The following text was extracted from the justification of the Phiri Award by the Phiri Award for Food and Farm Innovators Trust because it speaks in an interesting way about the importance of innovation in the context of food sovereignty.

The Role of Farm and Food Innovators

All the time everywhere, small scale farmers and others in the food value chain are experimenting so as to adapt to changing circumstances and to transform their lives. The rate of innovation has been especially marked in Zimbabwe in the first decade of the 2000s. However, insufficient recognition is typically given to the role of innovations; instead there is a common attitude that small-scale farmers and others lack skills and knowledge and need instead only to be helped to improve their farming practices. This trend sees governments, universities and NGOs giving technical support to farmers, for example, without considering farmers as knowledgeable or creative partners in that effort. It is time to redress this imbalance and to bring farm and food innovations much more into the picture. Farmers, small-scale processors and distributors, governments, universities and NGOs can achieve more as they work in partnerships. This award will bring farm and food innovators into prominence and so help restore this balance and in so doing will drive greater collaboration.

Food Sovereignty

In response to an international policy environment that is promoting the corporatisation and commoditisation of food, a growing ‘food sovereignty’ movement is developing around the world. The food sovereignty concept was conceived by the global small-scale farmer movement La Via Campesina in 1996. It advocates for food providers, together with like-minded consumers, to regain control of their land, water, seeds, and systems of food production, distribution and consumption. Furthermore, food sovereignty recognises that communities can and should take responsibility for creatively meeting their food needs in the face of economic and environmental pressures and climate change.

Zephaniah Phiri’s water harvesting and farming practices are a key part of the food sovereignty approach, as are the innovations of many other food producers, processors and distributors. They illustrate how small-scale farmers can intensify production in a sustainable manner, and produce nutritious, local food, using minimal external inputs. The Phiri Award, as well as emphasising the role of farm and food innovators, will very much promote the principles and practice of food sovereignty.

Linked to this, the Phiri Award will network with other organisations with a similar purpose on the African continent. For instance, over the past two years major regional African producers’ networks have been documenting the well-known but often ignored fact that 80% of the food consumed in Africa is produced by family farmers and reach those who consume it through channels that have nothing to do with so-called “modern” value chains and supply systems.

Why the Phiri Award Now? Zimbabwe Farming at a Crossroads

Zimbabwe food, nutrition and water security is at a cross roads in many senses. Small scale farmers have always been a significant factor in the Zimbabwean agricultural picture but now, since the land reform of the last decade (in addition to that of the 1980s), Zimbabwe has become a country of small-scale farming, with a much more limited number of middle-sized and commercial farms.

Zimbabweans are gearing themselves up to focus on helping small-scale farming become more productive as the country itself looks likely to open up to the outside world after more than a decade in the international wilderness.

There are, broadly speaking, two approaches being touted for the way forward to farming. The one goes back to the same ‘green revolution’ that Zimbabwe promoted in the 1980s and 1990s and which was or appeared successful in the short term, but which led to farmers becoming dependent on outside inputs and to a growing depletion of their resource base, particularly soil and bio-diversity. This is the approach that Zimbabwe will also face pressure from as it opens to the outside world. It assumes that the challenge is one of extension and diffusion – getting farmers to adopt packages that have been crafted for them.

In terms of production this model fails to recognise the unique complexities of small-scale farmers, as well as undermining their resource base with the practices it promotes. In terms of processing, distribution and retailing it separates consumers from producers and squeezes out smaller players, concentrating control in fewer and fewer hands whose food ethics are very questionable. And it is an approach that tends to reduce the diversity of foods produced.

Does Zimbabwe go this short-term route to farming and food security or does it rather choose a more sustainable and longer term approach to farming; another way that is more attentive to diversity, complexity and farmer initiative? Does Zimbabwe want to follow the western model where very few supermarkets totally dominate the food market, a model which has also led to big nutritional problems, even without the West having an actual shortage of food?

If Zimbabwe rather focuses on policies which promote a sustainable approach to farming and to food systems in general, then there are a number of critical factors that will need attention. One of these will be to bring in an ecosystem understanding/literacy much more strongly into farming practices. Another will relate to improving market access for small-scale farmers, and another will be to prioritise what the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, describes as ‘reorienting public spending in agriculture by prioritising the provision of public goods’. These include rural infrastructure, extension services and subsidies that are linked directly to agro-ecological investments on farms.

Yet another critical factor, which relates directly to this proposal, will be to orient badly needed research into agro-ecological methods towards being farmer-based. This needs a change in attitude across the board towards an attitude that recognises the critical role of farmers in finding innovative ways to produce in uncertain and variable economic, climate and ecological environments. As stated in the introduction, it is time for governments, universities and other research institutions, and NGOs, to partner with farmers and others directly involved in the value chain. This award will bring community-based innovators into prominence and greatly assist this change in attitude.

Many people view small scale farmers, processors and distributors in a fairly negative perspective; people who need to be helped out of their situation. This award will help reverse this perspective and show how small-scale farmers and others in the value chain are dealing creatively with their situations and crafting solutions unique to their context and scale.

In addition to contributing to a change in attitude, the award will also provide a data base of innovators and their practices which can be shared in a number of ways so as to contribute to improved practices on farms and across the food value chain, practices that are in line with the principles of food sovereignty. We envisage, for example, a number of exchange visits by farmers, and others in the food value chain, to learn from the innovators that become known through the award process.

Over the years, many farmers have visited Zephaniah Phiri and have been inspired to go back and put in place similar water harvesting and soil conservation systems. As a result of his innovations on his small farm, countless millions of litres of water and soil are being harvested around Zimbabwe and farmers are benefitting substantially from this.

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