By Edmore Parichi and Busi Mgangxela

From the 18-20 October 2018, the Good Food and Seed Festival was held at the Harare Botanical Gardens in Zimbabwe. Edmore Parichi, Busi Mgangxela and Aviwe Biko are small-scale farmers from Eastern Cape in South Africa who took part in this very important event with support from African Centre for Biodiversity (ACB). All the provinces of Zimbabwe were represented including farmers from Zambia and Malawi. Present from Zimbabwe were Zimbabwe Small holder Organic Farmers’ Forum (ZIMSOFF), Cluster Agricultural Development Services (CADS), research institutes, students from institutions of higher learning, seed companies, NGO staff, Tsuro Trust, government personnel and buyers. The purpose of this festival was to create a platform where small-scale farmers share information, knowledge and seeds and to build farmer skills and networking in marketing their produce.

The first day was mainly about farmers and buyers having a dialogue to explore markets. Different organisations including farmer organisations did presentations on what they do. A warm welcome from a ZIMSOFF board member started with a song “xa abalimi bekhona sithi konke kulingile” (farmers are saying we are alright). He said they are not arguing but trying to make sense and that the importance of farmers in the food value chain needs to be celebrated.

Lillian Machivenyika from CADS presented on the slow food movement. She started by giving the background of the movement saying that it was started in Italy so as to promote foods that support ecology. Slow foods refer to those that take long to prepare as opposed to fast foods that are detrimental to health. Examples of slow foods include small grains, indigenous leafy vegetables as well as indigenous livestock. She stressed that farmers needed to promote local economy by producing traditional foodstuffs. This can be boosted by processing own foods so as to add value to it.

Lilian mentioned that local companies including the government’s Grain Marketing Board (GMB) are now willing to buy small grains. Farmers were encouraged to produce reasonable quantities so as to attract markets. Lilian encouraged farmers to continue with promotional activities such as seed and food fairs so as to create markets. Cooking demonstrations should also be done to promote our produce as small-scale farmers. Farmers were discouraged from consuming fast foods at all costs and also encouraged to introduce traditional foods to children at early stages so that they get accustomed to it. Participants were also encouraged to practice general hygiene when processing and marketing their products. Knowledge of your own product is also one aspect which was stressed. In her summary, the presenter advised farmers to avoid direct competition with conventional farmers since what small-scale farmers produce is unique in its own right.

In his introduction, Nelson Mudzingwa from ZIMSOFF said that people need to be mindful of what they consume and also to understand who is controlling the food system. Farmers should not just concentrate on production but should also consider sovereignty in the market. Nelson mentioned that there is a distinction between marketing and selling. Marketing was said to start even before the production processes begin so as to know who is interested in the product and which quantities. The first market should be one’s own family.

Nelson also mentioned that small-scale organic producers lack in the 3 areas which were abbreviated as QQR, where the first Q stands for Quantity. He further went on to say that small-scale farmers produce very little as compared to what the market would want to absorb, meaning to say that many a time they fail to satisfy market demands. The second Q stands for Quality. It was stressed that being organic farmers does not mean that you produce sub-standard products. He cited two examples: most dried vegetables, and small grain flour having small stones or soil in it. The other example was on poor labelling and branding of own products. The R in the acronym stands for Reliability. On this point small-scale producers were encouraged to be reliable and to stick to promises if they want to retain customers. A representative from Bountiful Food agreed with Nelson’s analysis, firmly conscientising attendees by stating that there is no shortage of markets in Zimbabwe but consistent quality production is an issue. He said that that there are a lot of people in Zimbabwe but there is no production hence the plea to come together and increase hectarage by increasing the number of small holder producers being trained in producing quantity that is good quality and reliable.

Esnath Chisveto from the Zimbabwe National Gene Bank mentioned that the gene bank is also a national seed bank, which does research into the conservation and sustainable use of genetic material. The bank also collects different seed types from farmers, characterises and stores them. These seeds are then kept for future use by farmers. The national gene bank serves as an insurance for farmers in the event of natural disasters so that farmers do not lose livelihoods outright. The national gene bank also promotes on-farm conservation by farmers through the exchange of seeds, farmer field schools, agricultural shows and seed fairs. The participants felt that the national gene bank should do more in promoting the establishment of household and community seed banks since these are more accessible and sustainable.

Avril Chirwa entertained us with a soothing music after which we were treated to a thirst quencher, the famous baobab juice, which is very delicious and highly nutritious.

There also were buyers who came to look at the produce, offer advice and network with farmers informing them of what they expect from farmers. These included the GMB, which is Zimbabwe’s number one buyer of maize, and other processors of honey, natural oils, spices and herbs. Dr Nyarai Paweni from Sage Restorative Health spoke about markets and health. She stressed on the need to treat our food as the number one medicine. Our health is strongly related to our nutrition. She also mentioned the need to observe the proper food preparation methods to preserve the nutritional values. Participants were encouraged to take their time when eating so as not to upset the digestive system. Attendees were asked if they know what they are producing, what nutritional value they carry, and if are they eating what they produce.

Farmers went to stalls and swapped seed. Traditional meals were served for lunch and we enjoyed the nutritious food.

Eastern Cape Farmers inspecting different indigenous seed varieties grown in Zimbabwe

The second day of the festival was equally awesome. There wasn’t much of speeches but traditional music and dance in celebration of the seed. The day started with a mystica by ZIMSOFF where they dramatised the connection between seed and culture, clearly showing that seed is life. The second day was mainly about farmers displaying their different seed varieties for either selling or simply swapping. Farmers set up different stalls.

We were introduced to the crop diversity wheel that shows different stages of production with the view to follow indigenous seed by clearly listing indigenous varieties so we can identify if there are those that are lost. The wheel is divided into 4 sections:

  • Crops planted on a large area with large farmers producing it, like maize;
  • Crops planted on a large area with mostly small farmers producing it, like beans;
  • Crops planted on a small area by large farmers, like ground nuts; and
  • Crops on a small area planted mainly by small farmers, like millet.

The wheel is used for finding the reasons for planting a certain crop or which varieties are being lost, and why. A question was asked about why maize is produced by many farmers in the whole country. An answer was because maize is the staple food. One farmer asked: “who told you so?”, saying maize was never Zimbabwe’s staple food. One answer was it is because maize is easier to produce than other grains like millet which needs a lot of labour.

It was time to be introduced to groundnut varieties and ‘Bob White’ came up as a popular choice. It got its name from the person who first introduced it, who was Bob (not the former Zimbabwe President?) and white, from its colour. This variety is liked for its drought tolerance, short maturity period which if left unharvested will change its colour to brown. It makes yummy smooth peanut butter and is easy to roast. Attendees not producing it were given a cup of the seed to multiply as it is the most sought after.

We went to see the stalls as there were so many and it was exciting. Information and seed was exchanged, networking continued and pictures were taken (selfies too). The day finished with traditional dance, a competition where questions were asked, and agroecology branded shirts were given to those that correctly answered. Busi was given a surprise honour for her birthday by the traditional group of dancers coming to where she was sitting, singing a happy birthday song and taking her to the stage to dance with them, and boy did she dance! You can trust Busi, she would never disappoint with dancing ??. She was also offered the Agroecology PELUM Association branded shirt as a gift for her birthday. Thank you very much to the organising team. That was humbling and awesome.

The third day was reserved for the good food festival, where different indigenous foods were available to the public for tasting. The stalls spoke for themselves; it was a market day and selling and buying was the order of the day and the weather was on our side. We had to say our goodbyes early in the day as our shuttle came to fetch us by midday. I learnt some new Shona words adding to my vocabulary; “Mithi upenyu” meaning trees are life, “Kujika” meaning food and “saka” meaning but, ???. One amusing thing was us, Aviwe and Busi, running around like headless chickens wanting to spend all the Zim bond dollars we had changed to for easy purchase of food, and to be mindful of customs at the same time. Changing US dollars to Zimbabwe Bond gave us an advantage of having more buying power than we could have had we not changed because we had more money. Although we regret that we may have overdone it, as we should not have converted all what we had to buy food since we could not be able to convert the bond dollars back home. Lesson learnt for next time.

Such events assist a great deal in linking farmers with the market and should be encouraged. Gatherings like this are good for building the capacity of farmers through information sharing. It is important that we promote our own indigenous foods, and the best way to do this is to utilize it ourselves. Promoting indigenous foods also reduces the dependency of farmers on GM seeds There are cultural practices behind every indigenous seed and therefore working with these seeds serves to bring people together and promote unity. It is easy to promote conservation of natural resources e.g. forests when people benefit directly from such. Most communities in Zimbabwe depend also on forests for fruits and bee keeping.

Thank you to ACB for such an exposure. ZIMSOFF, ‘benza kakhulu’, an experience we never imagined with the news we hear from the media. Yes, they have their fair share of challenges. Who doesn’t? Farmers are strong willed and are not scared to challenge government officials. They are vocal and refuse to be coerced to something not sitting well with their practices. They know what they are for and who they are. We are grateful for this great opportunity.