Mr. Zephaniah Phiri’s Lifetime of Planting Water:
a Record of Achievement
Chapter 1: The Man and His Awards
Dr. K.B. Wilson
On the Occasion of his Life Time Achievement Award
August 24th, 2010
Why are we here today at the University of Zimbabwe?
We are here because it is fitting that a University should concern itself with remarkable innovation and practical research by ordinary citizens as well as by its own staff and to seek to understand and document what has been achieved, and to disseminate these learnings to wider society.
And one such person is Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko.
For there is no Research Institute or University Farm in this region that has developed and tested over forty years such an innovative, productive, sustainable, resilient and cost-effective system of cropping for the semi-arid sandveld and kopje region that characterizes so much of the Communal Areas of this country. At its heart is PLANTING WATER, because in these hot dry environments water arrives rapidly and leaves rapidly. And it doesn’t leave alone. According to VaPhiri, one job of the farmer is to prevent water and soil eloping and running off together. Instead he wants them to settle down together on his farm and raise a proper family with him.
VaPhiri’s system is characterized by:
Intensive capture, management and tight re-cycling of water and nutrients, with ponds, trenches, trap dams, canals, wells and more.
A creative deployment of indigenous knowledge, combined freely with ideas gleaned from other farmers, extension agents, formal scientific research and the Permaculture movement;
Extraordinarily bold but careful experimentation to enable adaptation to his unique landscape, responding to and transforming the mosaic of soil types and hydrological regimes that characterize landscape, and doing so sustainably and over decades;
Long term thinking; a system that yields in wet and dry years, and yields more every year…
Reliance not on donors or financial and technical investments but on what the family can achieve with its own labor and local and cheap materials;
Diverse farming systems: substantially perennialized, intercropped and rotated with an extraordinary number of legumes, organically fertilized, biologically controlled for pests; in 2009-2010 season there were 55 crops planted on the farm, not including indigenous fruit trees or indigenous semi-cultivars, or counting varieties…
This is based on LIVING SOIL and sustained biomass and biodiversity. It is extraordinary how much life there is on his land. And it is increasing. At his old homestead on the edge of the ruware, which is just 52m x 80m at its widest point we assessed woody plant diversity in 1999 and then again in 2010.
1999: 149 trees of 41spp, both indigenous and exotic
2010: 175 trees of 55 spp of which 24 are fruit trees
A 25% increase in 11 years. Dr David Cooper hosted your visit to the Oxford University farm 25 years ago. Now he is running a division of the Convention on Biological Diversity. He sends greetings and will kubururuka when he hears this information. You may remember how surprised he was by the interest you gave to the oak trees that the university allowed to remain in the wheat fields, when Agritex insisted that all trees be removed from fields at home.
When seeking to replicate photos that I took on VaPhiri’s land over the last 30 years to show all this change I could barely get to some of the places the vegetation is now so thick and many of the photos just show a wall of green.
Mr Phiri seeks to RHYME WITH NATURE in his methods. There is so much life on his land that nowadays his neighbors refer to “shiri dzevaPhiri” when their crops are damaged.
As such VaPhiri is doing something terribly rare: achieving intensive use while BUILDING natural capital.
As Godfrey Nyakanyanga from Mutoko said back in June 1997: “God is going to bless you for your ideas of managing nature’s systems”.
Who is it who is saying that VaPhiri’s approach is remarkable? It is now the whole world. The man who paid the colonial government fines because they said he was destroying the land earned the Buffett Foundation award for Leadership in African Conservation in 2006. Mr. Howard Buffett sends greetings: he is Sudan and is sorry he could not make it today.
The man with primary education has become recognized as a RESEARCHER by specialists from all over Zimbabwe’s university, research and agricultural institutions, as well as international agencies such as ICRISAT, FAO, IFAD etc. Let me quote you some people from his visitor’s book:
G. Gumbozvanda (ICRISAT) “This is an eye opener. Extend this to higher institutions of learning and colleges for indigenous soil and water conservation”
W. Shoshore (Agritex) “We need to learn more from the innovative researcher”
Miriam Mhunduru (VSO) “An excellent display of indigenous knowledge”
M. Muvondori (Masvingo Province) “Very helpful to my theoretical concepts”
Lovemore Mufumhe (DDF Water Division) “The place is like a training institute”
W. Chivisa (ICRISAT) “Inspirational. Advanced agriculture in dry areas. Against the odds.”
Christos Sibanda (then of Institute of Water and Sanitation Development) “Mr. Z Phiri’s site is even better than last time. The water he planted is ready for harvest”
From UZ Agriculture we have comments like “very impressed” from Z Mugwira, while
Chipo Mususa said “magnificent” and Florence Mtanganengwe “excellent”. Brian Mudzodzi from MSU said “this place is unbelievable”, and Dr. Mtaita from Africa University said it was “perfect” (since when VaPhiri implemented 100 improvements).
Mr. Phiri’s work is cited in a dozen books and journals, including one of the UNISA Text Books.
It is for these kinds of reasons that Ezekiel Makunike tells us that the 22 person group from Environment Africa that visited his home on Sept 8th, 2004 argued unanimously he “deserves an honorary doctorate degree in agriculture by the country’s universities”.
G. Tobaiwa from CARE suggested in 1998 “We urge this centre to be developed as a conservation college. This is great ideas!”
Countless international researchers from around the world have acknowledged his influence, and many sent messages of congratulations and gratitude to him today.
Professor Ian Scoones of IDS in Sussex said that Mr Phiri was the Professor at “Mhototi University” where he first learned about all the issues of his career, and the person that he most admired in the world. But we have messages from people as diverse as Prof Sam Jackson, Dr. Michael Drinkwater, Bryn Higgs, Professor JoAnn McGregor is here today, and many others send good wishes, including Professor Terry Ranger, who has also written about him and his ability to listen to the land. The Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos of Ecuador has sent a message of congratulations today.
Mr. Phiri also has a solid place in the history of the global water harvesting movement. Brad Lancaster from Arizona in the USA, one of its recognized leaders and author of its main handbooks, has always said that it was VaPhiri who showed him the way and he has sent a message of thanks and congratulations today that will bring tears to your eyes.
Education and Outreach
Mr. Phiri is however much more than an innovative researcher who eats rather than publishes the findings of his research. He is an educator and a motivator. As Kuda Murwira once noted in the farm Visitor’s Book: “what a training center”.
His knowledge is written into the land. His humor gives it voice.
People have been visiting him for decades and are never turned away. It was ORAP and Sithembiso Nyoni (now the Honorable Minister for Medium and Small Scale Enterprises) who got this started after independence, and introduced me to his work. Parts of his Visitor’s Book have survived for the period 1997 to 2010. I have extracted 2,027 names from that book, or about 25-30 visitors a month. Taking into account that fewer people were visiting until 1990 that still suggests he has had 8,000 visitors – not including those who never signed the book!
In this book are people from every government dept, university, district and type of thinking in Zimbabwe. In this book are people from 14 African countries (sometimes whole delegations), and 9 other countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America. In this book are the names of 30 NGOs working here in the region. Most important perhaps, in this book are the names of hundreds of farmers who came by themselves or with local NGOs, AREX officers and other local government officials.
Here are some of the kinds of comments left by these visitors:
Esther Kasalu Coffin (IFAD-Rome) “This is brilliant. Please keep it up and share the knowledge”
Dr Justice Nyamangara (UZ and Africare – now CYMMYT) “Very impressed with what I saw. I wish every farmer could copy these brilliant innovations”
J. Manyame (CARE, Masvingo, 1998) “This is good. I shall bring some farmers from Chivi”
Mr Dube, from neighboring Lwanga School area in Zvishavane: “I have been asked by farmers at our place to come and see your water harvesting Mr Phiri. They want you [to] come and help them.”
C Chikomba (CARE Masvingo) “This is incredible. A lot of farmers should have the chance to learn about the techniques”
Owen Shumba (SAFIRE) “Please let’s work together from now on”
Mr. A Paulo (AGRITEX Gwanda) “Ideal techniques for dry areas! MORE: we shall duplicate them”
Collins Chibvamushure (Farmer) “I learned a lot from you Mr. Phiri. I will do the same when I go back”
Pastor Andrew Maphimidze “The Eden Project is a Gift from God”
Tim Forster (Brazil) “V. interesting initiative with many examples of appropriate low cost technologies. Let’s promote the ideas’
Kevin Lowther (CARE, US) “This is the beacon of light for the region. I learned much.”
Lovemore Bayayi (PLAN Mutare) “Your work is cost effective and does not require any donor”
And it was true that many of the thousands of farmers who visited him went back and experimented with the approach in their home areas. A few of them are able to be with us today and we shall hear their stories, but across the country you will find this work happening now – moving among farmers, promoted by local and international NGOs.
Also here are the voices of school children and young people:
Utongeni Secondary School in his home area of Msipane “V. educative. The project has a lot of intelligence and there is need for school pupils [to be] exposed to this project in order to encourage self reliance”
Mrs Leratang Monare (EDA Trust in KwaZulu Natal) “We the youth, we thank you and wish you all the best”.
Some visitors to Mr. Phiri’s land saw him as a creator of new technologies that should just be exported and copied – silver bullets in development just like all the others. But that is not what VaPhiri taught. He taught the need to listen to the land, to study and experiment with one’s own landscape. He taught that every farmer should be responsible for understanding his own land, and not just relying on technologies developed for other pieces of land – by VaPhiri or anyone else. He taught the value of real science, real indigenous knowledge, and of hard work and responsibility. Of a culture of land stewardship that the planet now needs desperately.
VaPhiri doesn’t think much of most of what is called development. He will have been very happy to see what S. Marimira then of the Mutoko Project wrote in his book many years ago: “Emphasis should be stressed to farmers that development can happen without or with minimal donor funds – emphasis on locally available resources.”
Zvishavane Water Project
But we are here today because his work did not stop at research and then educating people at his home. He also established one of the earliest indigenous NGOs in the country in the mid-1980s, an attempt to do something beyond the usual-usual of development. This NGO was started with nothing apart from will and belief, and a participatory research methodology that came out of the University of Mhototi, and his colleagues like the late Mr. Mathou Chakavanda, and Dr. B.B. Mukamuri and Abraham Mawere who we are with today. It didn’t have legal registration, governance, vehicle, staff, office, funding, etc., at the beginning. It received its first type writer as a gift from an English researcher, Sam Jackson. You will see in the Book of Life that its first proposals were hand written, and then later typed on an old Amstrad for him in the UK!
Over the last 25 years it has grown and changed, survived and thrived.
Mr. Phiri retired in 1996, granting ZWP the use of a portion of his land as an income generating and demonstration plot.
Former and current staff are with us today, or sent messages like Charles Hungwe now in UK, its first administrator. We shall hear more about ZWP from its wonderful Director, Irene Dube.
Mostly we are here today because it is time for the harvest.
It is time that we recognize this old man. This fellow that E.P. Chiuswa from Zvishavane once characterized as “a wise brainy black man who becomes a water harvester”. This is a man who has inspired people everywhere, including through the wonderful book of his own words put together by Mary Witoshynsky. There is even an urban youth group in Texas that is called the Zephaniah Phiri Community Development Corporation.
This is the man that Gilbert Kimanzi from Kampala described with his “fantastic creativity and humorous explanation”. Who S Bhebhe from Oxfam-UK called “a very gentle unassuming wise man with a lot of knowledge and wisdom”.
Mr Phiri, the farmer from Beitbridge, Charles Nyakutombwa, who wrote “You are the Wallmark of Zimbabwe” was not wrong.
We need to pause and mention your father, VaPhiri. Amon Phiri of Dadaya Mission, close friend of Grace and Garfield Todd, one of the most powerful of the Church of Christ Preachers – this is not just folk memory – I went through the entire Dadaya Mission papers when I was a PhD student in the 1980s. He was known as BVUMA, and played a prominent role in the Mission, especially after its “Africanization” in 1938. A man who died too young, but whose powerful spirit protected you through many terrible times, especially during your detention and torture during the liberation war. A man who, like his son, loved creation. Who knew to pray for rain in the “rambo temwa” sacred forests – a man who knew that God was in the land as well as in the Book. Bambo Mdhara Phiri: zikomo bambo kwambili kuti mnafika kuno kuZimbabwe, kuchokela ku Malawi. Tinovuchira eShoko. Zikomo that you shared with us this your son and protected him to grace this land yeZimbabwe. Judith Todd sends her greetings to you. She has known you nearly all your life and was very much hoping to be with us today.
Mr. Phiri we join Willie Makomba of CRS who has said “Every visit is inspiring – more, more years!”
One way we are harvesting, Mr Phiri is with this BOOK OF LIFE. It was Mary Witoshynsky who said we should call it that. In this book I have tried to put every article published about you, old photos, testimonies and many other things. Like everything to do with you it is living – still growing. Something gets added every day. In it are articles published all over the world. Dr. Robin Palmer has helped locate documents from the Oxfam archives. Professor Scoones found a couple of hundred pages of your field notes from the wells, dams, and vlei projects of 1987 which I have typed up and included. Weaver Press found old newspaper articles about you. You are all over the web.
This Book of Life is to make “history heard”, as vaChigovo of Oxfam-Zvishavane once wrote of a visit to your land.
When Kurauone Mukamuri, the youngest born at the Mhototi University where we all worked together 25 years ago saw the dictionary of Fr. Hannan he said “that is not a book – it is a small suitcase”. VaPhiri it needs a quite large suitcase to share with you your life!
Friends we have many testimonies in here. You can read them in the Books that are going round. I am going to quote just a little from them.
You have a letter of congratulations from the assistant Secretary General of the United Nations, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program, Mr. Achim Steiner. He says that “clearly [your] journey and accomplishments demonstrate the ‘power of one’ to make a difference”. He also writes: “More than 20 years ago Ken Wilson who had been working with Mr. Phiri in Zvishavane wrote to me asking if I knew of any financial support that could be made available to Mr Phiri in his endeavors to explore new approaches to agricultural development in his community. The amount needed was $2000 to $3000 dollars – a grant so small that most aid organizations could not really process such a request. Through a small unbureaucratic fund we – a small group of graduates from the German Development Institute – had set up in 1986 we quickly agreed to support Mr Phiri and transferred the requested amount with the help of Ken”.
You have poems. Here’s one from Colletah Chitsike who was with Oxfam in the 1990s and is now in Pretoria:
“To all living things
Water is the same
In all languages
Water is the same
Water’s rate of evaporation
Water and the management of land resources
Rate of soil erosion
Soil moisture availability
Ah, Zephaniah, Bakiti
This and more is what I remember of VaPhiri’s wisdom. The man who talked and warned about water and climate change long before it was on development agendas.”
And a rich lengthy piece from Dr Robin Palmer, who wrote that famous necessary book Land and Racial Domination in Zimbabwe published back in the 1970s and then worked with Oxfam becoming an early champion of his work which he saw for the first time in 1987. He ends saying Mr Phiri is “one of the most remarkable people I have ever met in my life”.
Need for Full Documentation of His Research
For years we researchers have been visiting his land and saying that it should be properly researched and documented.
B.B.S. Madondo from Masvingo said in 1998 “Do a resource map of the homestead and farm”.
F.S. Makoni of the Institute of Water and Sanitation Development wrote in 2003 “I am impressed and I wish if the project be documented and shared with the region”.
N. Hondoyomoto of CADEC wrote in 2002 “Keep on documenting your experiments”.
Now is the time. Mr. Phiri is telling us to come now and do our work. We need to gather the historical data and analyze change.
We need hydrologists to understand what his work shows about how vleis function hydrologically and what he has achieved through management. For his work has continued. During the 2000s he added about 180,000 litres of permanent storage capacity and 80,000 litres of temporary capacity to the existing approx 1.5 million litres of the three ponds he has built and extended since 1973, and he has done so in ways that bring the water across the land even more effectively than his initial system of wells and canals were able to achieve. The water table has been transformed on his land and even below it, and yet he still doesn’t suffer from water-logging in the main area. How has this been achieved?
We need biodiversity specialists to document the extraordinary plant, bird, insect, amphibian and other above ground diversity, and to study the below-ground biodiversity of the extraordinary soils he has created over the years, and to work out how that biodiversity works on a productive farm.
We need soil scientists to understand how his been able to exploit, manage, and ameliorate the diversity of sands, loams and clays on his farm through a wide array of no-cost techniques of green manure, cattle manure, termitaria soil, dug clay, nitrogen fixation etc, and what it has meant for long term agricultural productivity. How has Mr. Phiri increase soil depth so greatly in the central area? To assess the quantitative impact of all his soil conservation efforts.
We need agronomists to work on his cropping systems, pest-control methods, and so forth.
We need social scientists to document his extension and teaching methods. To situate his knowledge and cultural values in the sweep of history.
And most of all we need to bring these works together in a single integrated way as the master himself conceives them.
Today at the University of Zimbabwe I call on us to do that, and according to vaPhiri’s wishes show that Zimbabwean science knows no boundaries. He is opening his laboratory and giving us 40 years of data – everything except that which he has eaten already – and with his big heart is asking us to honor it and share it with the nations.
Mr. Phiri’s work was honoured in 2006 by the National Geographic Society and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation with their annual Award for Leadership in African Conservation and an event in Washington DC.
The Award citation is thorough and succinct in its praise of the man:
For exemplary leadership in community-based resource conservation among dry land farmers in Zimbabwe and across southern Africa;
For fifty years of pioneering research, experimentation and refinement of innovations in rain water harvesting, soil conservation and dry land farming;
For founding the Zvishavane Water Project;
For ceaseless dedication to teaching the importance and benefits of conservation;
For inspiring farmers, practitioners, scholars and the development of new conservation programs;
For harvesting rain for school water supplies and for restoring watersheds;
For humanitarianism in giving water, seeds and the knowledge to nurture them;
For wisdom and courage in working to improve the wellbeing of fellow farm families through resource conservation for food security; and
For lifelong altruism that enriches our human spirit.
NOTE: This is an excerpt of the interview that provides Mr. Phiri’s responses to the interviewer’s questions.
Problems promote sometimes. You know when you are suffocated somehow something that challenges comes to a very strong success. During the 60s I got involved in the struggle which really came up to me being dismissed from work. So the government declared that Zephaniah would never have any job in life anymore. When I took my Bible I read from the book of Genesis. I got caught up by the Garden of Eden – I read about the Garden of Eden. After reading about that garden, I knelt down and prayed to God for guidance, commitment and love. I prayed for a these three points. I remembered that my land had no water, yet in the Garden of Eden, I read about the river that used to give moisture to the crops or to the trees planted by the Lord. The Bible really inspired me. Then from there I started making a garden. The land where we live, we have very poor soil. We have the semi-arid soils, the poorest soil. And the rainfall is so poor, very little: less than 600 millimeters a year. It’s very dry. But then I looked at the region. I found that crop production was so poor, so little. I then came up with an idea. To have better crops, one has to have good rainfall or use quite a lot of manure in the land. Then I started – because in the Bible I had read Pishon was the river that used to water the garden. Then I started water harvesting. I made quite a big number of structures harnessing the little water that may have fallen rather than letting the water just run off. Then at the end, right down below, I went and sunk a well. This well is a challenge, I tell you, because all the water I have harvested uphill seeped into the soil. Then when you damage – let’s say I am cut here, you will see the blood oozing. There is a reason why the blood oozes out. Then the same – the nature of a human being and Earth is the same. I came up with an idea and I have made the structures up here. These structures hold water. How can I whisper to this water in the ground that this water should come to where I want it and do the job? Ah, Zephaniah! Things are wonderful! I dug a well; I sank a well below, then all that – you know when you damage the Earth, nature moves the air and the ground moves the water to cover the open point. When you take the soil out of the pit, that pit remains open. Nature will make this pit close. Then seeing the soil is no longer there, nature says to water: Water, go and fill that opening! It became a magic. The concept is that naturally I love a human being. I love people. And when I said my prayer before doing this project, I asked for love. People come to draw water from my own strength. I’m not worried and feel happy when they get this. So that’s how it worked out. After which I came up with an advanced idea. I dug some infiltration pits deep into the contours. When the rains fall, indeed this water is reserved. And I stock fish! I planted trees, fruit trees. I intercrop. I have quite a lot of different species in my land. If you come in that region, you’ll find quite a lot of production towards crop raising is very high because they have seen the secret that in this area we need to have water. We need to store water, to manure our lands, and then all the successes come up!
Chapter 2: The Water Management and Agricultural Innovations
“Water Harvesting and Soil Conservation”, Zvishavane Water Project, 1995
“Editorial viewpoint: making science and technology work for the poor”, Ian Scoones, World Review of Science, Technology and Development, Vol 4, No 2-3, 2007
Chapter 3: Taking His Knowledge to the People through the Zvishavane Water Project
“An Old Man Like Me”, Oxfam Progress Report, July 1988
World Development Movement Program for Mr. Phiri’s Visit as part of the North-South Interdependence campaign with the Council of Europe, July 1988 (including transcript of a radio interview, and report of a meeting) (PDF)
Chapter 4: Newspaper and Review Articles
“Where No Water Goes to Waste” (Sunday News, January 29th, 1995), Sifanele Ndlovu
“The Miracle of Water”, Somerset County Gazette, June 24th, 1988
“Doing Well on Six Acres” The Dorset Evening Echo, Monday July 4th, 1988
Reviews of The Water Harvester
Review in Spore Magazine Vol 98 (April, 2002)
Chapter 5: Testimonies
Individuals who have already contributed:
Mary Witoshynsky (PDF)
Brad Lancaster (PDF)
Colletah Chitsike’s Poem (PDF)
The nomination of Mr. Zephaniah Phiri Maseko for the 2004-2005 King Baudouin International Development Prize (PDF)
Bryn Higgs (PDF)
Ian Scoones (message)
Robin Palmer (PDF)
Achim Steiner (PDF)
Munei Chiganangana (poem dated Feb 1995) (PDF)
Irene Staunton and Murray McCartney (Nomination for a PhD, 2010)
Ian Scoones (Nomination for the King Baudouin Prize, 2004) (PDF)
Charles Hungwe (PDF)
Cecile Jackson (PDF)
Walter Nyika Mugove (PDF)
Weaver Press (PDF)
Charles Darwin Foundation (PDF)
Mwenzi Development Training Center (PDF)
Hopefully many more can and will be collected. Other individuals are being located and requested at this time: everyone is invited to contribute.