John Wilson

Ashoka Fellow
Harare, Zimbabwe
Fellow Since 1990


This profile was prepared when John Wilson was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
The power of Wilson's work comes chiefly from the fact it is a combination of several ideas, each important in its own right.

One's first impression is that Wilson is focused on introducing his version of the alternative agriculture movement to southern Africa, that he is trying to help the small African farmer become fully productive on the one hand, and to protect the area's endangered environment by making agriculture sustainable on the other. Indeed, he cares passionately about these objectives.

Wilson wants to move Zimbabwe away from its current unsustainable approach to farming, an approach "apparently designed to extract as much as possible from the soil". In its stead he wants to introduce his own eclectic amalgam and adaptation of ideas from the world's swelling alternative agriculture movement. He draws especially heavily from the permaculture and holistic resource management schools. He challenges the farmers to weave all the requirements and possible contributions of every aspect of their farms – all the structures, roads, water, crops, animals, other improvements, etc. – into an efficient, sustainable whole that wastes little.

Even as Wilson talks about his work with farmers, one quickly senses that he has more in mind then even these ambitious goals. He objects to the current approach more on developmental, and philosophic even, than on agricultural and environmental grounds. His goal is nothing less than making farmers creative planners and managers of the agricultural, financial, and natural resources in their care – not "mechanical", rote appliers of uniform systems "developed by far-off experts". In other words, he is working on the inner core of the development process, freeing the minds and spirits of these farmers, enabling them to take charge of their lives and environment. As they learn how to imagine hosts of possibilities, then to evaluate them rigorously, and finally to make the most important possibilities in fact happen, they are leaving the constraints of traditional society broken on the ground at their feet.

Here Wilson, the teacher, focused on helping people grow, becomes increasingly apparent.

That Wilson's work with farmers has this double focus is camouflaged at first because Wilson feels both goals are perfectly congruent. Any formula uniformly applied will both do environmental damage in some areas and discourage human growth.

As Wilson observed his approach having the liberating impact on farmers it has, he realized it could be as effective for school children. By getting children to think through, and experiment with, the rigorous balances necessary for farm and environmental success, he is making education far more rigorous and involving by stimulating creativity and problem-solving. He is building on what they know best, and he is also making schooling less likely to alienate farm children from rural life. Of course, he is also spreading his farming ideas.

Wilson's early experiments in working with rural children and, more recently, in several schools have so encouraged him that he is now negotiating with the Curriculum Development Unit of the Ministry of Education towards introducing such a course nationwide.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person


As well as the ongoing facilitation work outlined above, in the last couple of years I have been focusing on three areas in particular (all in Zimbabwe): establishing the Phiri Award for Farm and Food Innovators, the Zimbabwe Traditional and Organic Food Forum, and the Zimbabwe Seed Sovereignty Programme. The first is about recognising indigenous/local innovation in our food systems and giving these much more prominence. The second is about civil society working much more collaboratively to promote healthy eating, including increasing the link between farmers and consumers. The third brings together 7 organisations in Zimbabwe, including a farmers' network to strengthen the all important community based seed systems, that are so closely tied to nutrition.

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