Archive for September, 2013

Sustainable food matters

Sustainability in agrofood systems can be defined a variety of ways. To summarise a few common notions: a sustainable food system should minimise the use of non-renewable inputs; should not take more from the environment than is put back in; should act fairly with regard for all other human beings both now and in the future; should care for the Earth and our environments, including other living beings; and should create healthy, nourishing foods to be consumed mindfully.  Furthermore, sustainable agriculture works with local farmers’ knowledge, improving self-reliance and building on human and social capital.  This weekly column explores these ideas and reports on examples of sustainability projects from around Zimbabwe that are working towards these goals.


Dr Pamela Ngwenya is a postdoctoral researcher at DITSL, School of Organic Agricultural Sciences, University of Kassel. This research was undertaken as part of a fellowship at the School of Built Environment and Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal.


Published by Newsday, 25 September 2013:

The Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust (CELUCT) in Chikukwa, Chimanimani district, is an inspiring community permaculture project that began in 1991. In October 2011, I was fortunate to tour the area.

Chikukwa is a beautiful, lush and mountainous area that encompasses six villages and is home to about 1000 people.  At the time of the project’s inception, however, the place looked very different and the community faced a troubling and deteriorating situation; the whole environment was in a state of degradation with landslides, soil erosion, hunger, droughts and flooding characterizing the area.

These problems were discussed in the community and in 1991, a group got together and decided to try and do something about it. To begin with, thirty farmers received some initial training in permaculture and natural resource management. Permaculture is an approach to sustainability that has the motto of ‘caring of earth, caring of people, and returning of the surplus’. Permaculture is primarily a set of design principles and techniques, all deeply attentive to the specific location.   Burnett’s Beginners Guide to Permaculture states that “permaculture is about creating sustainable human habitats by following nature’s patterns” (Burnett 2008, p8).

From the initial training, six dedicated souls decided to work together as volunteers, to act as agents of change. They became the catalysts of the incipient community program that was to transform Chikukwa. Through permaculture-based activities, they began to transform their degraded environment, bringing more people on board as the months passed. There are three project levels, depending on the actions being taken: household projects, such as establishing a fish pond or kitchen garden; group projects to develop, for example, an orchard or to create a terrace or hedgerow; and community projects, such as rehabilitating a hillside or water source.

Impressively, the community applied permaculture methods to transform the local gullies and springs, restoring their water supply and managing surface water during the rains. They then built a community-wide water storage and distribution system. As a result, nearly all homesteads now have piped, clean tap water fed by a rehabilitated local spring!

Practices such as agroforestry, inter-cropping, mulching, holistic design and the use of open-pollinated indigenous crop varieties were used to reverse the damage that had been wrought by past over-grazing, mono-cropping and poor environmental conservation practices.  Nutrition gardens, home orchards, seed-sharing, hedging and terracing became common practices and as a result, hunger and apathy in the community were greatly reduced.

In 1995, the community came together to build a community hall and a farmer ‘permaculture school’ (or permachikoro, as they termed it) began. Here, local farmers became teachers, sharing their particular skills and knowledge with others through regular peer-to-peer sharing sessions. The Centre is now well-equipped with offices, guest accommodation, classrooms, a kitchen and a preschool, as well as a beautiful demonstration garden. Permaculture trainings are facilitated at the Centre for people travelling from far and wide to learn from this model of community-led, holistic development.

Permaculture, as an approach and design tool, has been successfully mobilised in Chikukwa to harness local indigenous knowledge systems. The area’s initial problems of deforestation, hunger, drought and flooding have been improved through grassroots collective action, developing new relationships with each other and with the environment.

Patience Sithole, one of the initial founders, identified a few challenges that the community continues to face: difficulties in generating a cash income given the remoteness of Chikukwa’s location from markets (it is 170km to Mutare); fundraising in the context of a global recession; inadequate resources to employ professional administrators; and more largely, the threat of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to maintaining local food sovereignty and safety.

For more information, see:

CELUCT (2007) ‘Chikukwa, Then and Now: 15 years of building community and securing life.’ Pemba Productions.

CELUCT website:

View videos from Chikukwa here:



Published by Newsday on 11th September 2013:

It is by now accepted that large areas of grasslands around the world are undergoing desertification; an estimated one-third of the Earth’s surface is covered with grasslands that are facing the threat of desertification. In Zimbabwe, much of the Region 5 designated areas of the country face such a problem.

Overgrazing is often blamed for degrading lands and desertification. But it is important to understand that overgrazing is a function of time and not of animal numbers.  Overgrazing is most often a result of livestock returning to a grass plant before it has had time to regenerate.

As the Savory Institute put it:

“In the past, large wild herds of herbivores such as caribou and buffalo migrated over the land to find food and avoid predators. These herds grazed, defecated, stomped and salivated as they moved across the grasslands, building soil and deepening plant roots. Once these herds had migrated onward they would not return to an area until it had recovered.

Unfortunately, over time, the wild herds disappeared and were replaced by small numbers of domestic, sedentary livestock. Without the timely stomping and excrement of large numbers of animals, the cycle of biological decay in these grasslands was interrupted and the once-rich soils turned into dry, exposed desert land.”[1]

A research paper by Constance L. Neely and Jody Butterfield argues that “when animals are allowed to roam at will, they will indeed revisit plants before the plants can recover. However, when animals are herded so as to ensure that they do not re-graze plants before they have recovered, then overgrazing is no longer an issue.”[2]

At the African Holistic Management Centre (AHMC) in Dimbangombe, (near Victoria Falls), around 400 cattle and 100 small livestock are herded together in compact areas. Many of the cattle belong to community members from Hwange, where forage and water are becoming scarce due to a lack of grazing management.  By mimicking the behaviour of wild herds and keeping the livestock moving, the AHMC minimize overgrazing, leading to an increase in ground cover. This system is called ‘planned grazing’. The livestock are also kept together in a compact, mobile krall overnight. After 7 days, the krall is moved, leaving behind a manured and hoof-trampled area. This is perfect for regeneration of grasses and seedling growth. The planned grazing strategy uses the livestock to improve soil aeration, soil fertility and rainwater penetration. It also gives the grasslands time to regenerate.

Up until four years ago, there was only one permanent water source on the entire Dimbangombe ranch. Today, as a result of the planned grazing strategy, parts of the rivers now flow throughout the year, lasting through the first 8 months of the dry season. This is a sign of rising groundwater levels and is due to less bare ground, which allows the rainwater to sink into the soil, rather than running over the surface and evaporating. The river water is clean and the river banks are healthy and well-vegetated, reducing erosion.

This method of livestock management has been tested all over the world and is proved to be an excellent tool for regenerating grasslands and restoring water catchments. As has been shown at Dimbangombe, there is much potential for planned grazing to help rejuvenate degraded environments in Zimbabwe.

Useful websites:

The Savory Institute:

The African Holistic Management Centre:

For more information contact: Africa Centre for Holistic Management, Private Bag 5950
Victoria Falls. Tel:  (0) 712 431 956 Email:


Published by Newsday on 9th September, 2013:

In Zimbabwe, 1.6 million are estimated to be dependent on food aid and 34% are considered ‘chronically malnourished’.[1]  There is much contrast in food access and diversity between different areas of the country and between the urban and rural.  In urban areas, shops now stock a plentiful supply of fresh produce and dried goods, with much of it imported from South Africa.  But access to food is dependent on access to cash and with up to 90% (depending on your source) estimated to be unemployed, many Zimbabweans rely on family members working outside of the country in order to buy food.

In this context, ‘food security’ has been high on the donor agenda.  Food security is generally defined as a condition where “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”[2] This has been a primary goal of most of the small agrofood projects that I have visited in Zimbabwe. Generating a stable source of nutrition for communities is high on the agenda, given the spiralling levels of food insecurity since the mid-2000s.

This insecurity is generally explained by a decreased access to cash and increasing food prices, rather than a decline in agricultural productivity or food availability. Belonging to a community garden project is one strategy to fight food insecurity. Community gardens provide participating members with a regular supply of fresh vegetables for home consumption and therefore address household food insecurity in an effective way, (although cash is still required for purchase of maize meal).

Multiple sustainability strategies including conservation farming, permaculture and organic farming are underway at these gardens, depending on the agenda of the support organisation.  But in my mind, what is interesting at many projects is a consciousness of taking control of one’s own food supply chain.  Whereas a concern solely with food security could render these gardens obsolete once the cash income of participants rises (so that they no longer have difficulty paying for food), a concern with self-determination of the food supply chain makes gardening an act of empowerment and an assertion of self-sufficiency.

Having this power over what you eat can be thought of in terms of ‘food sovereignty’. This has been defined as ‘the right of people to produce, distribute and consume healthy food in or near their territory in an ecologically sustainable manner’.[3] Food sovereignty supports local supply chains and also promotes indigenous foods. Taking control of one’s own food supply chain can also be connected to concerns over food safety. Didymus Taruvinga, lead farmer at the Mountain of Hope Organic Garden project in Wedza, spoke of concerns over the effect of pesticide application on the nutritional qualities of food: “We realised that the chemicals … being used during the production of carrots is going to give after-effects to the people who consume”. Their organic community garden project gives members a sense of empowerment over the safety and quality of their food.

Food sovereignty is also about knowledge; either knowing and growing your own food or codifying such knowledge through certification schemes such as the FairTrade label or, here in Zimbabwe, the ZimOrganic label. Such certification schemes are dependent on trust. This point reminds us of the importance of building and maintaining strong consumer standards and monitoring organisations in Zimbabwe.

In Harare, concerned farmers and citizens have joined Zimbabwe Organic Producers and Promoters Association (ZOPPA), who have recently created the ZimOrganic label and are pursuing an agenda of public education, farmer monitoring and the setting of legally binding standards, thereby attempting to generate awareness and trust throughout the food supply chain.  The Mountain of Hope farmers in Wedza, facilitated by ZOPPA and Fambidzanai Permaculture Training Centre, are one of the first to adopt the ZimOrganic scheme to certify their produce under these international organic standards.

For organic farmers and consumers, food sovereignty -taking control of one’s own food supply chain- is just as important as food security. It is about knowing what you are eating and where it comes from; it is about the power to make informed food choices. An interest in food sovereignty is also important to the long-term sustainability of community garden projects, which can otherwise fall apart in times when cash is more readily available.


[1] UNICEF (2013) Building a Zimbabwe fit for children,

[2] World Food Summit 1996

[3] Altieri, M.A. and Toledo, V. (2011) The agroecological revolution in Latin America: rescuing nature, ensuring food sovereignty and empowering peasants. Journal of Peasant Studies, 38 (3), 587-612, pp.588