Zimbabwe’s Hope: in memory of Zepheniah Phiri Maseko

Yasmina Zaidman
7 March 2002

Beneath the surface of violence and fear that surrounds the current election campaign, Zimbabwe possesses a foundation of possibility. While young men beat each other for supporting one or other of the two warring parties, others apply themselves to building Zimbabwe’s future. One of the men who dedicated his life to his country died last year at the age of 75, but left in his wake the blueprint for a strong and independent nation founded on the principles of individual responsibility, hard work, and entrepreneurship. He was a farmer.

Zepheniah Phiri Maseko

Zepheniah Phiri Maseko was a farmer whose innovations in soil and water conservation drew international attention and visitors from around the world. Originally inspired by a biblical passage, Phiri committed himself for over 50 years to conserving soil and water resources and to sharing his ideas with other farmers. He was able to share his technological innovations and farming methods with thousands of farmers from throughout Zimbabwe and Southern Africa, as well as Europe and the United States. In 1997 he received support from Ashoka, an international organisation that invests in social entrepreneurs, and last year a book was written by a US author entitled The Water Harvester: Memoirs from Zimbabwe.

His work was based in an ethic of conservation, and a set of personal values that held up natural resources such as soil and water as precious gifts that must be respected and protected. While in his seventies, Phiri continued to see the possibilities for expanding the reach of his approach to putting control of soil quality and water availability into the hands of every farmer in Zimbabwe. Visitors to his farm are eager to learn about how Phiri’s designs work, and how they too can cultivate a similar abundance on their farms. Most importantly, they seek ways to escape the cycles of drought and erosion that so many farmers face.

A natural-born leader whose father was a missionary, Phiri chose to promote practical solutions over political ones. Even as many in Zimbabwe fear that the country is on the verge of civil war, these same solutions remain critical to Zimbabwe’s future. A country that is reliant on agriculture for 70% of its economy, and possesses little irrigation infrastructure, Zimbabwe needs a productive populace to meet its domestic nutritional needs and pave the way for a functional civil society.

Learning from Zvishavane

The turmoil surrounding the current elections is based in the desperate poverty that is engulfing this country. Arable land in regions with reliable rainfall is a precious and scarce resource that is still almost entirely in the hands of the white farmers. As a younger man, Zepheniah played a role in the movement for independence, but in the midst of increasing tension over land, did not agree that land should be forcible redistributed. Through a combination of strategic distribution of land and improved land and water management, he saw an opportunity for any and all farmers to increase productivity without major land redistribution. His own farm was an edenic model of what is possible, even in a region with unpredictable rainfall.

Phiri’s farm is located in a hilly area outside the small town of Zvishavane. This communal area consists of several farms that border his own, leaving each 3-hectare plot with little room for expansion. Above Phiri’s farm, a ruware, or rocky mound, poses a unique challenge. When heavy rains fall, this rocky area channels the water down the hill, carrying soil with it and causing significant erosion. Phiri, however, managed to transform this challenge into an advantage. It is there, just below the rocks, that he developed structures that achieve what he calls water “planting”.

Below, in his fields, water can be “harvested” to supply enough water to all his crops, trees, and vegetable beds without the need for conventional irrigation. Tiers of stonewall terraces catch and funnel the water from the ruware so that it seeps into the soil, replenishing the ground store. The terraces trap grass seeds as well, creating patches of protective vegetation that also slow and draw water into the soil. Silt traps catch the sand that would otherwise fill the terraces, preventing water absorption.

Some of the water that flows through these terraces is stored in a tank that Phiri built of plaster and brick, which also receives rainwater from gutters that Phiri has built along the roof of his home. After Phiri built the tank, he reconsidered his approach. “This tank only helps me,” he said, “but what I build should help the nation”. Now, most of the rain that falls goes into an underground sealed reservoir, where it accumulates throughout the rainy season, adding to the available store of water for Phiri and neighbouring farmers.

Banana trees, mango trees and sugar cane at Zepheniah Phiri's farm create a lush canopy that is unique for this dry area of Zimbabwe.

Phiri has found a way to dramatically increase control of run-off, and has tripled his output with two more harvests a year than most farmers in this region achieve. In addition, the quality of his soil is conserved, providing long-term security through continued strong harvests. With his water harvesting techniques, Phiri is able to accumulate enough water in a good rainy season (at least three heavy rainfalls) to see him through two years of drought. In 1991 and 1992, Zimbabwe suffered a severe drought, and it was then that Phiri’s strategies began to receive greater attention, as his crops thrived while others’ were lost.

A rural renaissance

Not content to enjoy the fruits of his labour alone, Phiri made his farm into a living university for other farmers, attracting them from farms throughout the region and around the world. In 1988, he was recognized by Oxfam for his work and received the initial funding he needed to starts the Zvishavane Water Project (ZWP).

The ZWP helps communities with projects such as dams, fishponds, roof rainwater tanks, reforestation, livestock improvement, and cooperative vegetable gardens. Its work spreads throughout communities in the two districts of Zvishavane and neighbouring Chivi. Based on the belief that water and soil are of primary importance for these rural communities, the ZWP staff is dedicated to teaching others how to manage their precious soil and water resources.

Three quarters of Zimbabwe’s twelve million people now live in poverty, an increase from the forty per cent quoted in the early 1990s, by the United Nations. A weak economy has lead to massive unemployment and crime in major cities like Harare and Bulawayo. Meanwhile, rural Zimbabwe offers an untapped opportunity for Zimbabwe’s development. Once dubbed the ‘Switzerland of Africa’, Zimbabwe has the potential to supply food to other African nations.

See the changemaker website for more information and links.

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