Zepheniah Phiri Maseko has pioneered the concept of "water planting" for farmers in southern Zimbabwe and he has taken his ideas and approach across Zimbabwe and into neighboring African countries, including Zambia, Uganda, and Malawi.
The New Idea
Zepheniah Phiri Maseko, a farmer himself, has devised a system of harvesting and conserving water that alters a system that perpetually makes farmers in southern Zimbabwe vulnerable to soil degradation and drought. Where there is water there is life-this is what his "water planting" system is about. It catches whatever periodic rainfall is available and does not allow it to run off; constructs catchment systems with available local materials; plants terraces with deep rooted crops that stabilize the soil and, in effect, trap the water; and creates well sinks at the lower end of property boundaries to catch water that infiltrates through the terraced fields. Water can thus be recycled or reapplied to the fields. With demonstrated creativity and very little resources, Phiri has created a "Garden of Eden" in Zimbabwe. His model holds a potentially powerful lesson about the issue of water in developing countries.
Poor soil conservation practices in Zimbabwe and overcutting in upland areas have led to soil erosion and land degradation. According to World Bank statistics, only twenty percent of the land is used for agriculture, while 70 percent of the population relies on agriculture for a living. Many farms have become unproductive and those that are marginally productive cannot survive recurring drought. As a result, farmers have been forced into subsistence level conditions and many farms have been abandoned.
The need for irrigation systems in Zimbabwe's rural areas is urgent. World Bank statistics also show that only 2.5 percent of the country's agricultural land is under irrigation.
Phiri began with a small farm in southern Zimbabwe in 1966. Cut off from outside influences, he constructed the variety of water conservation and harvesting mechanisms that he now demonstrates. Because of political conditions, he was unable to spread his ideas beyond his immediate district for nearly twenty years.
In 1984 Phiri began the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation Project. Its objectives are: to produce more food, generate employment and income for farmers, to overcome diseases and promote health, and to control erosion in the area. To meet those goals, the Project educates people, saves water, and shows how to farm sustainably in a dry land. It raises awareness about soil and water conservation and teaches farmers why and how to diversify into a variety of crops. As a result they have more resilience in changing climatic conditions, and they have better nutrition, which helps to curb disease. Conserving water and soil also helps to maintain the water table, thus ensuring that water is available all seasons. With this knowledge even people in dry areas can breed fish.
Phiri shares his vision by inviting people to come see his work and learn from it; while he is possessed by his idea, he is not possessive of it. With assistance from several nongovernmental organizations, he began to spread his ideas across southern Zimbabwe in 1986. Links with foreign donors made it possible for farmers from other African countries to come and work with him and for him to go to their countries to assess farmers' needs and help them. He brings farmers from Zambia, Uganda, Malawi, and other African countries to his farm in southern Zimbabwe to see what he has done and to "get their hands dirty" doing experiments involving water management, soil conservation, and planting. One of the Ashoka panel members who interviewed Phiri spoke of how he is "making farming work... and having a powerful influence on younger people and struggling farmers."
The Project has attracted international and regional visitors from the United Kingdom, Germany, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya. Local Zimbabwean visitors have also come to learn about soil and water conservation. Phiri hopes to continue spreading the knowledge to other districts through community exchange visits. The initial Project members have initiated a second project, the Zvishavane Water Project, which aims to raise conservation awareness in the community through additional water harvesting activities including the building of tanks to harness water and the digging of infiltration pits. In the pipeline are plans to build accommodations for the visitors who come to see the project; the income from the lodgings will further strengthen the group's fundraising activities.
Phiri now divides his time between spreading his ideas in southern Zimbabwe (where the problems are particularly suitable to his approach) and working with farmers from other countries. He plans a visit later this year to work with farmers in Mozambique.
Phiri was born into a Christian mission family in 1927. After finishing schooling he went to work for the Rhodesian railways. He was politically active, was arrested, and placed in a reconstruction camp for a year. When he came out he was blacklisted and unable to get any job. At that time he was married with six children.
In 1996 Phiri turned to farming to support his family. He began experimenting: constructing terraces and reservoirs and studying rainfall patterns. He added "downstream" catchment wells and installed fishponds. During the Hunger Campaign in 1973 the government brought farmers to study his farm because, in spite of the severe drought that had crippled many farmers, Phiri's farm was continuing to be productive. But in 1976 the Government had quite a different response. Phiri was discovered to be active in politics again, storing arms for freedom fighters, and feeding them from the production of his farm. He was arrested and tortured, sustaining severe injuries to his shoulder bones. He was kept in leg irons for six months and then under house arrest from 1976 to 1980 and was unable to farm.
Finally in 1980, after Zimbabwe became independent, he was approached by the Lutheran World Federation and given a bicycle for therapy for his legs. This enabled him to again begin visiting farmers in his district and helping them. He undertook a district program for well sinking, which he continued until 1986. Through his work he contacted various nongovernmental organizations which led him to lecture on water planting at Oxford and to spread his ideas to farmers in other southern African countries. Phiri believes that the best "total fit" for his model lies in southern Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. Elements of his approach also have been applied by smaller groups of farmers in Zambia and Malawi.