fine example of turning a problem into the solution.
Sixty-one-year old Faiseni Pedzi learned a little about water-harvesting and water management during a short stint working on a lowveld sugar estate from 1968 to 1976.
He used and added to this knowledge through trial and error and has developed an intricate system to distribute water on his small farm in the dry district of Chivi, using “valves” and canals. It is a system that enables him to direct water to any desired point on his farm.
This allows him to grow fish crops throughout the year.
Mawara was inspired by the liberation struggle to think about new ways of farming. He constructed one to three metre deep dead level contours, which also incorporate mini-dams.
As a result he harvests huge amounts of water in Mazvihwa, a very dry part of the country. His extensive irrigation system, involving clay pipes, can draw excess water from the fields in the rainy season to use for irrigation in the dry season. He also uses the water to grow crops throughout the year and to grow fish.
Paguel Takura lost most of the sweet potatoes and bananas that he planted on his newly allocated farm in 2008 to moles. Through experimentation with both bait and trap, he has developed a highly effective way of catching moles on his farm in Chikukwa, near the border with Mozambique. In 2011, for example, he captured 39 moles.