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Read a book about Zephaniah Phiri Maseko: The Water Harvester – Episodes from the Inspired Life of Zephaniah Phiri by Mary Witoshynski of Weaver Press Harare is now available from the African Books Collective, The Jam Factory, Park End Street, Oxford, OX1 1HU, tel 01865 726686, email orders@africanbooks
  A Commitment to
Soil and Water:
A Lesson from Zimbabwe

By Yasmina Zaidman

And the Lord God took man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
Genesis 2:15

Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life.
Genesis 3:17

Lush growth on Phiri's farm

The Garden of Eden, a place where nature's abundance was boundless, where man and woman could thrive with everything they needed, free from toil, hunger, and fear, was lost when the pair disobeyed God, leaving them to fend for themselves outside the garden. From hence on, the ground was cursed, and they would have to live from the sweat of their brow. So the story goes.

Yet in rural Zimbabwe, in a region prone to drought, such an Edenic garden seems to exist. At the farm of Zepheniah Phiri Maseko, crops grow quickly and bountifully, even in drought years, and the abundance on a modest three-hectare homestead is enough to support a family of 15 and raise cash for other expenses.

Zepheniah Phiri Maseko Zepheniah Phiri Maseko is a farmer whose innovations in soil and water conservation have drawn international attention and visitors from around the world. Originally inspired by the above biblical passage, Phiri has committed himself for the past nearly 50 years to conserving soil and water resources and to sharing his ideas with other farmers.

His work is based in a strong ethic of conservation, and a set of personal values that view natural resources such as soil and water as precious gifts that must be respected and protected. Now in his seventies, Phiri continues to see the possibilities for expanding the reach of his approach to putting control of soil quality and water availability into the hands of every farmer.


Read a more detailed background on
land and water challenges in the region
  The Struggle for Land and Water

The people and economy of Zimbabwe are heavily dependent on agriculture, with about 70 percent of the population reliant directly or indirectly on farming for income. In Zimbabwe, there is little land under conventional irrigation, with most crops being produced under rain fed conditions.

With little funding or runoff available for irrigation infrastructure, many rural farmers will continue to depend on rainfall to feed their plots of land. Rains in Zimbabwe and other parts of Africa are unpredictable and often scarce, and local farmers attest to the fact that they are becoming more so. This means that Zimbabwe could soon see the kind of food insecurity and malnutrition that has plagued other sub-Saharan African nations with less rainfall.

The backdrop for the water concerns of small-scale farmers lies in the issues of land distribution, and ownership. Zimbabwe has long struggled to establish land rights that will sustain the large number of small scale rural farmers, yet inequitable distribution persists.

As one Zimbabwean comments, referring to a series of settlements along an arid freeway, "That is why we are fighting for land. That is no place to farm."

Ownership is also a concern, since many farmers lack titles to their lands. As Phiri says, "Once it is my asset, I will keep it with strong care. If it is only mine for production, I will just use it up."

Phiri's homestead Phiri's homestead

Cultivation without careful management will damage the soil, further reducing one of Zimbabwe's most critical assets. Phiri expressed deep concern that farmers who are allocated land are often ignorant of soil and water management strategies, and are given the land without any system of accountability.

Phiri says, "If they don't understand how to keep the land, there is little they can do to improve their lands." To Phiri the link between quality of life and quality of soil and water is inextricable.

Harvesting Water, Protecting the Soil

Phiri's farm is located in a hilly area outside the small town of Zvishavane. This communal area consists of several farms that border his own, leaving each 3-hectare plot with little room for expansion.

Above Phiri's farm, a ruware, or rocky mound, poses a unique challenge. When heavy rains fall, this rocky area channels the water down the hill, carrying soil with it and causing major erosion.

Phiri, however, has managed to transform this challenge into an advantage. It is there, just below the rocks, that he has developed structures that achieve what he calls water "planting."

Below, in his fields, this water can be "harvested" to supply enough water to all his crops, trees, and vegetable beds without the need for conventional irrigation. Tiers of stonewall terraces catch and funnel the water from the ruware so that it seeps into the soil, replenishing the ground store.

The terraces trap grass seeds as well creating patches of protective vegetation that also slow and draw water into the soil. Silt traps catch the sand that would otherwise fill the terraces, preventing water absorption.

Rock walls beneath a ruware These rock walls are positioned beneath the ruware or rocky outcrop at the highest point in Phiri's property. They serve to slow down and force the seepage of water into the soil, preventing erosion and runoff.

Some of the water that flows through these terraces is stored in a tank that Phiri built of plaster and brick, which also receives rainwater from gutters that Phiri has built along the roof of his home. After Phiri built the tank, he reconsidered his approach.

"This tank only helps me," he said, "but what I build should help the nation." Now, most of the rain that falls goes into an underground sealed reservoir, where it accumulates throughout the rainy season, adding to the available store of water for Phiri and neighboring farmers.

Along contour lines, which are pegged by agricultural extensionists from the government, ridges must be built by all farmers to harness water and reduce soil erosion. But Phiri has taken this idea much further. Along these ridges he has built what he calls "infiltration pits" that will fill with water before runoff can flow horizontally across the fields.

Once filled, these pits slowly drain water into the soil. During the rainy season these pits often reveal that the water table has risen to less than a meter below the surface. Plants with supporting roots line each pit, protecting them from collapse.

Infiltration pit In the lower part of Phiri's property, an infiltration pit lined with protective plants is filled with water, indicating the level of saturation of the ground

These miniature ponds are one of the most remarkable sights at Phiri's farm, since the average water table in Bean plant the area is approximately fifteen meters below the surface. Through his water harvesting techniques, Phiri has managed to significantly raise the water table under his farmland and for neighboring farms.

Further down, on the north side of the farm, the evidence of this abundance of water is revealed in the oversized stalks of maize, two-story mango and banana trees, and lush vegetable gardens that grow on or between each crop area. These vegetable plots grow sweet potatoes, beans, paprika, carrots, tomatoes, onions, pumpkins, cabbages, and more, which provide for his family and can be sold throughout the year. Such variety is unique to such small-scale farmers, who usually rely on one cash crop like maize, cotton, or tobacco.

Keeping Nature Natural

With his approach to cultivation, Phiri is able to avoid the need for artificial fertilizers or pesticides. Phiri believes in inter-cropping, a practice based in traditional farming methods, where various kinds of crops are grown together. Phiri explains that this approach has several benefits, including soil nutrition and pest control.

Pests are discouraged from eating the crops they would normally consume by the presence of other plants nearby, while plants like beans and peas fix nitrogen in the soil. Along with manure from his own livestock, Phiri is able to provide the soil with needed nutrients.

Below the lush planting area, Phiri has constructed two ponds that store the accumulated ground water. One is a fishpond, where his sons fish for bream, and the other is linked to a pipe system that draws water into the fields through a canal when necessary.

Fish pond The fish pond pictured here behind Zepehniah's family provides a home to fish for consumption, as well as to a variety of bird species that use this lush area as a natural haven

Both ponds are lined with reeds, sugarcane, bananas, kikuyu and elephant grass, which protect the banks. These ponds, and the lush foliage nearby, attract a variety of birds and wildlife, transforming this small farm into something of a wildlife refuge.

A well also supplies pure drinking water and is a resource to other farmers in times of need. Though waterlogging of his plants, especially in the lower end of his farm, has been known to occur during extremely wet years, Phiri finds the benefits of his approach outweigh the occasional loss of crops from excessive water. If a crop is lost due to waterlogging, he is able to recover with another crop in the same year.

Well This well supplies water for cooking, cleaning and drinking. During times of drought, other farmers also use this well.

Such abundance of water is extremely rare in these parts, and is the reason why farmers from throughout the region, as well as Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Swaziland, and as far as Germany and Japan, have come to see his work. Since 1997, over a thousand visitors from outside this region have visited his remote farm, and local visitors are so frequent and numerous, that he has ceased to count them.

Visitors are eager to learn about how Phiri's designs work, and how they too can cultivate a similar abundance on their farms. Most importantly, they are seeking ways to escape the cycles of drought and erosion that so many farmers face.

Talking with a farmer Phiri speaks with a fellow farmer about strategies and techniques for soil and water management

Phiri's Plan

With his terraces, pits, sand traps, ponds, and tanks, Phiri is consistently able to control more than 50 percent of the runoff from rain, while in most countries it is only possible to store and control 20-50 percent of the total runoff, according to water expert Sandra Postrel. In her 1998 publication, "Pillars of Sand," she describes the immediate link between ability to control run-off and food security.

Phiri has found a way to dramatically increase control of run-off, and has tripled his output with two more harvests a year than most farmers here see. In addition, the quality of his soil is conserved, providing long-term security in continued strong harvests.

With his water harvesting techniques, Phiri is able to accumulate enough water in a good rainy season (at least three heavy rainfalls) to see him through two years of drought. In 1991 and 1992, Zimbabwe suffered a severe drought, and it was then that Phiri's strategies began to receive greater attention, as his crops thrived while others' were lost.

Not content to enjoy the fruits if his labor alone, Phiri has made his farm into a living university for other farmers, attracting them from farms throughout the region and from around the world. In 1988, he was recognized by Oxfam for his work and received the initial funding he needed to start the Zvishavane Water Project (ZWP).

The ZWP helps communities with projects such as dams, fishponds, roof rainwater tanks, reforestation, livestock improvement, and cooperative vegetable gardens. Its work spreads throughout communities in the two districts of Zvishavane and neighboring Chivi. Based on the belief that water and soil are of primary importance for these rural communities, the ZWP staff is dedicated to teaching others how to manage their precious soil and water resources.

Phiri's innovations have been noted in news periodicals in Zimbabwe and in the Sustainable Agriculture Extension Manual published by the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction in 1998. His work may also soon be featured in a book entitled The Water Harvester: Memoirs from Zimbabwe. Phiri was recognized for his innovative work and elected as an Ashoka Fellow in 1997.

Phiri's Genesis

To say that Zepheniah Phiri's success as an innovator is purely the result of his creativity and hard work would be to oversimplify. A deeply spiritual man, Phiri is driven by a commitment to honoring and conserving land and water for its spiritual value. To him, faith in God translates into a deep respect for the bounty that can be drawn from nature.

Members of Phiri's family Members of the Phiri homestead stand beside his thriving maize fields and a fishpond that he built.

Phiri tends to view natural phenomenon such as the interaction of soil and water, the properties of plants, and even his own innate abilities as an engineer, as gifts. His work extends from this set of personal values, and he encourages others to respect the soil and water as the source of life.

Phiri draws his inspiration from a variety of sources, including childhood lessons from his missionary father, recollections of lessons from school (where they teach basic principles of farming), his knowledge of traditional farming techniques, and an uncanny enthusiasm for creative experimentation. In a characteristic gesture, he often points to his graying head and says "I thought about it and said, why not try this."

Though he has not experienced any major failures with his designs, he has continued to modify and improve his techniques for better results. These innovations are then transferred to the field through the Zvishavane Water Project.

Phiri's willingness to challenge the status quo is reflected in his life history. Though he began his adult life working for the Zimbabwe National Railroad, he was eventually blacklisted for his political involvement. He then began farming, but was imprisoned during the civil war when it was discovered that Freedom Fighters has hidden arms at his farm.

While in prison he was shackled in leg manacles for three months and debilitated, requiring physical rehabilitation for two years before he could return to farming. Though he still walks with a slight limp, he regularly leads tours throughout his farm and appears tirelessly enthusiastic to share his work.

Phiri in pit As he has developed his innovative approaches in farming he has again found himself amidst controversy, and was arrested three times for disobeying bylaws related to cultivation in wetlands or dambos and among waterways. Dambos become waterlogged seasonally, and help channel runoff to streams and rivers. They provide a significant ecological service, and so must be carefully managed if they are to be cultivated.

After demonstrating to agricultural officials the benefits of his practice of planting in wetlands to prevent siltation, he was released each time. Now, the government allows limited cultivation in nearby wetlands by farmers who have been approved by Phiri for sustainable wetland cultivation.

Many of the strategies employed by Phiri have their roots in various traditions and technologies from around the world. Others were developed through Phiri's own relentless zest for experimentation. But what truly sets this farm apart is the employment of every possible strategy to prevent runoff, as though the water itself were as precious as gold, and each drop counted.

This level of commitment, and the effectiveness with which it has been executed, are the reasons behind the success of Phiri's farm. It is this sense of personal commitment that he tries to instill in others.

"When I visit farmers, I say, 'You must commit yourself to the soil'," he said. Once this is achieved and farmers dedicate themselves to conservation, Phiri says they will naturally see increased yields. He also believes one must live by example, and says that his designs and the success of his farm speak for themselves.

In this spirit, Phiri intends to build a visitor's center with the help of his family and in-kind support from the local District Administrator. With a visitor's center he will be better equipped to accommodate the larger groups of farmers who are visiting each year. In addition, he wants to add another well to his property that can provide water to his family and neighboring communities more conveniently.

The Zvishavane Water Project is in the process of building its own offices and looks forward to expanding its reach to other neighboring communities who are expressing an interest in their development projects. According to Phiri, the best fit for his approach lies in southern Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Ethiopia, and Mozambique. His model has also been applied in parts of Zambia and Malawi. The ZWP sees the need to diversify its funding base in order to expand its work.

An Ethic for Local and Global Change

The success of Phiri's farm and the Zvishavane Water Project suggests that the problems of water scarcity that are now seen around the world need not be resolved through large scale irrigation infrastructure and dams. In her book "Pillars of Sand," Sandra Postel notes that solutions like the ones developed and tested here are not only more affordable and efficient, yielding results in months rather than years, but they also suggest a new approach to water management that emphasizes communities and small-scale farmers.

However, the problems of land and water scarcity are global in scale, and growing. Innovations at the local level, like Phiri's, are critical to addressing the immediate need for improved food security. But significant climate change and population growth could erase the opportunities presented by responsible local resource management.

A drought of more than four years and continued land shortages cannot be addressed through soil and water conservation alone. Phiri's approach must be viewed as part of a global partnership to ameliorate climate change and population growth.

Indicator hole This hole serves as an indicator of the water table. Each time it fills after a rain, it shows that enough water has seeped through the soil to replenish the underground store. If this occurs three times during a rainy season, Phiri's farm will be supplied with water through up to two years of drought.

The basis of his work, which is ethical and not technological in nature, also belies the importance of applying a set of values that includes stewardship of nature and human communities. These values relate not only to the rural farmer, but to human activity worldwide.

Ultimately, the solutions to many of the challenges faced due to environmental degradation may have their source in human ingenuity and a society-wide commitment to sustainability and conservation that echoes Phiri's own.

Sitting under the canopy of intertwining bougainvillea bushes at his homestead, Phiri watches one of his ducks flap its wings violently against the ground. "That duck is prophesying rain," he says. The rain may come, as predicted by the duck, but even while other farmers wait eagerly, for now, Phiri's not worried.


Currently, Phiri's organization, the Zvishavane Water Project, seeks additional funding and other forms of in-kind support so that it can continue to provide services and training in water and soil management to neighboring communities and expand its outreach efforts.


Zepheniah Phiri
The Zvishavane Water Project
P.O. Box 118
Zvishavane, Zimbabwe
Phone: 263 51 3250

Yasmina Zaidman is Associate Director for the Environmental Innovations Initiative at Ashoka – Innovators for the Public, which links environmental innovators in a network to exchange ideas and strategies. Since graduating from Vassar College in 1995 with a degree in Hispanic Studies, she has worked with the Global Futures Foundation and Ecotech to bridge the gap between business and environmental objectives.

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