CASE STUDY: drought resistant farming in Africa

Brad Lancaster meets an inspirational farmer proving just how much is possible for farmers in Africa, even in times of extreme drought
An endless stream of humour, poetic analogies and stories poured out of him. The best story of all was his own.

During an extended trip through southern Africa in the summer of 1995, I had the privilege of meeting a true ecological visionary. His name is Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, but to the Permaculture Trust of Botswana (who directed me to him), as well as to hundreds of people throughout the region, he is known more generally as ‘the man who farms water’.

As a longtime student of sustainability and rainwater harvesting, I’ve found an abundance of simple, inspiring, and highly effective strategies practised in areas having far fewer available resources than the United States. On this trip I’d been through the arid and temperate regions of South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe, with the goal of observing at first hand, proven strategies for sustainable living that I might be able to bring home and adapt to the similar climates of the southwest USA.

Gazing out of the window of a colourful old bus roaring through the countryside of southern Zimbabwe, I was struck by both the beauty of the land and its similarities to my home: rolling hills of yellow grass on red earth, broken up by small thickets of twisting, umbrella-like trees. Almost nine hours later, we crested a pass of low-lying semi-desert vegetation; below us spread a vast, dry prairie veldt capped with barren outcroppings of granite. Trees were sparse. A brilliant expanse of blue sky stretched overhead, reminiscent of the sky above the open grasslands of southeastern Arizona. The bus crept slowly downhill and stopped in Zvishavane, a small rural town in a province of the same name.

The local director of CARE International escorted me to a row of single-storey houses. One of these was the simple office of the Zvishavane Water Resources Project, and there on the porch sat the water farmer himself, reading the Bible. As my ride came to a stop he sprang up, beaming. Here at last was Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko. When he learned how far I had travelled to meet him, he burst into wonderful laughter. He explained that lately, visitors from all over the globe seemed to be dropping in about once a week. Then he jumped in his jeep and we drove off together over worn, eroded dirt roads toward his farm. An endless stream of humour, poetic analogies and stories poured out of him. The best story of all was his own.

The Garden of Eden, Mark II

In 1964, Phiri was fired from his job on the railway for being politically active against the white-minority-led Rhodesian government. The government told him that he would never work again. With a family of eight to support, Phiri turned to the only two things he had – an overgrazed and eroding 7.4-acre (three-hectare) family landholding, and the Bible.

He put the Scriptures to use as a kind of gardening manual. Reading Genesis, Phiri was struck by the realisation that everything Adam and Eve needed was provided in the Garden of Eden. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘I must create my own Garden of Eden.’ Gifted also with a firm grasp of geography, however, he realised that Adam and Eve had had the benefit of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in their region, while he didn’t have even an ephemeral creek. ‘So,’ he thought, ‘I must also create my own rivers.’

The family farm is located on the north-northeast-facing slope of a hill providing good winter sun to the site (important in the southern hemisphere). The top of the hill is a large exposed granite dome from which stormwater runoff once freely and erosively flowed. The average annual rainfall in the region is just over 22 inches (570mm). However, as Phiri points out, this average is based on extremes. Many years are drought years, when the land is lucky to receive 12 inches (304mm) of rain. When Phiri began farming, it was very difficult to grow crops successfully, let alone make a profit. There were frequent droughts and he had no money for deep wells, pumps, fuel and other equipment needed for groundwater irrigation.

Along with everyone else in the area, Phiri was dependent on the rains for water. Storms always brought him outside to observe how water flowed across his land. He noticed that moisture lingered longer in small depressions and in the upslope of rocks and plants than it did in areas where sheet flow went unchecked. He was struck by a realisation: he could mimic and enhance areas of his land where this was occurring.

Thus began Phiri’s self-education and work in rainwater harvesting, or ‘water farming’. Thirty years later, this humble, hard-working African farmer has managed to create a sustainable system that now provides all the water needs of his land and farm – which has thrived as a result – and his household, from rainfall alone.

Check dams – and ‘immigration centre’

‘You start catchment upstream, before the old deep gullies form downstream,’ said Phiri. Beginning at the top of the watershed, he built unmortared stone walls at random intervals on contour (along lines of equal elevation). These ‘check dam walls’ slow or ‘check’ the flow of storm runoff and disperse the water as it moves through winding paths between the stones. Runoff is then more easily managed because it never gets a chance to build up to more destructive volumes and velocities. Controlled runoff from the granite dome is then directed to unlined reservoirs just below.

The larger of the two reservoirs is what Phiri calls (with a characteristic flair for metaphor) his ‘immigration centre’. ‘It is here that I welcome the water to my farm and then direct it to where it will live in the soil,’ he told me. The water is directed into the soil as quickly as possible. The reservoirs are located at the highest point in the landscape where soil begins to cover the granite bedrock.

Above the reservoirs, the slope is steep, with very little soil. At and below the reservoir, the slope is gentle and soil has accumulated. ‘The soil is like a tin,’ Phiri explains. ‘The tin should hold all water. Gullies and erosion are like holes in the tin that allow water and organic matter to escape. These must be plugged.’

Phiri’s ‘immigration centre’ is also a water gauge. He now knows from his long experience that if it fills three times in a season, enough rain will have infiltrated the soil of his entire farm to support the bulk of his vegetation for two years.

The reservoirs occasionally fill with sand carried in the runoff water. This is used for mixing concrete, or for reinforcing the mass of the reservoir wall. Gravity brings this resource to Phiri free of charge.

Overflow from the smaller reservoir is directed, via a short pipe, to an aboveground ferro-cement (steel-reinforced concrete) cistern that feeds the family’s courtyard garden in dry spells. The family has another cistern, shaded and cooled by a lush, food-producing passion vine. This cistern collects water from the roof of the house for potable use inside.

Aside from these two cisterns, all the water-harvesting structures on the farm enable water to infiltrate directly into the soil. Nothing is wasted. Even all the grey water (used wash water) from an outdoor washbasin is drained to a covered, unmortared, stone-lined, underground cistern where the water is percolated into the soil and made available to the roots of surrounding plants.

Across the farm’s entire watershed, from top to bottom, numerous water-harvesting structures act as nets that collect the flow of surface runoff and quickly infiltrate the water into the soil before it can evaporate. These include check dams, vegetation planted on contour, terraces, berm ’n’ basins (dug out basins and earthen or vegetated berms laid out on contour), and infiltration basins (basins without berms). All these handmade structures catch and put to use water that was once lost to a government-built drainage system.

Many years before, the government of Zimbabwe had built large drainage swales throughout the region. Unlike water-harvesting swales or berm ’n’ basins, these ditches were not placed across the slopes on contour (to retain water), but instead were built so they would drain water off the land. Vast amounts of unhindered monsoon runoff were caught by the drainage swale, carried away to a central drainage, and shot out to the distant floodplain. The erosion problem was addressed, but drought intensified because the area was being robbed of its sole source of water.

From conception to fruition

Phiri turned things around by digging a series of large ‘fruition pits’ (basins about 12 feet long, by three to six feet wide, by four to six feet deep) in the bottoms of all the government drainage swales on his land. Now, when it rains, the pits fill with water and the overflow successively fills one pit after another across his property. Long after the rain stops, water remains in the fruition pits, percolating into the soil.

The fruit of Phiri’s fruition pits takes the form of thatch grasses, fruit trees and timber trees, which are planted in and around the pits. This vegetation provides building materials, cash crops, food, erosion control, shade, and windbreaks. All are watered strictly by rain and the rising groundwater table underground.

Growing steadily stronger

Phiri explained that he dug fruition pits to ‘plant’ the water so it could germinate elsewhere. ‘I have taught the trees my system,’ he told me. ‘They understand my language. I put them here and tell them, “Look, the water is there. Now, go and get it”.’ A basin or berm for holding water may be constructed around or beside the trees, but Phiri always places such earthworks at some distance from them, so their roots are encouraged to reach out and grow strong as they seek water.

A truly diverse mix of open-pollinated crops – such as basketry reeds, squash, corn, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, spinach, peas, garlic, onion, beans, passion fruit, mango, guava, and paw paws; along with such indigenous crops and trees as matobve, muchakata, munyii, and mutamba – are planted between the swales and contour berms. This diversity gives his family food security; if some crops fail due to drought, disease or pests, others will survive.

Rather than using hybrid and genetically modified (GMO) seed, Phiri uses open-pollinated varieties to create superior seed stock as he collects, selects and plants seed grown in his own garden. By propagating seed from plants that have prospered off the sporadic rainfall and unique growing conditions of his site, each season his seed becomes better suited to his land and climate. This is another form of water conservation – Phiri is helping his seeds to adapt to living off less water, instead of adapting his farm management to import more water.

Living fertiliser factories pepper the farm, in the form of nitrogen-fixing plants. One example, the edible, leguminous pigeon pea, is also used for animal fodder and mulch. Phiri has found that soils amended with local organic matter and nitrogen-fixing plants infiltrate and hold water much better than those amended with synthetic fertilisers. As he says, ‘You apply fertiliser one year but not the next, and the plants die. Apply manure once and plant nitrogen-fixing plants, and the plants continue to do well year after year. Synthetically-fertilised soil is bitter.’

The abundant food and fruit Phiri produces is anything but bitter. He’s been generous with his abundance, giving away a diverse array of trees to anyone who wants them. Unfortunately, as Phiri points out, the majority of the trees he gives away die when people don’t implement rainwater-harvesting techniques before planting. ‘The land must harvest water to give to the trees, so before you plant trees you must plant water.’

The soil is Phiri’s catchment tank, and it is vast. In times of drought, his neighbours’ wells go dry, even those that are deeper than his. Yet, Phiri says, ‘My wells always have water.’ This is due not only to the particular hydrologic/geologic conditions of his site, but also because he is putting more water into the soil than he takes out.

Except for one well, which is lined and has a hand pump for household water use, all are open and lined with unmortared stone. ‘These wells,’ explains Phiri, ‘are those of an unselfish man. The water comes and goes as it pleases, for you see, in my land it is everywhere.’ During severe drought, Phiri uses a donkey-driven pump to draw from these wells to water annual crops in nearby fields.

A lush wetland lies below the wells at the lowest point of Phiri’s property. Here, three rich aquaculture reservoirs are surrounded by a vibrant soil-stabilising grove of bananas, sugar cane, reeds and grasses. The fish are harvested for food and their manure enriches the water used to irrigate the vegetation. The taller vegetation creates a windbreak around the ponds, reducing water loss to evaporation. The dense, lower-growing grasses filter incoming runoff water.

Rhyming with nature

For years, Phiri was an object of scorn in Zvishavane, standing in opposition to international aid and government programmes that pushed groundwater extraction and export crops.

Phiri’s response – aside from proving his critics wrong with the success of his farm – was to create the Zvishavane Water Resources Project, a non-governmental organisation. The organisation is having a dramatic effect. He influenced CARE International in his region to shift much of its work from giving away imported food to helping people implement his methods, and growing their own food.

When I asked Phiri about the three decades it took him to get his land and his vision to the place it is today, he answered, ‘It’s a slow process, but that’s life. Slowly implement these projects, and as you begin to rhyme with nature, soon other lives will start to rhyme with yours.’

We walked back up toward the house – and stopped midway. Phiri’s eyes were sparkling as he pointed across the fence. His neighbour was in the government’s diversion swale, digging fruition pits on the adjoining property. ‘Look,’ cried my guide, ‘now he is starting to rhyme!’

As an educator in the field of sustainable living, Phiri is an ongoing inspiration. His work and his perspective enabled me to understand what we can accomplish if we choose to live as stewards of the land by truly walking the talk. Phiri shows how water scarcity can be turned to water abundance – by planting the rain both in the soil and in the minds of the people.

‘The land must harvest water to give to the trees,’ says Phiri, ‘so before you plant trees you must plant water’

Brad Lancaster is the author of Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands, available from

If you would like to support the work of this grassroots project, write to:
Mr Zephaniah Phiri Maseko, ZWRP, P.O. Box 118, Zvishavane, Zimbabwe.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist February 2007

An endless stream of humour, poetic analogies and stories poured out of him. The best story of all was his own.