A Zimbabwean NGO teaches local people about permaculture and agroecology. New skills have encouraged people to grow their food in a sustainable manner and start businesses around organic foods.
The red African soil whirls as we arrive at Mount Hampden, next to Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare. Half an hour away from the buzzing streets of the city, in the middle of nature, lies Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre, a place where locals come to learn about sustainable agriculture and agroecology.
The centre was founded in 1988. It was started by Zimbabwean permaculture teacher and agricultural reformer John Wilson, with support from other groups of farmer activists who were concerned about the negative effects of conventional farming methods on the environment and local communities.
The organisation aims to empower individuals, households and communities to improve their livelihoods and protect the environment through sustainable agriculture and natural resource management. This happens, for example, by organising demonstrations and workshops where people can come and learn about permaculture.
The centre also offers programmes and services, including permaculture design courses, a Diploma in Agroecology programme and community outreach initiatives.
Locals come and learn at the demonstration farm
Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre has a food forest consisting of indigenous and exotic trees, a herb garden and a farm where the cultivation of different roots and vegetables takes place. These serve as a demonstration farm showcasing permaculture techniques and a model for sustainable agriculture practices. Different kinds of composts are used to create enriched soil that gets used at the farm.
Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre gets curious visitors weekly, and the organisation trains approximately one or two groups of 15 people each month – they come and partake in courses. On top of this, the organisation gets visitors who come and take part in demonstrations and workshops, usually about 60 people a month.
The centre also sells herbs and medicinal plants. The idea is that, at minimum cost, women or young people can, for example, start a business of selling herbs and plants. The aim is to cater for marginalised groups so that they can have income-generating projects. Some also grow the plants for herbal remedies.
The organisation also teaches people to do propagation with trees; the plants grow both from seeds and cuttings as well as roots.
“Farmers and young people come, and our organisation teaches them how to grow, bud and graft. When they go back to their communities, they can share the information they’ve learnt. People can start making a living out of it,” explains Tichaona Charova, land supervisor at Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre.
The centre has potatoes, tomatoes, beans, onions, mustard leaf, spinach and peppers, amongst others, growing at the permaculture farm. The harvest from the farm gets sold to the local communities who buy the vegetables for their families or resell them for profit. The rest of the harvest gets sold to commercial buyers in the capital city, Harare.
Bosha family puts permaculture learnings into action
The Bosha family is putting skills gained at the permaculture centre in action. They have a 4-hectare farm in the area of Goromonzi, about an hour from Harare, where they do soil improvement for commercial purposes and grow different kinds of vegetables and fruits.
The father, Oliver Bosha has been practising permaculture for more than two decades. For him, permaculture started as a hobby when he was still at school. His interest in agroecology, however, led him to attend a course at Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre where he learnt how to work with soil and improve it, and how to cultivate in a biodynamic way, each plant supporting the growth of the others.
Now the family uses the improved soil they produce at their own farm and sells it in town for income. Local clients buy the organic soil to use in their own gardens to enhance the richness of the soil.
“We can’t produce enough of enriched soil, as there’s a big demand for it,” Oliver Bosha says.
At its own farm, the Bosha family grows maize, carrots, beans, peas, tomatoes and other vegetables, as well as pineapples and watermelons. They sell the harvest to local communities around the farm, and that provides enough income for the family.
The biggest challenge the Bosha family faces with permaculture is pests. As they practise organic permaculture, they do not use agro-chemicals or commercial pesticides, and that occasionally means that the harvest gets damaged by plant-eating insects. But practising biodynamic cultivation helps; certain plants repel insects and planting them together with the vegetables can help keep bugs at bay.
For Oliver Bosha, permaculture has been a life-long learning process. Having learnt about permaculture two decades ago, he has been able to increase the number of different kinds of vegetables, generate enough income to put his children through school and sustain the family. He has also taught permaculture himself.
“In the future I want to grow more fruits, so we’ll be planting them in the coming months,” Oliver Bosha says.
Appreciation of permaculture keeps growing
Although permaculture has been the main form of agriculture for thousands of years, its more formalised form has not necessarily been appreciated in Zimbabwe, according to Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre. The people have not understood what permaculture is trying to achieve, so there has been a lack of funding and allocation of resources.
This has, however, changed in recent decades. With gradually increased training and the understanding of human and environmental health, climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as reducing the extreme poverty of the marginalised community, permaculture has gained ground.
“People appreciate the holistic approach to food production systems that we have been teaching since the early 2000s,” says Justice Ncube, Communications Officer for Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre.
According to Justice Ncube, the skills enhancement in permaculture has been successful with a lot of smallholder farmers adopting some of the principles.
“Even the government is warming up to the idea of permaculture and agroecology and there is policy formulation around it that’s proceeding with their blessing,” he says.
But there are still challenges that occur. According to Justice Ncube, the Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre does not have enough resources to reach as many people as it would like to, but there is much progress taking place: Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre is increasing the coverage of communities reached by its training by offering formal education in agroecology to government extension workers. The education leads to a diploma in collaboration with Bindura University of Science Education.
“We are working around the creation of an interactive virtual platform for continuous learning and interaction with stakeholders and farmers,” says Justice Ncube.
The goal for Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre is to become an agroecology centre of excellence offering formal and informal education in permaculture to all interested parties. The organisation intends to continue working in the policy sector in identifying policy gaps and legislation gaps that limit the growth of family farmers, local food systems and landscape restoration.
“We’re building a critical mass to create a movement that will significantly impact policies to do with food, agriculture, trade, environment and culture, says Justice Ncube.