Obituary: In memory of the water harvester

The late Zephaniah Phiri

The late Zephaniah Phiri

Ian Scoones
The famed “water harvester” of Zvishavane, Zephaniah Phiri, died on Tuesday aged 88. He was an inspiration to many, and certainly to me. When I was in my 20s he taught me so much about agricultural ecology and rural development – indeed far more than I ever learned from textbooks or university courses. And it has stayed with me as a source of knowledge and guidance. Since then I have always tried to visit him at his home at Msipane when in Zimbabwe, and it has always been a joy to see him and his family. Each time there have been new developments on his farm to share, as well as the usual gossip and stories. He was the true local innovator, always trying out new solutions and sharing them widely. It was wonderful to welcome him to our own home in the UK in 2001, and hear him challenge us about our own extravagant and wasteful water use. It is a terribly sad loss, but his legacy will live on in the huge influence he has had on agriculture and soil and water conservation in Zimbabwe – and indeed much further afield.

Phiri was educated at Dadaya Mission, for which his father, Amon Phiri (“Bvuma”) was a renowned evangelist who played a lead role under Garfield Todd in the Church of Christ Mission after its Africanisation in 1938.

Phiri himself played a leadership role in the Church in the 1960s and 1970s, including in establishing Makiwa Church near his home.

Phiri’s early career as a fireman on the railways was cut short by his detention in the early 1960s at Gonakudzingwa for his union and other political activities. Following his release in the mid­ 1960s he was blacklisted from formal employment by the Rhodesian Front government.

Forced to depend upon a small piece of poor land on the edge of a vlei near Msipane in the Runde Communal lands, Phiri experimented with wells, ponds and other water management systems from the late 1960s until Independence. Arrested three times for “farming a waterway” the magistrate eventually demanded to see Phiri’s land, ultimately ruling against the government’s L.D.O. (Land Development Officer) and granting Phiri resource rights to use his conservation farming in his wetland. In 1973 a more progressive LDO brought local farmers to see his drought-­beating methods.

In 1973 Phiri opened his first pond. Ponds enabled holding more water in the vlei, without waterlogging the soils. As the liberation war expanded he was again detained under house arrest by the Rhodesian authorities in 1976 and severely tortured. His tribulations continued until the end of war, with a long period in leg­irons. He never regained his hearing in one ear, but physiotherapy improved the use of his leg.

After Independence his farm became the focus of much interest by local farmer groups and NGOs. Phiri continued to increase water storage on the farm and to diversify his homestead production system with extensive orchards, including of mango and banana, the sale of reeds for basket making, the adoption of bees, and the development of indigenous permacultural techniques to improve soil and protect areas from run­-off.

From 1982-­1986 he served as a Community Liaison Officer for the Lutheran World Federation water programme in the Zvishavane and Mberengwa region. The focus was on protecting wells and on small concrete dams in seasonal streams. Working closely with the District Development Fund and local councillors this revolutionised water and sanitation in the area after Independence. Still active on his land he founded the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation Project in 1984 and helped many other local gardening groups.

From 1986 to 1988 KB Wilson invited him to join the research team of the University of London/University of Zimbabwe agricultural ecology study in Mazvihwa (Zvishavane) with Mathou Chakavanda, Johnson Madyakuseni, BB Mukamuri, Abraham Mawere Ndhlovu, me and others.

Phiri was responsible for action research around soil and water management and again in collaboration with DDF, he assisted Mazvihwans to sink wells, to build more small dams and to improve gardening. His studies also transformed the research team’s understanding of the hydrology of these watersheds and their wetlands.

Stimulated by the experiments with sand filtration using concrete rings, Phiri discovered in 1987 the concept of “Phiri pits” – holes in contour trenches where water accumulates designed to drive water infiltration deep into the soils up-slope to feed down slope fields later in the season.

During the 1980s and 1990s he placed Phiri pits across his land. Efforts to replicate this system were widespread in the region, the most wellknown being by Kuda Murwira and Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in Chivi.

He founded the Zvishavane Water Project (ZWP) in 1988 and served as its Director until his retirement in 1996. One of the country’s first indigenous NGOs, ZWP secured support from many local and international donors and played a major role in Zvishavane and neighbouring districts with the provision of water for domestic and agricultural uses.

Meanwhile Phiri continued to receive 25­ to 30 visitors a month to his farm.

Based upon analysis of his Visitor’s Book, Phiri officially received close to 10,000 visitors over the last thirty years. These visitors included people from every government department, research station, university, district in Zimbabwe and thirty different NGOs; as well as people from 14 African countries and 9 other countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America. The visitors included thousands of farmers who came on their own or with local NGOs, and Agritex/Arex officers and spread his ideas, and especially his faith in farmer innovation and responsibility.

As he became more and more well known, he received international recognition through the Ashoka fellowship and National Geographic Society/Buffet Award for Leadership in African Conservation. Proposed at his Lifetime Achievement Award event in 2010, the Phiri Award Farm and Food Innovators was launched under the chairmanship of Professor Mandivamba Rukuni and other leading figures in the sustainable agriculture field in Zimbabwe to offer an annual award for indigenous innovation among Zimbabwean farmers. The first awards were presented in 2014, in Phiri’s presence.

The award, the legacy of Zvishavane Water Projects and the work of the Muonde Trust, as well as his homestead in Msipane, will continue the lifetime work of Phiri.

He will be sorely missed by all of us, but his work lives on. A remarkable person, a remarkable life.

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