[154] Zephaniah Phiri - Famous Farmer

4m | Dec 16, 2023

"plant the rain"

when you live in the most arid region of Zimbabwe and modern farming techniques have failed, you take drastic measures to provide for your family

and that's after being jailed and beaten multiple times for years

let's learn about Zephaniah Phiri

Zephaniah Phiri was born Feb 1927 in Rhodesia

1950s during the colonial days, he was arrested for planting barn grass and kikuyu grass to preserve water in his catchment area. At court, the validity of his arguments led the Magistrate to visit Phiri’s fields and let him go free

Phiri was arrested again in the 1960s. Brutally beaten up, thrown into a detention facility, spending his entire time there in leg irons.

His farming aptitude began while in detention, a place of extreme scarcity, when he started a piggery project so he could “eat better.”

after release and banned from working, forced him back to his small farm at ~8 acres. Phiri experimented with farming techniques

capturing water from the hill, redirecting it into trenches at the bottom of the hill for future use. Earning him three arrests for “farming in a waterway.”

Intrigued by Phiri's continued defiance and quantity of produce at a time of severe drought (1972/73), the magistrate decided to visit Mr Phiriʼs farm. Impressed, freed him and had the Government Land Development Officer opposing Mr Phiriʼs strategies replaced.

1973, Mr Phiri opened his first pond, discovering that the bands of clay brought water to the surface and these could be used to make dam walls that prevented water loss when it was abundant.

“Ponds enabled holding more water in the marshy patch, without water-logging the soils"

August 1976 during Zimbabwe’s liberation war, he was arrested for possession of firearms left at his home by the freedom fighters, "terrorists" to the colonial government. Tortured, two of his shoulder bones, broken, hip joint disjointed, and forever left with a limp

Afterwards, he was taken to Gweru Prison where he suffered for four and half years, handcuffed and restrained with leg irons.

By 1983, he had constructed two additional dams of combined storage capacity 1,5 million litres, nearly 400,000 gallons or an olympic sized swimming pool

encouraged by the experiments with sand filtration using concrete rings, Mr Phiri discovered in 1987 the concept of “Phiri pits” – holes in contour trenches where water accumulates, forcing water infiltration deep into the soils uphill to feed downhill fields later in the season

During the 80s and 90s, he placed pits across his land. Many villagers followed his example. Between 1984-86, he founded the Vulindhlebe Soil and Water Conservation, and the Zvishavane Water Project, two key NGOs that equipped farmers with skills to manage their water better

over 10,000 visitors to his farm in the past 30 years. Academics, university students, researchers, public officials, fellow farmers, all learning from a man who had elementary school edu. Mr Phiri did not need a degree to understand hydrology, and how to make it work for him.

His now famous “Phiri Pits” have captured the rain water whose seepages have literally met the water level in the ground below; thus resulting in raising the water table that ensures constant moisture to his trees and crops.

Brad Lancaster of Arizona, author of “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond”, had visited Zimbabwe in 1995

“And when I told him how concerned I was with the water situation in my community and watershed, and how I was thinking of leaving my community because of this... "

Phiri said "You cannot leave. You must set your roots deeper than you ever thought possible. Because if you run from your problems, you will just plant problems everywhere you go... "

“You must instead try to find solutions. If you succeed, you will then have the ability to find solutions anywhere.”

He was never selfish. He freely offered well-structured training to smallholder farmers in his area and throughout Zimbabwe, particularly women.

Phiri, famously known as the "Water Harvester" passed away on September 1, 2015 after suffering a severe stroke

“In his years Mr Phiri took to thanking Mr (Ian) Smith (the cruel former Rhodesian prime minister) in his speeches,” Dr Ken Wilson said in his condolence message

Dr Ken Wilson “He would say that from Smithʼs inhumanity and his vulnerability had come the prayers that had opened his heart to hear the Word of God and enabled him to commit his familyʼs well-being on the stewardship of his little piece of land.”

To see photos, check out my Twitter thread on Mr Phiri

Thank you very much for listening. 

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If there’s another farmer you’d like me to cover, send me a message! @farmhoplife on all the social medias or

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Image Credit: National Geographic

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