Tag Archives: Zvishavane water projects

The water harvester, Zephaniah Phiri, has died

The famed ‘water harvester’ of Zvishavane, Zephaniah Phiri, has died aged 88. He was an inspiration to many, and certainly to me. When I was in my 20s he taught me so much about agricultural ecology and rural development – indeed far more than I ever learned from textbooks or university courses. And it has stayed with me as a source of knowledge and guidance. Since then I have always tried to visit him at his home at Msipane when in Zimbabwe, and it has always been a joy to see him and his family. Each time there have been new developments on his farm to share, as well as the usual gossip and stories. He was the true local innovator, always trying out new solutions and sharing them widely. It was wonderful to welcome him to our own home in the UK in 2001, and hear him challenge us about our own extravagant and wasteful water use. It is a terribly sad loss, but his legacy will live on in the huge influence he has had on agriculture and soil and water conversation in Zimbabwe – and indeed much further afield.

zimsept09 029Zephaniah Phiri, 2 February 1927 – 1 September 2015/Photo: Msipane, Sept 2009

Below is an edited extract from his ‘cv’, on the Muonde Trust website, compiled by Ken Wilson. The cv has many other links to videos, testimonies, reports and other research relating to Mr Phiri’s work. See also another Zimbabweland blog here. For a much more detailed account, largely in his own words, see Mary Witoshynsky’s, ‘The Water Harvester: The Inspired Life of Zephaniah Phiri’, published by Weaver.

“Mr. Phiri was educated at Dadaya Mission, for which his father, Amon Phiri (“Bvuma”) was a renowned evangelist who played a lead role under Sir Garfield Todd in the Church of Christ Mission after its Africanization in 1938. Mr. Phiri himself played a leadership role in the Church in the 1960s and 1970s, including in establishing Makiwa Church near his home.

Mr. Phiri’s early career as a fireman on the railways was cut short by his detention in the early 1960s at Gonakudzingwa for his union and other political activities. Following his release in the mid­‐1960s he was blacklisted from formal employment by the Rhodesian Front Government.

Forced to depend upon a small piece of poor land on the edge of a vlei near Msipane in the Runde Communal land, Mr. Phiri experimented with wells, ponds and other water management systems from the late 1960s until Independence. Arrested three times for “farming a waterway” the magistrate eventually demanded to see Mr. Phiri’s land, ultimately ruling against the Government’s L.D.O. (Land Development Officer) and granting Mr. Phiri resource rights to use his conservation farming in his wetland. In 1973 a more progressive L.D.O. brought local farmers to see his drought-­‐beating methods.

In 1973 Mr. Phiri opened his first pond. Ponds enabled holding more water in the vlei, without waterlogging the soils. As the Liberation War expanded he was again detained under house arrest by the Rhodesian authorities in 1976 and severely tortured. His tribulations continued until the end of war, with a long period in leg­‐irons. He never regained his hearing in one ear, but physiotherapy improved the use of his leg.

After Independence his farm became the focus of much interest by local farmer groups and NGOs. Mr. Phiri continued to increase water storage on the farm and to diversify his homestead production system with extensive orchards, including of mango and banana, the sale of reeds for basket making, the adoption of bees, and the development of indigenous permacultural techniques to improve soil and protect areas from run-­‐off.

From 1982-­1986 he served as a Community Liaison Officer for the Lutheran World Federation water programme in the Zvishavane and Mberengwa region. The focus was on protecting wells and on small concrete dams in seasonal streams. Working closely with the District Development Fund and local councillors this revolutionized water and sanitation in the area after Independence. Still active on his land he founded the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation Project in 1984 and helped many other local gardening groups.

From 1986 to 1988 Dr. K.B. Wilson invited him to join the research team of the University of London/University of Zimbabwe agricultural ecology study in Mazvihwa (Zvishavane) with Mr. Mathou Chakavanda, Mr. Johnson Madyakuseni, Dr. B.B. Mukamuri, Mr. Abraham Mawere Ndhlovu, Dr. Ian Scoones, and others. Mr. Phiri was responsible for action research around soil and water management and again in collaboration with DDF, he assisted Mazvihwans to sink wells, to build more small dams and to improve gardening. His studies also transformed the research team’s understanding of the hydrology of these watersheds and their wetlands.

[Dug out of my archives, a summary of the research projects from that time can be found here, and some excerpts from Mr Phiri’s notebooks, when he was investigating the potentials of water projects in Mazvihwa from 1987 or thereabouts are here].

Stimulated by the experiments with sand filtration using concrete rings, Mr. Phiri discovered in 1987 the concept of “Phiri pits” – holes in contour trenches where water accumulates designed to drive water infiltration deep into the soils up-­‐slope to feed down slope fields later in the season. During the 1980s and 1990s he placed Phiri pits across his land. Efforts to replicate this system were widespread in the region, the most well‐known being by Kuda Murwira and Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in Chivi.

He founded the Zvishavane Water Project (ZWP) in 1988 and served as its Director until his retirement in 1996. One of the country’s first indigenous NGOs, ZWP secured support from many local and international donors and played a major role in Zvishavane and neighbouring districts with the provision of water for domestic and agricultural uses.

Meanwhile Mr. Phiri continued to receive 25­‐30 visitors a month to his farm. Based upon analysis of his Visitor’s Book, Mr. Phiri officially received close to 10,000 visitors over the last thirty years. These visitors included people from every Government Department, research station, university, district in Zimbabwe and thirty different NGOs; as well as people from 14 African countries and 9 other countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America. The visitors included thousands of farmers who came on their own or with local NGOs, and AGRITEX/AREX officers and spread his ideas, and especially his faith in farmer innovation and responsibility.

As he became more and more well known, he received international recognition through the Ashoka fellowship and National Geographic Society/Buffet Award for Leadership in African Conservation. Proposed at his Lifetime Achievement Award event in 2010, the Phiri Award for Farm & Food Innovators was launched under the chairmanship of Dr. Mandivamba Rukuni and other leading figures in the sustainable agriculture field in Zimbabwe to offer an annual award for indigenous innovation among Zimbabwean farmers. The first awards were presented in 2014, in Mr Phiri’s presence.

*****

The award, the legacy of Zvishavane Water Projects and the work of the Muonde Trust, as well as his homestead in Msipane, will continue the lifetime work of Mr Phiri. He will be sorely missed by all of us, but his work lives on. A remarkable person, a remarkable life.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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Planting water: sustainable agriculture in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has a long tradition of ‘ecological’ and ‘sustainable’ agriculture. There are many organisations, perhaps most notably PELUM, the participatory ecological land use management association, that have supported low external input sustainable agriculture initiatives over many years. A new blog has also been started to document some of these experiences, and it includes videos, case studies and more. It is well worth a look, as the examples highlighted show how smallholder agriculture can move ahead, often without the type of inputs and investments that are often assumed to be essential.

One of the first people I met when I went to Zimbabwe in the 1980s was Zephaniah Phiri Maseko of Msipane area in Runde communal area near Zvishavane. Through the connections with Dadaya School, where his father had worked, and his earlier association with Ken Wilson, he came to work on the growing array of activities that became linked to the PhD projects that Ken initiated and I joined in nearby Mazvhiwa communal area. Visiting his home was a revelation. Here was a lush, green land in an area that received barely above 500mm of rainfall. He had broken every rule in the Rhodesian handbook of agricultural practice (like farming in or near a vlei and water source, avoiding traditional contours and more), and it was working amazingly effectively.

In 1987, thanks to support from Oxfam and the EEC, Phiri founded Zvishavane Water Projects. Its mission was to share the experiences of ‘planting water’ that Phiri and his family had developed at their home over the years to a wider community in Zvishavane and beyond. As NGOs, farmer groups and individuals have taken up these ideas – harvesting water in a variety of ways to improve soil moisture and agricultural production – the impact has been incredible. The now famous ‘Phiri pits’ can be seen scattered across the landscape.

Mary Witoshynsky documented the remarkable life and work of Mr Phiri in a fantastic book published by Weaver Press, The Water Harvester. There are also numerous articles profiling his work (for example, here, here and here – the last from 1988, written by Phiri, with Ken Wilson and myself). Many such articles were collected together for the ‘book of life’ presented at the UZ lifetime achievement award ceremony in 2010. Here too is a video of him explaining his water harvesting systems at his home. Phiri certainly has been an inspiration to me, as many others. The possibilities of dryland farming, without complex technologies but with an ecological understanding of water and land, are extensive.

Now in his mid 80s, Phiri is now old and infirm, suffering badly from the injuries inflicted at the hands of the Rhodesian regime when he was under house arrest and in leg irons. But his work continues through ZWP and many other initiatives. Indeed when I was at his home last year, his visitors’ book was full of comments from people from across Zimbabwe, and indeed beyond.

As more and more of the country is farmed by smallholders following land reform, Zimbabwe needs more Mr Phiris, and more similar initiatives to exchange ideas, technologies and practices. The new blog will be an important source for many, and hopefully will encourage others to experiment and innovate.

 This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

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