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The Chikukwa Permaculture Project (Zimbabwe) – The Full Story

So we were saying, now what are we going to do? So we worked very hard. — Jessica Chibharo


In ten years of field trips and working with students on food security and sustainable agriculture projects in South and South Eastern Africa, the project of the Chikukwa villages in Zimbabwe is the most successful I have encountered. My initial research in Africa began in 2003 and between then and the publication of my findings in 2009 (Leahy 2009; Alinyo and Leahy 2012; Leahy 2011a), I was most concerned to research the reasons why so many rural development and agricultural projects in South and East Africa were failing. In 2009 I was introduced to the incredibly successful Chikukwa project at the international permaculture gathering in Malawi. This article is designed to explain the project and to explore the reasons why it has been so successful.

Where and what?

  • Far east border of Zimbabwe, next to Mozambique
  • Near a big national park
  • Six villages of the Chikukwa clan
  • About 110 households per village – 5,000 people

To many people influenced by the Western media, it will seem odd that any kind of cutting edge model for the relief of rural poverty could come from Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is widely viewed as an economic basket case, reeling under the impact of years of corrupt dictatorship. My own experience of the country was somewhat surprising given this back story – the economy seemed to be functioning reasonably well using US dollars, roads were well maintained, government services, such as schools and health clinics, were operating even in remote parts of the country. Even the police were polite. To be sure, this was just a cursory examination.

Avoiding these contentious issues, an alternative way to look at the district where the project is situated, is to point out that it is an “edge” location in the terms of permaculture theory. This idea was suggested to me by Eli Westermann, one of the founders of the project. In permaculture (Mollison 1988) the edge between two kinds of plant communities is regarded as particularly productive and diverse, sharing some of the habitat opportunities of each site and their combination. For example the edge between forest and pasture. This concept is sometimes broadened to include societal edges. Chikukwa is such an edge in a number of ways. It is in the foothills on the edge of a mountainous region that borders a national park, a pine plantation and the country of Mozambique. It is home to the Chikukwa clan which has lived in this part of the world for centuries but also to people from other parts of Zimbabwe, and other parts of the world, who have come to this region as government officers or to enjoy the natural wonders of the park and mountains. The collapse of the Zimbabwe economy with massive inflation in 2005 and the economic problems leading up to that drove many to re-evaluate their rural roots and to put energy into community based agriculture, as the broader commercial economy was not an option. In economic terms, Chikukwa ended up being on the edge of the global economy. This can be seen as a crisis which drove experimentation and a situation, far from the centres of power, which allowed an experimental solution to be developed. In consequence, the model developed in this edge region of the world could well become a key to the relief of poverty in Africa.

Another theoretical perspective on the Chikukwa project can be gained by considering “Southern Theory” as proposed by Raewyn Connell (2007). Southern Theory asserts the necessity and validity of the peoples of the global South linking their experiences and developing some independent theoretical tools to shape their vision – tools which may make some use of what has been developed in the global North but do not require us to see everything from that Northern perspective. The Chikukwa project has founded itself on the theory of “permaculture” or “permanent agriculture” developed by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia. As in Mollison’s canonic book, The Designers’ Manual (Mollison 1988) permaculture has sought to develop a sustainable agriculture adapted to each of the world’s climatic regions, to depart from current agricultural models that attempt to apply the lessons of Northern agriculture to the rest of the world. In the eighties Mollison, having formulated these ideas, travelled to other parts of the world to promote this new vision. In Africa, one of those he met was John Wilson, who went on to found the Fambidzanai centre for permaculture in Harare. This was a key moment for the founding of the Chikukwa project. The Chikukwa project itself is an indigenously produced solution to African problems. As I will argue in this paper, it has been dramatically more successful than the typical models for rural poverty relief being implemented throughout Africa. Those typical models have sought to replicate the rural industrial take off of the European countries in a situation which is in fact quite different. Those typical models have aimed at a commercially successful agriculture, attempting to inspire entrepreneurs and build human capacity for entrepreneurial action (Leahy 2009; Leahy 2011a; Marais & Botes 2007; Ferguson 1990; Mkize 2008). They have their origin in the strategies developed by such hegemonic Northern institutions as the World Bank (Williams 1996). As Southern Theory suggests, it makes more sense to develop strategies with the theoretical tools made available from the African experience.

Briefly, because this will be explained in more detail, there are six Chikukwa villages with a population of approximately seven thousand people. They are stretched out over a 15 kilometre set of hills and valleys in the mountainous regions of Eastern Zimbabwe, near to the border with Mozambique. The project has now been going for twenty years. It was initiated to deal with agriculture and food security issues, but has since broadened its scope. The research for this article was initiated in 2009 at the International Permaculture Convergence in Malawi, where I interviewed members of the project, and later in 2010 in December, when I and my sister travelled to Chikukwa to document the project on film and to conduct interviews. At this time we were given access to the minutes and early photos from the project archives.

The claim that it is a success is based on a number of kinds of data. One is the extent of its longevity, unheard of in relation to the vast majority of projects in Africa, most of which fold up after several years with few long term legacies. I have made use of the photos taken in the early years of the project and have taken more photos for comparison for this study in 2010, as well as the film footage that we collected at the time (35 hours of rushes) (Leahy & Leahy 2012). I have conducted a set of interviews with more than twenty local people, who have explained the history of the project and its current operations. I have made observations and taken field notes in the villages in 2010. I have also had access to the minutes of meetings of the project group, held in the early nineties as the project was beginning. These confirm the accounts given in the interviews.

The photos show the area of the Chikukwa villages in the early nineties as barren hillsides with only a few trees remaining and with erosion gullies common. The gullies surrounding the springs have been trampled by cattle. Interviewees gave an account of the situation at this time. The springs had dried up. They had to walk five or more kilometres down the hill to a more permanent stream to fetch water. During the dry season there was little feed for their cattle. The absence of trees meant a shortage of fuel wood. Harvests were very poor and hunger was common. During the wet season, rainwater poured down the hills causing considerable soil erosion. Houses were inundated by silt from above, reaching up to the window ledges.

Early Photos

What the hills and valleys of Chikukwa looked like in the early nineties as they were starting the project:

  • Bare hills
  • fuel shortage
  • Dry springs
  • Poor harvests
  • hunger
  • Floods and silting

More recent photos show a complex landscape of small farm households, each surrounded by orchards and vegetable gardens. The cropping fields are fitted with contour bunds topped by vetiver grass. Gullies and springs are surrounded by a lush growth of indigenous woodland. The ridges of most hills and some slopes are covered in a thick woodland of eucalyptus, acacia and casuarina species. These plantings are used for firewood and timber supplies. They ensure the infiltration of water in the wet season and its gradual release into the ground water throughout the year, enabling the springs to run continuously. According to the interviewees, the changes brought about by the project have been increased yields of cereal crops, as well as diversified nutrition, with more vegetables, fruits and animal protein in the diet. The impact was vastly reduced hunger and malnutrition. This new good health is much in evidence today and can be verified with recent photos of local people.

Recent Photos of Area

What the hills and valleys of the six villages look like in 2010:

  • Tree cover
  • Woodlots, sacred springs and orchards
  • Vetiver strips and bunds on contour
  • Household design

One indication of the success of this project can be gathered from a baseline survey conducted by the TSURO Trust in Chimanimani District (Takaidza et al 2011). This is a study of 125 randomly selected houses drawn from five of the wards with which TSURO works. It has been conducted to look at the situation prior to long term involvement of TSURO and to be a benchmark for their work. Because the Chikukwa villages constitute one of the wards of the Chimanimani district it is included in the survey. The results for food security are quite markedly distinctive where the Chikukwa ward is concerned. The respondents were asked whether they have sufficient food in each of the months of the year. The results are summarized in this table:

Table 1: Enough food by ward


Monthly Status (%) of households reporting Enough Food
Ward Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun July
Chakohwa 40 36 28 28 32 28 36 60 64 60 60 52
Chayamiti 50 46.2 38.5 38.5 34.6 46.2 42.3 50 65.4 69.2 69.2 65.4
Chikukwa 83.3 83.3 79.2 66.7 70.8 70.8 87.5 91.7 95.8 95.8 95.8 95.8
Chikwakwa 24 8 8 12 20 24 28 36 44 48 36 40
Manyuseni 72 68 60 60 52 64 72 72 84 84 84 79.2

From Takaidza et al 2011: 2

Though the situation is not entirely satisfactory in the Chikukwa villages, there is no doubting the marked difference between this ward, and the other wards of the Chimanimani district, which are only gradually coming under the sway of the TSURO project. These other wards are more typical of the situation that pertains in the rural areas of South and Eastern Africa more generally (Barkworth & Harland 2009; Bachou 2002; Haile 2005; Department of Agriculture 2002; Monde 2003). Only one other ward approaches the success of the Chikukwa ward and even it is often twenty percentage points behind. The other three wards have food sufficiency figures that tend to stay below 40 per cent in most of the year.

The Chikukwa project was initiated in 1991. A German couple who had come to teach in Zimbabwe were key catalysts in the initiation and later development of the project. Eli and Ulli Westermann travelled overland from Germany to Zimbabwe and took a post teaching in the Chimanimani district in the mid eighties. Initially they taught in a damp lowland area and had a lot of problems with tropical diseases. They moved to the more mountainous area of the Chikukwa villages and were granted land to build their house by the chief, who claimed they had been sent by the ancestors. While they were teaching in Chimanimani they met two other teachers who also became involved in the project. One was John Wilson, who went on to found the first permaculture organization in Zimbabwe, Fambidzanai Training Centre, located in Harare. The other was Chester Chituwu who was the principal of the Chikukwa primary school. Their first house, which they built themselves, was a mud and thatch rondavel, similar to those constructed by villagers. It later burned down and they were assisted by the villagers in building a more substantial stone walled house. They lived there with their two children who grew up speaking Shona, English and German.

Ulli Westermann

Eli Westermann (centre left)

History of the project

In 1991, the spring which had served about 50 households in Chitekete village for their water supply dried up. This was the culmination of the growing environmental crisis affecting the villages, as constant clearing of the original forest vegetation, combined with over grazing and cropping, had destroyed the landscape. As the Westermanns’ household was also affected, Eli met with some of her neighbours and a small action group was formed. Patience Sithole, now the administrator for the project, explained the origins of the group:

My husband was teaching at the secondary school. And at the secondary school my husband was teaching with Ulli and Eli (Westermann). And I became friends with the Westermanns’ family. So each and every day, we could sit down, seeing our land going. And we were discussing. So, what? And if it rains we could see erosion, soil going and so on. And then we always discuss. And then one day said OK, but we have to action. And we began to action. By having a workshop in 1991, at Peter’s place. I volunteered, together with Piti, Peter, Abisha, Eli, Zawanda, and myself.

This group was called “Nuchidza Dzakasimba” or “Strong Bees”. There were initially ten members. They met weekly and wrote up the minutes of all meetings. Their first attempt to deal with the problem of the spring was to dig down to where water was available beneath the silt. But with further rains, the spring silted up again. At this point, they organized a workshop to run for one week. Along with the Strong Bees themselves, five householders from each village were invited to participate, with traditional village leaders (the chief and headmen) and representatives of youth. Instruction in permaculture was delivered by the Westermanns’ friend from teaching, John Wilson, together with Alias Mulambo who today works with TSURO. John gave a basic introduction to Permaculture design at the rural home of Julious Piti and concentrated on the use of natural resources, especially water flow. There was another similar workshop in 1992.

The group from then on operated in two basic modes. As a small group of neighbours, members of the Strong Bees met together to plan their own gardening and agriculture projects and to help each other – collecting seeds from useful plants, establishing perennial legume trees, setting up their household orchards and vegetable plots, establishing small nurseries to grow fruit trees for sale and distribution in the villages.

Secondly, they organized the local villagers to help them by dealing with the larger problems. There were working parties to fence off the springs and plant local indigenous species to protect the gullies from erosion. There were working parties which planted woodlots on the hillsides and fenced them to prevent cattle intrusions. There were working groups which assisted local people to put contour bunds and ditches on their land. Eli explains this phase of their operations:

So, me, Mai B and four other youngsters, we decided to do something and we took the hoes on our shoulders and walked up into the mountains and worked with the people digging swales, working at the spring, and by doing that people got so motivated and just kind of came along as well. It was very enthusiastic, it was a very beautiful time. ‘Cause we were working with the community, singing and digging away and really after a few years you could see the impact. Erosion was limited. Some areas were already terracing out, after the vetiver contours. Because the soil was washed to the vetiver contours and terracing out so you really could see that the maize was much higher just after the contours and a bigger harvest. A few springs were actually, two or three springs were already reactivated after three or four years of our work. So we could see something. And that was very motivating for our friends here. And for the villagers.

These groups were totally voluntary in character, there was no payment. All work was with hand tools. They brought a load of vetiver grass bunches in the back of a truck and then established them to stabilize the bunds they were creating. These vetiver grass clumps were propagated and multiplied as restoration of the gullies and the establishment of contour bunds in all the villages took place.

The methods of the Strong Bees spread to other households as their success became apparent. Ulli Westermann describes the process:

Seeing is believing. Much of it happened through home to home. The home to home exchange was the main tool, in the beginning. And then there were other things like learning together. People called it ‘Permachikoro’ – ‘Permaculture School’, which happened once a month. And it was basically farmer to farmer training. So you had people who were experienced in a certain thing like herbs or grafting fruit trees or natural pest control or whatever and they would take that knowledge to the community and teach and learn together, and that’s how it spread but the demand came very quickly within Chikukwa. I mean there was so visible success after a short time really that it was just convincing.

The group helped to establish similar permaculture clubs in all of the six villages. By 1995, there were training “attachments” organized to host people from all of the villages, and beyond, in order to explain the methods that were being adopted. At this point in time, the group was invited to receive funding from a German civil society organization (Weltfriedensdienst – WFD). They debated this and in the end decided to accept the offer, so long as their community organization retained complete control over project design. In 1996, to handle this new administrative task and to link up the various village groups, they formed CELUCT – Chikukwa Ecological Land Use Community Trust. Members of the “Strong Bees” club became the management team for CELUCT. With the money from WFD to pay for materials, working parties of villagers volunteered their labour and built the brick buildings of the Chikukwa Permaculture Community Centre. There is a kitchen to cater for people undertaking training, a dormitory in which they can stay, a number of open sided halls for meetings and instruction workshops and an administration office.

At this time they also developed a catering department, which rostered people from each of the villages to come to the centre to provide meals for training workshops. There was also a pre-school set up. In 1997 CELUCT started up food processing clubs for people to process their surplus production for sale. In 1998 there were social groups initiated for women to discuss problems in their lives. In 2006, following some conflicts in the organization, they established a department to organize conflict transformation sessions – Building Constructive Community Relations. This was an extremely successful initiative and local groups were established in all the villages. People also came from beyond Chikukwa to learn these techniques. A manual was printed and published in full colour, explaining their methods of conflict resolution for the African context. Also during this period an organization was formed to counter the stigma of HIV/AIDS and assist infected people – these clubs in the villages were called “talking circles” for HIV/AIDS. Each of these “departments” of CELUCT were represented by voluntary clubs in the villages that sent representatives to the central organization and by elected heads of each department within the CELUCT organization itself. So sustainable agriculture was the first of these departments and the others followed.

The new landscape

What has been established over this twenty year period is a completely new landscape for the six villages. The elements of this design are repeated in each village. Yet there has been no top down decision to implement this. Instead, villagers have copied successful designs created by other villagers. Each village has at least one spring, set about a third of the way from the very top of the hills. These springs are the water source for the village. The area around each spring has been at some time fenced off by the project in order to protect the indigenous woodland that has been planted and has also sprung up with this protection. These fences have fallen into decay as the woodland is now sufficiently advanced to protect itself. The springs are regarded as sacred and the trees are local species which have significance within traditional culture. Each spring has one or more poly-pipes coming from a pond and going down the hill to a community water tank.

The tanks have been constructed by community working bees, with bricks supplied in the villages and concrete and asbestos roofing paid for by the project. In turn each tank supplies water through a poly-pipe to taps in people’s household yards. There is a water tank committee that overseas the use of water to make sure taps are being turned off and that they system is not leaking. On the upper slopes and some lower ridges of the villages, there are woodlots of useful species. These are usually quick growing timber and fuel wood trees. As indicated, they play a key role in maintaining the health of the springs. They also help to prevent soil erosion and provide useful fuel and timber. At least some of these woodlots are owned by villagers who cull the timber and leave the stumps for pollarding, being able to sell wood to other villagers. On the other hand, these woodlots have also been established through a community process and are protected from clear felling by community control. One of the great achievements of CELUCT has been to change practices associated with fire and grazing animals. A common pattern in Africa is to burn the crop residue after the harvest and woodlands may be also fired up to help catch mice to eat. Both these practices contribute to a loss of soil fertility by removing vegetable matter. This use of fire has been ended. Crop residues are collected for mulching and small animals provide adequate protein. Another common African practice is to move cattle onto the cropping lands at the end of the harvest and also to allow them free reign to graze around the villages. Goats are often free range in small herds, making it difficult to establish trees. In the Chikukwa villages, cattle are herded to demarcated grazing areas above the tree line. Goats are tethered to graze and otherwise kept in pens along with other small livestock.

There is a pattern of design common to residences which has also been achieved without any top down coordination but through the independent adoption of designs that have been shown to work. Water running off the roof of the house falls onto the hard packed apron of the yard which slopes gently to tip all of that water into the orchard, which is immediately below the front yard of the house, going down the slope. There is also a washing up stand situated in the yard near the orchard, so grey water can be thrown into the orchard below. The stand itself dries utensils so that germs are killed. If there is a tap, it is on this yard in front of the house. Around to the side and behind the house are the various pens for small livestock. Typically, the species kept are chickens (for meat and eggs), pigeons, and goats. Also kept sometimes are fish (in ponds), pigs, rabbits or turkeys. Below the house is an orchard. To ensure this is kept watered, there are often pits or contour bunds to trap water. A common design is to have a cropping field next to the orchard, to one side of the house, with a contour bund and ditch (swale) running into the top of the orchard, to increase the collection of water for the household garden. Typical fruit species are banana, Mexican apple, mango, passionfruit, guava, papaya, pineapple, citrus, avocado. All vegetable matter along with manure from the livestock is piled up in compost heaps which are used to fertilize the vegetable garden and the orchard. Below the orchard, in an area which is not shaded by trees, is the vegetable garden. Typical crops are sunflower seeds, kovo (a kind of cabbage), rape, amaranth and scrambling small tomatoes. These are all very easy trouble free vegetables that are not demanding in terms of irrigation and do not succumb to pests or diseases to any extent. These are inter-planted with legumes such as Leucaena and Sesbania. Weedy, traditionally-used leafy vegetables such as Bidens pilosa (Blackjack) are also promoted by the project (Ekesa, Walingo & Abukutsa-Onyango 2009). The cropping fields owned by the household are either nearby or in the flood plain down near the permanent stream. Good crops of wheat and maize are ensured by the use of cow manure and by the contour bunds which build soil fertility.

Crop residues are composted and also used. Some families have cattle and use them to plough, but many use hand hoes. There are a few community nutrition gardens which are irrigated directly using poly-pipe from the springs. Each householder keeps their own plot and the vegetables are frequently given away to more needy local people. An open-ventilated ‘Blair’ pit toilet is the most typical form of sewerage.

This system of permaculture is well understood by the villagers who have implemented it. For example Gonday Matsekete explains his household’s water harvesting and nutrient strategies in terms of permaculture theory:

The change, is very visible. Long ago, the whole place here used to be like this [very dried out – he is pointing to the front yard of his house]. At this time [ in the wet season]. And in the dry season. It used to be like this. But because we are now using this principle of water harvesting, it’s now green. Everywhere is green. Runoff from the roof is there. And the water goes into the garden there and it irrigates the bananas there. And some of the crops that are in the garden. And at the back there, there is a bathroom. And the water from the bathroom, it goes … We have put a ditch there, so that the water, the run away from the bathroom. It goes to the bananas again. And over there, we’ve got a swale there, which catches water from the road there, so, throughout the year, each drop that comes this way is used. We also plant some OPV’s [Open Pollinated Varieties] here and we usually don’t use fertiliser. We use manure. We were taught to interrelate the field and our animals that we keep here. So, we take manure from the kraal there, put it in the field and the residues from the field, to the animals. So, they are helping each other. We are getting something for the animals and for the field.

What became clear from talking to a great variety of farmers with very different educational backgrounds is that the project has created a lay scientific knowledge of sustainable agricultural techniques through constant hands on explanation of working models of sustainable farming, explained and promoted through workshops, farmer to farmer visits and field trips.

The conflict workshop

To give an idea of community processes, the conflict workshop that we witnessed taking place over two days is a good place to start. This took place in a village that was some distance from the community centre. The conflict was over an erosion gully that had developed and was removing soil from some farms while bringing silt to other farms. It was believed that the root cause was excessive cutting of a local wooded ridge for timber. People who felt they had been disadvantaged by the situation and were concerned by the erosion took the matter to the local Permaculture Club Committee and local BCCR (Building Constructive Community Relations) committee. These committees discussed the matter and asked their representatives to take up the issue with CELUCT. Peter Mukaronda (sustainable agriculture) and Patience Sithole (administrator) from the management team explained the conflict to us like this:

Peter: Of late there were some members who were indulging in such activities as cutting down trees again, destroying the catchment area, contrary to what others had done, within the community. So there was that contradiction and there were members who were saying, no, we had to manage this water catchment and we are benefiting down here. And others were saying, ah no, they are just trees we are cutting, we want to use it for firewood. So there was a conflict.

Patience: Some people were just saying it in their hearts. What are we going to do? This person did this. They were even afraid of approaching the person who was cutting down trees. But some of them, they knew that it was Mr X who is cutting down the trees. So when they. Those who participated in the conflict participation program, said, but there, we are being taught how to resolve these problems. Why not sitting down and bringing out this issue. So that we can have a workshop.

CELUCT consulted with relevant local traditional leadership (the headman) and agreed to hold a community conflict resolution workshop over two days. In other words, along with the representatives from the local committees, the CELUCT staff involved in these departments, including the director of CELUCT, organized the conflict workshops and the working bee that followed. They were hosted by a local household which set up their yard so that participants could be seated for the discussion. The men sat at the back on benches and the women and young children sat on the ground on mats at the front. Directly in front of the house there was an easel, with butcher’s paper and marking pens provided for drawings, diagrams and lists of proceedings and decisions. For the morning tea, the catering staff from CELUCT supplied orange cordial in plastic cups, slices of white bread and apples on plastic plates. These are all items which are a treat in a context where most food is home grown and quite organic and unprocessed. These were brought to the venue in the utility vehicle (bakkie) owned by CELUCT and had been prepared by the rostered CELUCT catering staff.

The order of proceedings was like this. On the first day, in the morning, the proceedings opened with prayer and singing. Then delegates from the BCCR staged a drama of the conflict. The delegates took the parts of local people involved in the conflict and explained their motivations in a humorous skit. This was not intended to be judgemental and the point was that all parties had sensible reasons for behaving as they had. No one was directly named and the audience of local people all enjoyed the show. There was a lot of laughter and comments. Following this, there was some open discussion and both men and women took part, commenting on the conflict. Morning tea followed. The men were served first and the women next. The delegates and representatives, both the local ones and the management team, with the exception of the director, took the plates of food and cups of cordial to the seated local people. There was a shower of rain and the party split into two parts for further discussion. The men were in the lounge room of the house and the women in a large kitchen rondavel. After that were plenary discussions. People from the audience were invited to step up and make drawings of the situation to explain their understanding of the problem. Delegates and representatives coordinated the discussion. An action plan was formulated and written on butcher’s paper. The group decided to begin by repairing the erosion gully with rock check dams and vetiver grass and to plant native trees to create a protected zone. They also decided to prohibit further clearing of the trees in the woodlot and to replant more.

The next day the meeting began as before and after that the party repaired to a local road for a trial run to fix some erosion on the road. Following that the whole group moved to the gully in question. The men fixed the top part of the gully and the women another section about 20 metres further down. All participated in the common work, including members of the CELUCT management team. The director talked and joked with the older men and addressed the group at various points. Local delegates from the permaculture committee, both male and female, coordinated the work.

Explaining the success of CELUCT

There are a number of factors which have gone together to ensure the long term success of the CELUCT project. In almost all respects, these features go together to create a model of project design which is quite outside the mainstream of project design in Africa.

An embedded project – embedded professionals

In most cases, projects in Africa are initiated by some outside agency (whether government or NGO) which perceives a problem and sends a team of professionals, such as agricultural extension workers, to help villagers to develop solutions (Alinyo & Leahy 2012; Leahy 2009; Leahy 2011a; Marais & Botes 2007; Ferguson 1990; Mkize 2008). Often these community workers are backed by a more central bureaucracy with higher level project planners. A very common practice is that these aid projects will run for several years, after which the intention is that the community will ‘take ownership’ of the project and run it on their own behalf thereafter. The most common scenario is that the community members are unable to continue running the project after the professionals have departed. Very frequently, this is because the community members, whose education is barely at a high school level, will be expected to run a commercial agricultural business with all the paper work, purchasing, accounting, liaison with suppliers and markets that is entailed in this. Whatever on the job training has been delivered by the project in the years when it is being coordinated from outside, it is not enough to really enable the community to run the project on its own behalf.

The Chikukwa project departs from this model in every way. In the first instance, the project itself was generated by residents rather than by any outside organization. It did not spring up to receive funds from any outside donor or department and in fact eschewed funding for its first five years of operation. All the full time staff who have been running the project are local residents, even though a number of them have come from elsewhere. At least half of them are locals by birth. The whole of the project is geographically contained in the area of the Chikukwa villages so members of the team can actually walk to the villages and villagers can walk to the centre. The formally educated professionals that make up the management team have mostly been teachers in local schools and have a long history of involvement with local people that goes back before the initiation of the project and has continued through it. Eli and Ulli Westermann were high school teachers in the local area who were also living in the Chikukwa villages when they became catalysts for the project. They are still involved in the project, Eli as part of the management team, and Ulli as a worker for a regional NGO which has extended the work of CELUCT through a new organization (TSURO) based in the district of Chimanimani. In 2010 and subsequently, Phineas Chikoshana, a local science teacher, became one of the project team. Chester Chituwu who is director of the project now and has been involved in it for many years, was the principal of the local primary school. Patience Sithole who is the accountant and administrator for CELUCT is the wife of a local high school teacher. She was a neighbour of Eli and one of the founders of the “Strong Bees” organization that started the project. She was sponsored to be trained in accountancy by CELUCT so she could keep their books.

This is all very unusual for projects in Africa. Often, teachers in local schools live elsewhere and commute to village schools, or there is a division between project officers, who are located in some central bureaucracy and visit villages as extension workers, and local professionals (such as primary teachers or health workers) who may live in the villages. In the usual case, projects work with “the poorest of the poor”, as they are referred to in South Africa and local professionals are not members of project teams.

Ulli Westermann explained why an embedded project makes sense and why development projects that are staffed by staff from outside rarely make a long term impact:

You have to be integrated in the community, if you want to work in the community and if you want to achieve anything. You have to know the people. It’s very difficult for outsiders to quickly jump in, do a quick two or three year program and then move on and phase out. That is not how life usually happens and that is not how development can happen, so for us definitely, it was very essential that things grew from the community and we were part of that community and grew with it and of course knew a lot of people. We knew hundreds of students by name, here and that of course makes it much easier.

Chester, the current director, made a similar comment about his own situation:

I was working in the area, as a school teacher, and school head and I was interacting with the community. So when the idea of this organization coming up, people felt I had a hand to contribute, so we would hold discussions together, with those that felt we needed to do something to change the lifestyle within the community. Some of them, in fact most of them were my former students. Including Peter Mukaronda, Julius Piti, they were my students. And then some were friends. We were work mates, in education.

So the human capital needed to maintain the organization is produced from within the community. What comes from outside are some of the ideas that have inspired the project and a small amount of funding which has extended the options for the project. What the embedded professionals are able to provide is the links to permaculture training from the wider international and national permaculture movement, knowledge of the scientific literature relevant to their agricultural and social work, the organizational and accounting work necessary to attract and maintain funding from international charity organizations (EED and Tudor Trust), liaison with government departments – schools, health clinics, agriculture, and the police and legal system – as well as the literacy required to write and produce illustrations to create manuals and promotional material on the web and in print. Successful community organizations need these middle class skills to function in the modern global economy and what works best is if these skills are provided by people who are located in the community and a part of the ongoing organization of the community project.

For food security – not for cash incomes

Most projects in Africa are based on the belief that the way to relieve rural poverty is to move people out of their subsistence farming and into some kind of commercial enterprise (Leahy 2009; Alinyo & Leahy 2012; Leahy 2011a: Marais & Botes 2007; Mkize 2008). These projects are rarely successful. As I have indicated, it is unlikely that most rural villagers have the educational background necessary to run a successful commercial enterprise. Another problem is that household plots are quite small. The problem is that the farm gate price of most crops is lower than the retail price that has to be paid for basic food staples which could be grown on the same plot of land. With a large holding this is not important, the amount that can be produced is enough to ensure a good income to pay for all food needs and the important comparison is between the farm gate price of one crop and another one. With a plot that will produce just enough for the food needs of a family, the retail price of staples, relative to the farm gate price of cash crops is a crucial issue. On top of this, the quality requirements of many cash crops are difficult for rural villagers to attain – in competition with large, fully mechanized and scientifically managed farms adjusting their production to an international market. Then there is the problem of marketing. With poor roads and remote villages, it is not easy to get a good price, because the costs of taking goods to market are prohibitive (Ferguson 1990; Bryceson 2000; Mather & Adelzadeh 1998; Timmer 2005; Peeters & Maxwell 2011; De Janvry & Sadoulet 2011). All of these considerations are relevant to the Chikukwa villages. Chikukwa is a three hour drive, a third of this on a very bad dirt road, from the nearest regional centre Mutare.

A final relevant factor in this case is the collapse of the Zimbabwe economy. At the height of the collapse, people were leaving Zimbabwe to get jobs paying real currency to repatriate home. Public servants such as teachers and agricultural officers were not being paid for long periods, or were being paid very poorly indeed. In such circumstances many middle class people left the city to make sure they could supplement their cash income with subsistence farming. The option of going into town to get a “real job” paying cash was not attracting young people out of the rural areas to end up unemployed in cities – because there was no hope of urban employment. The problem of the exodus of young people out of agriculture, which has bedevilled many rural projects in Africa, did not apply here.

The basic aim of the Chikukwa project has always been improved subsistence and food security. At the same time, there have certainly been some successful local businesses started up through the influence of the project and the project itself has worked with local people to help them to derive a small cash income by adding value to their surplus production. The concentration on subsistence food production using permaculture methods has been one of the key reasons for the project’s success. You do not need high school maths to learn how to improve your agricultural production, whereas for a commercial farming business it is essential. What the project has avoided is a kind of project design which leads to conflicts over money. Many projects in Africa attempt to set up agricultural cooperatives of villagers to produce a commercial crop together (to get economies of scale and to enhance human capital) and to market produce together. In such a strategy they are required to sell their produce in the market and use their joint funds to buy the inputs necessary for another round of production. This project design almost always engenders conflict in the group. People sell their produce and do not return the money to the group. Leaders of the group are not trusted to handle the money honestly. The low level of education means that most members of these cooperatives cannot adequately supervise the behaviour of their cooperative leadership. It has been conflicts of this sort which have led to many projects failing in Africa. In the subsistence strategy being used here, none of these problems arise, as people produce food for their own household use on their own land and no money is involved.

In a meeting with the management team and community representatives in CELUCT, the group were asked a question about how the Chikukwa project had managed to gain the participation of youth, when this had been very difficult in other African rural projects. The replies made the emphasis on food security and subsistence strategies quite apparent:

Phineas: Yes, it’s also important to realize that our local economy is based on agriculture, we are getting the produce from our land. And when the group started, the action group, it involved quite a number of different age groups. Who were much concerned about healing the land. So, that they would produce enough to feed themselves. So you will find that what is more important here, is the food security, so everyone is much concerned.

Jessica: Our youth should know to work from the beginning. They have to learn working as young people. And that’s also an inheritance to them. For example, if the parents will pass away, they have to know that we were surviving here by farming.

Use of permaculture design technologies

There are a number of reasons why permaculture has been a very successful device for a rural development project in this context. As we have seen, permaculture has become a local folk science in these villages, following an enduring campaign to teach permaculture to villagers. This has been a form of adult education which has provided villagers with cultural capital in scientific knowledge. This will undoubtedly pay off in the next generation, as children approach schooling with a practical background in current scientific thinking. For example Jessica Chibaro (translated by Patience Sithole) explains her garden strategies in terms of permaculture concepts as follows:

And then after that, we would have small livestocks, and we can pick vegetables from the garden, and feed our small livestocks, and they will produce manure, that manure will turn then to the garden, and also we can use those for proteins. And then we can have them as home consumption.

Permaculture promotes the development of a polyculture of agricultural crops which are meant to be grown in combination to allow synergies and aid production. As we have seen above, this concept is well established in the community. The other effect of this strategy is to provide a rich mixture of nutrients ideal for health. In much of rural Africa, subsistence farming concentrates on maize and cattle to the exclusion of almost all else (Japan Association 2008; Ferguson 1990; Ekesa, Walingo & Abukutsa-Onyango 2009). Everyday supplies of vegetables, beans, poultry and the like are expected to be purchased with the minimal cash incomes available to villagers. The outcome is malnutrition and stunting for children. In the case of the Chikukwa villagers, complementary use of orchards, vegetable gardens, cropping fields and small animal husbandry, along with the production of mulch and firewood, enables villagers to be self sufficient in all nutrients without depending on inadequate supplies of cash.

Permaculture promotes the use of organic methods to create nutrition and deal with pest problems. From the point of view of a rural project in Africa, the effect is that all inputs can be locally produced and there is no need for a cash income to pay for artificial fertilisers and pesticides in order to get an adequate crop. By contrast, most agricultural projects in Africa have been premised on unrealistic exhortations to buy fertilisers and improved seeds, or ill-met promises to subsidize inputs for the poor to allow “scientific” agriculture. The economic logic of the permaculture approach is quite well understood by local people. Here Patience translates the words of Questions Chikukwa:

It sounds simple. Just say I want to buy fertiliser. But we don’t have the resources to buy it. Why not making a compost? Where I can use manure from my small livestocks or from my goats. Or from my cattle. That’s very healthy. Rather than buying artificial fertilisers, which is dangerous to my body. So it’s better and it’s motivating to use the resources I have.

A permaculture polyculture is difficult to mechanize and harvest mechanically. The complex interrelationship of parts means that most crops have to be harvested by hand. In Chikukwa even cropping fields are small enough to be dug up with hoes, although some households use cattle to plough. The high labour input required by this system makes sense for small scale subsistence agriculture whereas it would be foolish for most large commercial enterprises. It also fits with a situation where most villagers are not employed – a situation that is replicated throughout rural Africa and makes this strategy apt for many other locations.

Two ideas that have always been central in permaculture were particularly significant for the problems faced by the Chikukwa clans. One is the emphasis on water harvesting and water retention in the landscape. The context in the early nineties was that in the wet season, flooding rains washed silt off the hillsides, depriving the soil of nutrients and destroying springs and household sites with silt. In the dry season, harvests were poor as there was no water stored in the soil. The permaculture technologies of swales, contour bunds and tree planting were central to fixing these problems. The second aspect of permaculture that was particularly relevant was its emphasis on perennial and tree species as part of the agricultural landscape. Here, the planting of woodlots on the ridges enabled water retention and stabilized water runoff. The planting of orchards below households stabilized soils, built nutrients in soils and infiltrated water into the landscape. It also changed the diet with a radically improved provision of vitamins, carbohydrates and fibre, with excess from the orchard being fed to small livestock to provide protein.

The promotion of organic polyculture agriculture as “permaculture”, with its associated technologies, has become established in the Chikukwa villages to an extent that is hard to credit and probably has no parallel elsewhere in the world. What is particularly striking is the use of the word “permaculture” to mean both the science of permaculture as sustainable agriculture and also to refer to the CELUCT organisation itself as “The Permaculture”. For example July Mtisi gave this account of the swale in his cropping field:

A lot of water was coming from the houses which are up there, and it was going into the field. And it was eroding the topsoil. So that we had a problem of poor harvest. And there are this friend of ours, Permaculture. And we got advice from The Permaculture. Which they have just given us the vetiver grass which you are seeing there. And we planted this so that whenever topsoil is going away it is going to be stopped by the vetiver grass, and it continues like that, down the slope. And when it comes to this, to this swale here. They just give us the idea that we should harvest the water, and not let it go away. It is like a dish. When water goes inside there, it doesn’t go away. It stays there and it goes down bit by bit until it disappears in the swale.

Working with traditional spirituality and traditional leadership

Permaculture is in fact a good fit with much of the indigenous traditional world view of the Chikukwa villages. The project was helped by this and also encouraged the participation of traditional leadership in making these connections apparent. Permaculture encourages the development of an uncultivated zone at the edge of the areas more affected by food production. This area is for harvesting some wood and other forest products as well as for the care of natural wild species. In terms of ethics, permaculture recommends the care of the earth along with the care of other people. All of this accords well with the traditional spiritual practices of the Chikukwa people – practices which at present co-exist with various forms of Christian worship. The springs which exist on the land of the Chikukwa villages have in the past been sacred sites and a traditional obligation exists to look after the indigenous trees that have grown in the vicinity of these springs. Local traditional leaders claim that traditional belief is that the natural world should be protected. When the Strong Bees began their work re-claiming and protecting these springs, re-planting indigenous species around them, they asked the traditional leadership to conduct rituals to seek the help of the ancestors. Peter Mukaronda, one of the original “Strong Bees” and now part of the CELUCT management team, described these events as he showed us the spring where the first work had been conducted:

Yes, because it was way back. That means trying to explain it before, because this one was the spring for the community, called Chitekete, the village. And since it was their only source of water, where they were just coming and fetch some water. So people, because they had runoff from up the mountains and it is washing down all, washing the spring and people they had nowhere to fetch water. So they decided to reclaim the land, up there, then, trying to plant trees, fig trees and different types of indigenous trees, so. Because the indigenous trees, they are just made for the water, to bring back the water. And because of the chiefs in Chikukwa. Then they had to come here and sit down with the other community and they brewed beer, so the spirit, and so the water would come up. Later on, then the water came.

The involvement of the traditional leadership has gone beyond these ritual events. The previous chief had a key role in supporting the project in its early days. He gave it the endorsement which helped the “Strong Bees” to recruit parties of voluntary workers to fence woodlots, plant trees, dig swales and protect the springs. The current chief speaks very highly of the project and at the present time headmen often serve on the various committees of the project. They are also called in to consult if there is a proposal to begin a CELUCT project in their village and they are part of the committee that acts upon these requests. The young relatives of the chief have begun a culture club to restore some of the music and dances traditional to the clan. Zeddy Chikukwa from this group explained the link between traditional ideas and CELUCT:

CELUCT, we see it as a supportive organization in everything that we do in our tradition. Because in our tradition, we do not allow people to cut down trees like water berries, like fig trees. They are sacred trees which we also believe even our ancestral spirit, they go and reside there. And also we are in line with CELUCT in the use of organic agriculture. Where you are not supposed to use some artificial fertilisers because it damages the soil. Also in our tradition, that is some of the things that we encourage our community members to work in harmony with nature. So we know, it is there to sort of strengthen the rules and regulations of our community.

Participatory initiation

The Chikukwa project has always worked on the basis of participatory initiation of projects. The logic is that the people concerned specify the problem and undertake the work. The role of the project is to assist people to carry out projects which they themselves have developed. Of course this is the logic of much of the development literature but as Pretty has pointed out, real participation is often missing while fake consultation is more typical. In many African projects, a meeting of village people is assembled to develop a project concept, in a context where the options that are likely to be funded are already well known. Typically, people develop a project in the hope of getting some paid work or the commitment of the aid organization to provide some kind of costly infrastructure – a fence; a borehole; a diesel pump and the like. Very often these projects do not work in the long run. The Chikukwa project operates very differently from this.

The origin story of the Chikukwa project stresses the initation of the project in response to a real local issue, the drying up of the springs. The motto of the “Strong Bees” was “like bees we shall work”. One of the most common phrases used in explaining the history of the group is the one cited at the beginning of this article. “So then they said, what will we do now?” And the follow up, equally common, is “And so they worked very hard”. As is also often noted, the project ran for up to five years without any kind of funding. What funds were required to supply the truckload of vetiver or the fencing wire used in the initial years of the project were sourced from within the Chikukwa villages themselves. This orientation also informs current practice. Villagers are recruited into clubs, which are voluntary groups working within the “departments” of the CELUCT framework. For example the permaculture clubs or HIV/AIDS talking circles or women’s social groups. These clubs mediate the relationship between CELUCT and the villagers. Villagers approach their relevant club with a problem which may then decide to take this to CELUCT and make a request for a project to be organized or for some kind of specific help with a problem. If CELUCT supports the request, they will organize assistance but the villagers themselves will do the work required – there is no payment. It is rare at present for any materials to be donated but in case there are any donations they are of cheap long lasting materials with low technical complexity – such as poly pipe or cement.

This system works because food security is a daily necessity in these villages and villagers are motivated by this necessity to bring real problems to CELUCT in the hope of getting solutions. The methods being used have spread by example and requests for assistance are often for training in methods that have already been established at another site. The management team does not go around looking for problems to be solved but waits to hear what may be requested. If they feel they can be of help, they donate assistance – which is usually a workshop or training and more rarely some material support.

Martha Shumba explained how this system of decision making and project design operates:

The first part, as family, as a family project, if we have a fish pond or those small livestock, that’s where also the children, at that home, they learn ‘cause they are the ones who even cut the vegetables and feed the small livestock, and they will learn from there, but we can stretch also to have a group fish pond. Where firstly, we write a project proposal. We gather, say five families, who have a common aim and maybe for example they would like a fish pond, and they write their proposal, give it to the subcommittee, of that village, and from that subcommittee [of the permaculture club], they will give it to the permaculture representative of that village. And that representative will take the proposal, to CELUCT management team, and they discuss together. If there is assistance, that will be needed there, they will be assisted. For example with skills, how they can do it, or material if it’s available, and then that’s how we do it.

So as she is pointing out, much of the work of CELUCT is with family projects, where a family may be helped to install something on their own land. The advantage is that it provides hands on training for the children of the family. With a proposal for a group project, residents will approach their club which will then refer the matter to CELUCT. Chester Chituwu, the current director, confirms the rationale of this approach to be that often cited in the development literature – bottom up initiation ensures commitment:

As CELUCT, we are only facilitating, we are not say, we are not going to be doing that. They must own the whole process. And therefore it’s them that own and have to be responsible and they must have that culture of ownership, so that even with or without CELUCT as an organization, they are able to stand on their own two feet. So you’ll find as CELUCT we don’t. Through this participation you might have noticed that even myself, I try to keep as much aloof as is possible. So they give you what they have, they feel they have. And they must proudly say what they have and they think about what is going on.

What is also clear is that most projects, started on people’s own land, come out of processes in which CELUCT facilitates the spread of successful local models of agricultural practice. People undertake training courses through which they get to visit the farms of other villagers who have installed some successful approach and made it work on their own land. Chester Chituwu explained this:

I think one strong effect is that our training sites as CELUCT are not here, they are in the community. So when we have people who come for training. We, for practicals or for them to see, we take them into the community. And that alone is a motivator. Because if we take people to her home. The next door say, yeah, if I do so, it means people will also come and learn from mine. It is already a motivator.

Here is an interesting exception to the rule that people are not paid for work. CELUCT pays people a small fee to host these visits to training sites on the farms of villagers, which are used to demonstrate successful technologies. So people are not being paid any fee to improve their own land or community land, as in many African projects. They are instead being paid as teachers, to assist others in their community. The other claim made for CELUCT is that the teaching provided by CELUCT is sought and applied, following the demonstrable success of the techniques that it has already suggested. Jessica Chibharo explains this:

We meet at our Permachikoro [permaculture classes hosted at the local village level], as I had said, and what we will have learned there, somebody will say, ok, now I have learned this, I have to implement it. And then people implement it. And when they see that it’s working, next time when they are also learning something, they will keep on implementing because they know that it’s working, it’s functional.

So, as we have seen, permaculture in the villages can be seen as a package of technologies. These work better in combination but may be installed one step at a time. People learn about a particular technology relevant to their situation (for example a ditch in the orchard) and install that. As that works, they are inspired to work on another technology and try that (for example a new fruit tree).

Bureaucratic democracy

Over the years of its operation, CELUCT has set up clear cut and defined authority structures which assist their work in the villages by involving local people in defined roles. These authority structures enable villagers to have democratic participatory control in their own lives and to have some degree of control over the operations of CELUCT itself. This is ‘bureaucratic’ in relation to the defined, transparent and formalized structures of authority and the definition of roles that takes place. It is ‘democratic’ in relation to the participatory mechanisms that are being set up. We can think of the democratic aspect of CELUCT as a necessity if the intention is to discover accurately the felt needs of the villagers in a way that will enable interventions to be successful. What is remarkable is the extent to which people are prepared to be bound to these bureaucratic structures. Meetings are conducted properly and minutes taken. All accounting work is open to inspection by community committees, and fees paid to farmers for demonstrations are all calculated, written down. These structures are partly necessary to satisfy international donors but also work to increase transparency. The use of international donor funds is not just decided by the executive acting alone but is discussed by panels of stakeholders and larger committees. Let us look at the Permaculture Club Committee of CELUCT as an example of the structures for CELUCT departments. Eugen Matsekete describes the process by which the committee is appointed:

I am representing the Permaculture Club Committee and that committee is eight representatives. We have six villages as it has been said, earlier on, and we have one person from the villages and the committee, there will be a traditional leader who will sit in that committee, as well as, and the professional advisor, from the Ministry of Land. The committee comprises of a chair person and its vice, a secretary and its vice, then a treasurer and two committee members. We represent the village and what we do, we work with our village, with the community members within our village, and if we have a proposal there, we’ll carry that proposal to the management team, and then we discuss, we have meetings with the management team. Most every month. And if there are things that the community members would like, to be assisted, they can be assisted. The committee is being selected by the villagers. In its own village. And it is chosen, it is selected, once in two years. And it is done during a meeting we call “Open Day”. It’s a free day for them like an AGM. There’s a commitment fee, which is paid, one rand per member.

Spelling this out, the Permaculture Club Committee is the peak body of the village permaculture clubs under CELUCT. The eight representatives are the traditional leader, the representative from the government agricultural department and six representatives from the villages, one from each village. Each representative is chosen by their village on a day organized by the village permaculture club. Each villager who wants to vote pays a commitment fee of one rand to become a member of the permaculture club (about 20 cents). This open day occurs once every two years. The local village committee of the permaculture club is also selected at this open day. The elected representative for the central committee is also the head of the local village permaculture club. During the year, this club has regular meetings and training sessions within the village itself. If community members want assistance with agricultural issues, they bring the matter to the attention of the local permaculture club and to their village representative on the central committee. Their representative then brings the matter to the central committee and through that to CELUCT. As can be realized, this is effective participation in the control of CELUCT funds – as decisions about what projects to assist are made by CELUCT following these representations.

This kind of organizational structure is replicated for all the CELUCT departments – the catering staff; the women’s social groups; the HIV/AIDS talking circles, the conflict resolution groups and so on. CELUCT almost functions as a shadow government through these processes. Though there is no attempt to usurp government and no involvement in party politics, CELUCT nevertheless carries out certain kinds of governmental function and operates a representative democratic structure and bureaucracy of departments to do this. What it does to connect to government is to bring in government representatives (in a minority consultative role) as part of their committee structure – representatives from the agriculture department, the school and the health clinic in relation to their relevant departments.

The gift in CELUCT

There is much about the organization of CELUCT that depends on non-monetary and voluntary exchanges. The key aspect of this is that people donate all the labour on their own land, they are not paid for this. They also donate work towards various community projects. In some cases they help with work on the land of other community members in a tit for tat arrangement. Patience Sithole describes these kinds of arrangement:

It can be done also in two parts, that the family can do it [a contour bund]. But also the village, or people who are round, surrounding that area. They can say, ok today we are working on Mai, on Martha’s field, they can work there, and tomorrow they can work on Chester’s field.

The implication of this central operating feature of the organization is that it is up to people to help themselves to improve their lives. What goes with this is the fact that innovations are suggested by the communities and CELUCT is asked to help. For example, if people are asking for a structure to control erosion on their own or the community land, they know that they will be doing the work and so they are unlikely to ask for something that they do not really want. Hence they are very likely to be prepared to carry out maintenance work into the future. There is no possibility that they will ask for some improvement merely to get the income that goes with a project being funded, as happens in much development work. The result is that the resources of CELUCT are unlikely to be squandered on any project which is not going to be maintained in the long term. CELUCT is also responsible for initiatives to provision older or more vulnerable members of the community through gifts of food and through the establishment of community nutrition gardens set up for this purpose. We can see all these voluntary labours as working directly on people’s own needs, but at the same time they are establishing and consolidating CELUCT as an organization that helps the community.

In the other direction, CELUCT takes gifts from international donors and distributes this wealth in the community through gifts in training and in materials. CELUCT also makes an effort to ensure that the social rewards of participating in projects are an incentive to community organizing. The workshops are serviced with morning tea, there are amusing dramatizations, people get to have their say and participate with their neighbours, there is an atmosphere of joking and camaraderie as the work is actually being done. The director shares jokes and stories with the older men while the younger CELUCT team urge people on and explain things and do the physical work alongside the villagers. The sense that donors and villagers are connected in a chain of gifts is conveyed by this account of the construction of the CELUCT centre from Jessica Chibharo:

We managed to get us some funders who gave us some funding, and with that funding we bought material, that we build a community hall, which is up there. Community members had to mould bricks and carrying river sand and pit sand so that that block can be there for the whole community.

Let us look now in more detail at how the donor money is used. The management team (about 6 people in all) are paid by the international donor funding which of course they also recruit. At the same time, the funding is not always adequate and they have put in months of voluntary work at difficult times. The office equipment of the centre is clearly paid for through this international funding. The donations from the centre to villagers include food for teas at the workshops, accommodation and training for people coming from the villages to the centre, the use of the vehicle to take members of the management team to workshops and to take trainees from outside the villages to demonstrations, occasional gifts of materials such as seedlings or poly pipe. The monetary cost of these donations is coming from the international funding. People whose farms are used to demonstrate technologies for training are paid a small daily fee. The catering crew, which is sourced from the villages in a rostered rotation are paid $5 a day each. At the time of our visit the centre was being funded approximately $60,000 per year through donations from two international funding NGOs. However they only had guaranteed funding for three years. The EED which was their largest donor, was only going to fund activities that were demonstrably a part of the conflict resolution process and its extension through training programs into other parts of Zimbabwe. Sustainable Agriculture programs were only supported through a small budget funded by the TUDOR Trust. This meant that CELUCT was finding it extremely difficult to maintain even basic programs of the kind I have been discussing here, and to a large extent these are being maintained through community input rather than through international funding.

Counter cultural technologies of the self

It is clear that CELUCT is not just an organization focussed on food security and agricultural initiatives. A common perspective in the organization is that food security cannot be obtained unless the social context of agricultural work is harmonious. What is particularly striking is the engagement with technologies of the self that were also developed by the middle classes of the metropolis as part of the counter culture of the late sixties and its aftermath. What Foucault means by “technologies of the self” is technologies by which people work on themselves to change aspects of their subjectivity, their personality (1988). We can think of them more broadly as “social technologies”. Even permaculture itself can be seen in this light as an initiative taking off in Australia in the first place to service new age back to the land settlers wanting to establish a more harmonious relationship with the natural world and a more satisfying experience of work. Other aspects of what has been put in place in Chikukwa are even more clearly technologies of the self similar to those pioneered in the counter culture.

The techniques of community conflict transformation that have been installed in the villages are part of the armoury of the new age therapeutic movement – resolving conflict in ways that are not violent and coming to an understanding of the perspective of opposing parties in a dispute. The women-only social groups that the project developed mirror those pioneered in the counter culture as part of the women’s liberation movement of the early seventies. Here they do not come with such a militant feminist focus and can also be defended as ‘traditional’ – but the technology of women-only meetings being used to air grievances and come up with solutions is employed in any case. Likewise the self help groups for people living with HIV/AIDS which were pioneered by the gay community in countries like Australia and the US are here used for a similar purpose; to organize people to look after each other and their health, as well as to counteract stigma and spread safe sex practices. The organisation has set up a pre-school, exactly the method suggested to reverse educational disadvantage by left education theorists in the United States in the seventies. Democratic meeting process with minutes, rotation of speakers and motions being proposed are also organisational forms coming out of the history of the union movement in the rich countries and promoted by the new left and counter cultural movements of the seventies. These processes are common in all the committees which the project has set up. To give a sense of these social technologies, the explanation of the HIV/AIDS talking circles given by the elected head of this “department” can be cited:

Here, I am here to talk about HIV and AIDS. Here in Chikukwa there are many cases of people who are infected with HIV. And the people in Chikukwa sit down and said what can we do? And they decided to motivate people to know, their status. At the end we make a program, which we call “talking time”, ongwaiva taurana, where people can get together, and come together to open their status. And eh, we done it in the villages, of six villages. When we get people, of six people to each village, and we came here and decided to teach others. To came up with your status. And when we came back to our villages. We teach our people in our villages about what they must do, to know what is in your heart, or your body, or your own status. And at the end, we see that it was so little, and the sick people, we are so little. And we said, what can we do for this and we made a group which we called a supportive group. This supportive group help people which is affected with HIV. To share him with the chores or to go and help him, with water, or to take firewood to him. Or to wash his clothes, yes.

Pointing this out is not intended to prove that there is nothing new under the sun or to suggest that all of this is derivative. A lot of this seems to have been invented on the spot and harks back to some aspects of traditional organization. But what might be concluded is that these technologies of the self are absolutely necessary to get a social change which can back up a change in the local economy and provide the supporting environment necessary to develop more productive approaches to social problems. In many of the African villages there is a despair and associated anti-social behaviour feeding off the sense of failure that comes out of persistent unemployment and poverty. This sense of hopelessness is reinforced in the context of a global media promoting the high life. To work on these issues requires deeply intimate work on daily personal life and technologies that go well beyond most rural development packages.

The setting up of the Building Constructive Community Relationships department of CELUCT is an example of how these technologies of the self are developed and promoted. At the height of the economic crisis in Zimbabwe, the management team of CELUCT could not be paid adequately because international donors were unable to transfer donations. There was some use of the CELUCT vehicle (a four wheel drive utility) for personal needs by the staff of CELUCT. This occasioned a lot of community resentment and some members of the community avoided CELUCT functions. To deal with this, meetings of local people with the staff were organized to establish rules for the use of the vehicle which were acceptable to all parties. Following this Eli Westermann travelled to Germany in 2005 to train herself in techniques of conflict resolution and mediation. Initially on her return, forty villagers nominated by their communities were trained in conflict resolution. People from villages in the Chimanimani area were also trained. Ultimately up to 50 people in each of the Chikukwa villages were trained in this. There was a permanent department of CELUCT set up with clubs in each village. As we have seen in the example of the workshop, these mediations make use of role play, dramatizations, brainstorming for solutions using butcher’s paper, along with working parties and the establishment of agreements to solve problems. They deal with a multitude of conflicts in the villages, including issues of land tenure, religious conflict, HIV/AIDS, agricultural issues and so on. As this program developed Eli prepared a textbook (The Three Circles of Knowledge) which the community published to document their approach to conflict resolution – one that had been evolved for the specific conditions and conflicts endemic to African villages.

What is the Chikukwa project?

The Chikukwa project has been remarkably successful over the twenty years of its operation. As established, it does not just deal with agricultural issues, but intervenes in a multitude of village affairs. At the same time, there is no doubting the significance of its success as an agricultural project, relieving food insecurity and establishing a sustainable agriculture. What is crucial for the success of the project is the way the different activities of CELUCT operate in combination. There is an intensive, totalizing and overlapping intervention which enrols almost everyone in one or more aspects of CELUCT’s operations. Jessica Chibharo, who is the oral historian for the project, describes this intensive cultural organization:

We started doing our projects in Chikukwa as what she had said earlier. We had gardens, fish ponds, fish farming, orchards, wood lots, we had individual projects. And we also had home designs. We also kept small livestocks. And we also encouraged those who didn’t like, to join others. To get in programs. We had exchange visits with other organizations and other communities. As we introduced our attachment program, it was for the community members to come and learn and after learning, they would go to their own village, and work with the people there. We had social groups, those social clubs, and young women would discuss together how best they can develop their homes. Because there were violence, something like that. So they discussed those issues, and openly. There were also times when, as we said earlier, where different age groups. So, age groups would meet with a common aim and discuss their own issues. But there were also times when these different age groups would meet and try to discuss issues, openly, so that they would have a good relationship.

This intense overlapping totalizing organization might suggest a cult or revolutionary movement. My understanding is that the Chikukwa project is neither a cult nor a revolutionary movement but it certainly shares some aspects of both these kinds of social phenomena.

It is not like a cult because it does not operate in a top down fashion with a guru dominating what is done. Instead, daily interventions and decisions are made by local committees and referred up to determine the operations of the Centre itself. It operates within the framework of participatory democracy rather than having a guru and deputies who tell others what to do in relation to their specialized religious knowledge. It is not religious and does not support any particular religious sect but instead helps to mediate religious conflicts through its conflict resolution processes. It has a secular knowledge base in permaculture rather than one based in the supernatural. At the same time, it operates like a cult in spreading a sense of shared values. It evokes fervour as people explain their permaculture solutions with enthusiasm and pride. There is a foundation story associated with the project which attaches respect and status to the originators of the project – the “Strong Bees” club of the early nineties. The organization is not anti-religious and invokes various kinds of spirituality in its practices – meetings are started by invoking the ancestors with clapping as well as by prayers and hymns, the common currency of the different Christian sects present in the community.

One of the members of the founding Strong Bees club was Julious Piti, then a youth. He is now located in the Chimanimani district outside of the Chikukwa ward and works partly with CELUCT and partly with the PORET organization to promote interventions in the dry western areas of Chimanimani district, as well as working on permaculture initiatives in other countries. He describes the way he and his wife chose the land on which their training centre is now located and also gives an analysis of the broader meaning of permaculture. In these statements we get a sense of the way in which the Chikukwa project mediates religious issues. The first statement reveals Julious as a Christian who understands his choices in terms of that:

Actually what happened was that I, we used to go to church with some kind of neighbours, a lot of people, so we used to go into the mountains and pray, and one day, in around 1995 or so, I went to that mountain and stayed there for three days. Praying. And when I was coming down, I was passing through this place. Then I felt. Ahah. I love this place. Then I passed and go. After a few years, I revised again and said, I love that place. And then I, we, with my wife, and then she said, I love this place. She started staying here, for some years, on her own, with one child, and then I saw. Ahah, she loves this place. And after that, we saw with the plants around, and everything around, we felt in love.

Later in the interview he explains the meaning permaculture has for him:

Permaculture is a system of living for me which takes in cognisance to natural resources and everything that surrounds us living in harmony with no unbeneficial conflicts. And socially, you’ll make peace at the end of the day. Like a peace project, you will find all the links, when you apply permaculture principles. You see the principles, they link the whole community, plant community, people, human, whatever, insects, they are linked and everything will live in harmony. And produce enough for each other. That way, you also promote water cycle, and even the oxygen that we breathe, and even the ozone layer can be reduced. It actually solves all the problems that we face in the human life. So it’s considered to be the right approach for us to live on earth. If you want to save the earth.

This is a statement that is both secular and spiritual. It locates permaculture within a broader system of understanding, alluded to in the phrase “the right approach for us to live on earth” with the resonance from the Lord’s Prayer locating the meaning of permaculture for Julious. This is of course just one example from a variety of positions. The success of CELUCT is premised on its openness to that process of interpretation.

The Chikukwa project is not like a revolution because it has no ambitions to take (or replace) state power or to become a part of the political apparatus of the state. Instead it is non partisan and attempts to work to mediate conflicts between rival political parties in the villages where the conflict mediation process has been set up. It links with the current state and traditional leadership. Representatives of these state organizations are integrated into the decision making structures as stakeholders. At the same time, CELUCT has initiated a major social transformation affecting all aspects of life in these villages. Through all its “departments” it enacts various political and economic functions. For example the conflict mediation workshop that we observed made decisions about the use of the communal village property of the gully and even the private property of the woodlots and farms. These decisions were enforced with the support of the headmen and with public pressure stamping the decisions with the authority of community process. People then volunteered their labour to implement these community decisions. CELUCT provides services and its operations create wealth, even though this wealth is not usually expressed in cash income. For example the swales and contour bunds that it has established increase the yield of cropping fields – wealth even if the crops are eaten rather than sold. What the Chikukwa project aims to be is a supplement to the activities of the state, on good terms with state bodies but established as a voluntary organization which in fact carries out various operations which could in theory be organized by the state – but are not in practice.

As a hybrid of the gift economy and capitalism

The concept of hybrids of the gift economy and capitalism has been developed to think about the strategies that might allow a transition out of capitalism towards a non market socialist economy. In other words, a gift or compact economy in which there is no money, state, or paid employment. Instead things are produced voluntarily by clubs and societies and distributed to implement the decisions of those who have produced them. Agreements and promises (compacts) stabilize this system to allow predictable donations and ensure reciprocal arrangements (Leahy 2011; Nelson & Timmerman 2011). Hybrids are strategies that “fit within, and move beyond, capitalism by pointing to the gift economy” (Leahy 2011: 122). They embody some control of production by producers or the community at large and some form of donation – distribution that flows from “a different logic than simply gaining the highest profit” (Leahy 2011: 122). They may express care and concern for the natural world and future humans as well as gifts to present day people. They “prefigure alliances and networks of participatory democratic structures that would organise production and distribution in a gift economy” (Leahy 2011: 122). While this framework has been developed to talk about strategies for transition out of capitalism it is also useful as a more purely descriptive account that takes note of some social phenomena of the current period.

The Chikukwa project fits very well within this conceptual framework and it is easy to point to features that embed it within the capitalist economy as well as to note features which point towards the gift economy. Let us look first at aspects of the organization that fit within capitalism, and also some of the limitations on that. CELUCT is linked to and operates within the broader framework of the market economy. Farming land is owned by individual households although this customary ownership is exercised within the legal framework of community (tribal) tenure. The CELUCT organization is the legal owner of the funds donated to it by international organizations, yet it invites participatory consultative management of these funds by the community, through the various departments and their village clubs. CELUCT pays villagers to open their farms for demonstration purposes and pays for catering staff. It also pays the members of the management team a wage, though as we have seen there are periods when their work is voluntary. In all this it functions as an employer within a market wage labour economy. Both CELUCT itself and the village community members depend on some cash income to operate – they are not living in a non monetary economy. The CELUCT car, polypipe, steel wire and cement, all have to be bought. Homes, however spartan, include purchased items of one kind or another. CELUCT absolutely depends on skilled business management and careful handling of money. Although CELUCT puts some priority on non market agriculture, it also promotes and instructs in activities oriented to market sale – the making of jams and fruit juices, the sale of livestock, wood, coffee or bananas.

Now let us review some of the aspects of the gift economy that affect CELUCT. CELUCT depends on donations from overseas – a gift of money from the first world to people living in poverty in the developing world. This is a small balancing of the unequal flows of wealth between the first and the third world, engineered by members of the middle classes of the first world who are using their money in ways that defy the logic of the capitalist system. We should note that this is not a gift without strings attached but comes with various stipulations about how the money is to be used. Within the villages the largest part of agriculture is for subsistence – meaning that food is produced for use rather than for sale as a commodity. CELUCT is particularly concerned to improve the productivity of this subsistence agriculture. A large part of what CELUCT achieves is the result of voluntary work by villagers. This is work that they do on their own land and also work that they do for their neighbours or community or for CELUCT itself. This is not wage labour but follows the logic of the gift economy. On their own farms, the members of the community function as their own bosses – they are not employed to work on their farms to produce goods for sale. They effectively own their means of production both as individuals and as a community. CELUCT supports various processes of community decision making through workshops and mediations that determine the use of community land by participatory decision making. Yes, we will put in a rock dam here. No, we will not allow goats here. These decisions are not just about community land but also allow a degree of control over private land use. Where the needs of the community are affected, these can trump the property rights of individual land holders. This is not a matter of legally binding regulations enacted by a state but instead comes out of voluntary community processes of participatory democracy. For example, this ridge will not be clear felled. Generosity and kindness are key values of the CELUCT organization which fit with the economic requirements of a gift economy. For example Patience describes the rationale of the HIV/AIDS talking circles:

OK. Maybe to add from what you are saying. People were very motivated, because long back they thought HIV and AIDS was from other areas, not here. And if one is affected, people would say. I think that a person is bewitched. And maybe they will hurt each other, they will hurt the neighbour. Whereby the neighbour should help that sick person, help look after your sick person. [Now] if they know, they discuss even with the children, that we are now positive, and it’s also a learning thing for the children.

CELUCT supports and encourages people to produce an agricultural surplus and to give some of this away to more needy members of the community or to exchange produce without charge, as required. Bottom up control of the resources of the CELUCT organization itself is achieved through the participatory structure of the various CELUCT departments and the use of these to initiate the interventions which CELUCT will assist. This tempers the legal ownership and de facto control of the Centre funds by the management team. On the other hand, the management team also acts as a self recruiting elite which acts to ensure that the funds of the organization are used in ways that will make sure that international donors continue their funding. This is a constantly negotiated boundary. As we have seen in relationship to the issue of the car, the community will also act outside of CELUCT decision making structures to exercise the veto of failure to participate – to demand changes if they deem this necessary.

We can look at the process of the mediation workshop as a ritual of the gift. The meeting was initiated with hymns and prayers and by calling for the blessing of the spirits with clapping. The workshop morning tea was a gift from CELUCT, brought to the meeting place in the CELUCT car, and prepared by the catering staff who were rostered on that day. It consisted of ‘special’ foods which are not normally on the village menu and was distributed by staff serving the villagers, who were seated. The presentations of the drama and the organization of the workshop was donated by CELUCT. In turn the villagers donated their time and participated in the discussion and decision making. Finally, both the staff and villagers worked together to repair the gully by digging and carrying stones and planting vetiver grass (supplied by the villagers) and trees (supplied by CELUCT). At the end of the day the workshop was closed in the same manner as that in which it had been opened.

As “post-capitalist” politics

Gibson-Graham propose that it is mistake to see the current world economy as simply “capitalist” with all parts of the economy conforming to that logic. Instead “the totality of the economic could be seen as a site of multiple forms of economy whose relations to each other are only ever partially fixed and always under subversion” (Gibson-Graham 2006a: 12). According to their argument, sites of capitalist class processes are those with “the presence of wage labour and the appropriation of surplus labor in value form” (Gibson-Graham 2006a: 18). What they suggest is that we take note of the variety of economic forms in the “diverse economy” and to note that in many cases “livelihoods are sustained by a plethora of economic activities that do not take the form of wage labor, commodity production for a market, or capitalist enterprise” (Gibson-Graham 2006b: 58). But of course not all these diverse forms of economy are to be promoted – for example slavery or feudal serfdom. So they define socialism as “the communal production, appropriation and distribution of surplus labor” (Gibson-Graham 2006a: 264) and are open to seeing aspects of socialism in a great variety of local contexts, rather than as a grand project of total change. They look to a politics of strengthening the “community economy” in which there is a “shared ethic” privileging “care of the community and its environment”. (Gibson-Graham 2006b: 80). They warn against thinking of the community in terms of a goal in which all are urged to work together to complete some project defined in advance, with everyone ending up the same. Instead it is a process which is about recognizing interdependence in the context of diversity and laying it on the table to be negotiated. The key is that decisions about what is to be produced, how surplus is to be allocated and how the common life is to be sustained are negotiated (Gibson-Graham 2006b: 88).

Much of this model fits with the practice of the Chikukwa project. CELUCT is not a capitalist firm. It certainly has wage labour but there is no set of shareholders and no owner appropriating surplus value. CELUCT does not produce commodities for sale. The farms owned by the villagers are not capitalist firms either. Production is for use rather than to be sold. It is aimed at well being rather than making a cash income. The funds used by CELUCT come from a charitable donation so they represent a distribution of surplus by German and UK residents. This distribution is to facilitate and encourage a connection between the donors in Germany and the UK, and villagers in Zimbabwe and to care for the community and environment in the Chikukwa villages.

Within the Chikukwa villages, CELUCT acts to use this distributed surplus to strengthen ties between villagers and look after the community and the environment. The local surplus of time left over after agricultural tasks have been completed is used by villagers to build their community. For example by building the CELUCT centre or by putting in swales that will improve their livelihoods. The CELUCT organisation is part of a diverse global economy in which charitable organisations and subsistence farmers operate economic forms which are not capitalist firms. As we have seen, CELUCT has been able to set up various kinds of participatory decision making process which mean that the organisation of production is negotiated cooperatively rather than being left to drift in the hands of each private farmer household. The effect has been to strengthen connections between the villagers.

Social ties are also strengthened through the process of conflict mediation, which allows stressful interactions to be negotiated through a process in which all parties are encouraged to see the perspective of the other participants in the dispute and come to a decision that all are happy with. The process involved depends on an acknowledgement of difference and the recognition that different people will have different values, practices, needs and interests.

CELUCT encourages diversity and organisations which will mediate and acknowledge the validity of diversity. The social clubs for HIV/AIDS, for women and for the various age categories are the clearest example of this but it is also apparent in mechanisms to encourage support for the poor and vulnerable, with gifts of food and allocations of cropping land.

Gibson-Graham also argue against a vision of the community economy in which isolated communities paddle their own canoe without outside contacts and connections. Such isolation is certainly not the practice of the Chikukwa Project. It acknowledges and has worked with the international permaculture movement and its Zimbabwe branch to develop its strategy. It has embraced its international funding relationships with donor NGOs and connects to the world economy through multiple donors in rich countries. It has set up training facilities for permaculture and conflict resolution which have taught people from outside the villages, from outside Zimbabwe and even outside Africa. It has set up a website and communicates by email with international supporters. It is hosting a documentary to explain its work to a global audience. It has a network of international supporters with sites on Facebook, followers on Twitter and a page on the crowd funding site Pozible (for the film). It has already sparked off the initiation of an umbrella permaculture and development organization (TSURO) to work with the whole district of Chimanimani, an area with 120,000 people. While this paper has concentrated on its operation in the Chikukwa villages, there is no doubt of the rhizomatic character of its broader impact.

CELUCT as an eco-village

What has become increasingly apparent is that the continued expansion of the global economy is impossible to sustain given environmental limits (Jackson 2009: Trainer 2010; Heinberg 2011; Gilding 2012: Kovel 2007). What is also likely is that material affluence in the rich countries will have to be cut considerably. For example, a reduction of fossil fuel use to 5% of what is typical per capita in the rich countries is the implied target of even IPCC recommendations for a safe future. As various environmentalists have argued, what we need is to work out how to lead a good life, a healthy and exciting daily existence, without the environmental costs of excessive consumer spending.

Trainer has been a particularly important writer in this field and his model of the eco-village of the future fits much of the reality of the Chikukwa villages as they have been established through the Chikukwa project (2010). For a start, fossil fuel use in the villages is negligible. Only a few of the buildings of the Chikukwa villages use electricity and these supply residents with what they need to charge their mobile phones, to run the office, health clinic, schools and local shopping centre. Car ownership is virtually zero, the chief is the only person to own a tractor (which was a government donation). Industrially produced goods used in agriculture are minimal, cement for village water tank mortar (but not the bricks which are produced from local materials and with wood fuel energy), poly pipe for dam to tank to household supplies of water, fencing wire for woodlots (mostly now fallen into disuse as better herding of animals obviates the necessity and living fences take over). Industrially produced consumer items are minimal and include such items as mobile phones and clothing – sometimes sourced through donations of second hand clothes from the rich countries.

To the middle class of the rich countries today this may seem like a fairly impoverished existence but the project has also facilitated various kinds of compensations for this material scarcity. The multiple community organizations of the project sustain a social life, and create social interactions. This is supplemented by existing organizations from the African village context such as the churches, the traditional culture club, schools and kinship connections. As Trainer suggests for the eco-village, control over daily economic decisions comes about through a participatory process in which stakeholders get together to determine their actions. This is not a chore but organized to be entertaining. Good health in the villages is sustained by a health clinic, by the use of scientific medicine where necessary and by a scientific understanding of health issues, promoted and strengthened by the project. It also comes out of the project’s success with food security. The permaculture supply of food from and to the local villages is a good example of how to sustain a healthy life without massive use of fossil fuels and industrial machinery. The experience of building the permaculture economy is a creative, social and aesthetic experience – both work and an artistic and social expression.

We can readily envisage something like this taking off as a global pattern if a serious attempt is ever made to live sustainably. It is probably possible to live a slightly richer material existence than this and remain within environmental limits. However what this project demonstrates is that it is possible to live a rich and exciting life at this level. The usual argument that we cannot lift the third world out of “poverty” without a continued growth economy industrializing the planet, and everyone reaching the material standard of living of Americans, is decisively refuted by the experience of the Chikukwa villages.


Within dominant development discourse, projects are not “sustainable” (meaning economically sustainable) unless they create a situation in which people no longer require project funding. To do this they have to create an income. A critique of the Chikukwa project in these terms points out that after 20 years they are still seeking donations. What is going on? There are a number of ways to respond to this issue. Let us note for a start that the permaculture organization of agriculture and the social innovations associated with the project might well survive the removal of all funding. The project is sustainable in the sense that it could survive without funding.

We could also answer the question by arguing that donations to Chikukwa now are being put towards the transmission of their strategies to other parts of Africa. The rest of Africa is sorely in need of something more effective than the project designs that have been implemented only to fail constantly. It may be that ultimately the marketable service which the Chikukwa villages will produce is this training in the strategies they have pioneered.

Another way to look at this issue is to see the continued funding of this and other projects as an attempt by elements of the middle classes in the rich countries to balance some of the exploitation of the developing countries over the last few centuries. In such a balance, funding of the kind we are describing here is a drop in the bucket. In the case of the Chikukwa villages, more than half of their land has been taken in the last century to establish timber plantations, which have exported cheap timber to the rest of the world. Within such a context, continued funding makes sense. The only thing to make sure of is that the money is being used to serve real community needs; not an issue in this case!

Yet another way to approach this issue is to challenge the market logic of the question. The question supposes that the market is some kind of exchange of equivalents. Donations of money from rich countries must stop, they must be a temporary expedient. Market justice must be installed so that people in Africa can produce something that is wanted on the market in the rich countries in order to have a right to buy the things they need to make their social and material existence work – use of a good car for their project; an electricity supply; poly pipe and fencing wire and so on.

I have explained why it is difficult for many villages in Africa to market an agricultural surplus or add value to agricultural products to achieve this goal. As well, there are no jobs in the cities to speak of, the national economies are not in fact producing such jobs. Even if they did, would you really want to condemn the people of the world to 6 day weeks and 12 hour days of monotonous process work? Would it really be such an improvement to be able to buy a bicycle and an iPhone when the alternative is to live like the villagers of the Chikukwa clans? It may be that African rural villages can crack these market problems in some ways – by marketing hand made weavings or the like. But there is a limit to the global market for these goods.

The market is not in fact just and the effects of the market are not to get everyone doing useful work providing for the most important needs of others. There are a lot of other things going on, which are sometimes described as “market failures”. What we could look at instead is a gift economy. Those who are doing the work of producing cement, poly pipe, wire and cars would do so as voluntary producers, organized in clubs wherever the technical know how and materials are available for this work. What they would do at the end of the day is to distribute these goods to the people around the world who need it, aiming for a rough equivalence of material well being. In that context, the continued operation of the Chikukwa project through international donations is a foretaste of aspects of an economy that is gradually coming into being. The question – what do the Chikukwa villagers do for us in return – is not necessarily to be answered by wondering what marketable product they are producing. Maybe what they are doing for us is providing an inspiring example of how to live and that is quite enough.


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  1. Inspirational proof of what can be done starting from less than scratch hence what can be achieved by starting from scratch or above “Lets just do it right now!”

  2. Having worked in South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Angola, Botswana and Nigeria, I have always had the greatest respect for the depth of the African tradition and ways of community problem solving.
    As an Englishman, I find our destruction of our habitat here in UK shows our ignorance of the natural world and our arrogance in believing we are outside nature, whereas most rural Africans remain in touch with the knowledge that we are a part of the natural world, not separate from it.
    The “Dream of the North” is unsustainable and we have to learn again the wisdom of our grandfathers and to listen to the “Spirit of the land”; to learn patience and to reverse our rape of the natural resources.
    I am humbled by the wisdom of the Chikukwa people and the authors of this article.
    Would it be possible to receive a copy electronically to share with other possible benefactors of this knowledge?
    Thank you for sharing this valuable insight and process.

  3. Thanks for your comments Frank and Glen.

    Glen – sharing this article is easy. Just send your contacts a link to this page.

  4. Wow!

    Thanks so much for posting this here. Zimbabwe is constantly in the news when you live in South Africa. You hear nothing but negativity coming out of it. I’ve always known that there must be so much great stuff going on “under the radar”….but even if your average person in South Africa read this article they still wouldn’t understand the significance, blinded by preconceptions of development.

    In fact, I often sense that the REAL development is probably going on in Zim while down South we’re heavily influenced by aged methods of Western-styled intervention, mixed with overwhelming urbanisation due to the lack of real quality of rural life.

    This couldn’t have been timed better, for me personally. Examples such as this will end up being the inspiration for real change here in South Africa.

  5. Bonjour les amis je suis un jeune burkinabé agronome de formation et certifié en Permaculture par l’UPP de France et donc j’ai un projet similaire de mise en place d’une ferme de permaculture et d’un centre de formation dans un village sur un terrain de 5ha,et donc nous beniffisions d’une aide d’un festival afric o bendy de Brest qui parraine le projet cette année et donc le chantier pour la mise en place avec prés de 10 étudiants de permaculture est prévus pour Novembre 2013 ici au Burkina Faso et donc j’aimerais collaboré avec vous pour avoir des infos pratique sur vos expérience que je trouve très intéressant et pourquoi pas vous associer a notre projet merci je vous donne le blog de l’annonce du projet vous pouvez nous contacter

    1. I am VERY interested in this programme.
      I work with the rural folk overseeing the enitre Matabeleland North region. Have tried unsuccessfully to get assistance and my son suggested your website – he had heard of it through a conversation. PLEASE kindly get back to me ASAP.
      I need to know more about your projects, the courses and internships, the payment etc., if affordable, I would like to register for the 2014 intake.
      MANY thanks

  6. Inspirational; there can be no other word to describe what you have set out to achieve and have accomplished. Thank you so much

  7. Very interesting article and the work that has been done in this village. Great incites on what makes things work. This is a very important article and should be read by agencies that are involved in “development”. I have particular interest in Vetiver applications as part of the permaculture process. I would like to hear more about the importance of the role of vetiver. Thank you

  8. Well that’s certainly one way to describe this evil mess we find ourselves in. I have a more realistic version of what evil has been done to me thought my metaphoric life. There is much more to this premeditated, calculated cruelty to humanity. The real story !!

  9. Its high time that we encourage more and more people to practice permaculture. In this time of climate change, we need to do something to protect our environment for the future generation.

  10. I just ran into your project report. I found it very informative and inspiring. I am updating my manuscripts for Primary Environmental Science. I have found a few of your photgraphs that I could use, I’d like to request your permision to do that. Kindly let me know if it ok with you. Thanks. Chris Chinwadzimba

  11. I need an expert to help me set up this huge Permaculture project in Zimbabwe
    We want to set up a Permaculture fruit production project.
    The fruit trees are late harvest mango, olive trees, oranges, paw paw, granadillas, grape vines
    2The farm to total area is 306 ha. But I think the area of interest is 234 ha of which 55 is under gum trees,
    3 The other activities will be fish farming, turkey; and mukota free range pigs. Tengwe is a frost free area we would welcome your recommendations.
    If you have the expertise and are willing to work with us please contact me asap on +263772240844 [email protected]

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