By Mutizwa Mukute and Kuda Mudokwani

The Zimbabwe T-learning study seeks to support eight district organic farmer associations to produce and market organic crops, and to function effectively by jointly identifying, analysing and tackling ordinary and nexus issues that they are facing while at the same time generating insights into transgressive and transformative knowledge generation at niche level. This should result in the production of practically actionable knowledge as well as farmer and association agency development; and the generation of potentially transformative ideas and methods for wider application in the international T-Learning research project and beyond.

The eight district associations were formed in 2013 to facilitate bulk production and marketing of agricultural produce by 44 local organic associations ranging from four to seven in each district. The local associations comprise an average of 21 smallholder organic farmers who officially began producing organically certified crops after 2011. The intervention research draws on Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) based on the work of Yrjo Engeström (2011, 2015; Engeström & Sannino, 2010) to stimulate expansive learning and agency development; and theory of practice for understanding and disrupting norms, habits, practices and stereotypes that undermine farmer agency and lifelong learning, responsible land use and community livelihoods. Dialectical critical realism (Bhaskar, 1993) will be used to better grasp and tackle structural issues.

The Zimbabwe t-learning case study is located in eight districts of Mashonaland East province where agro-ecological potential is low-to-medium due to the amount and distribution of seasonal rainfall; and the predominantly sandy loamy soils. These ecological factors contribute to the low production levels, which exposes the farming households to social, ecological and economic shocks (McAllister, 2015). It has been worsened by low levels of farmer collective planning and action to better manage the natural resources, including land, sustainably and lack of knowledge and skills to produce adequate diversity for food and income. Historically, the local, black smallholder farmers were pushed into these less fertile soils under the colonial land redistribution policies and practices through settler-accumulation by displacement and dispossession (Moyo, 2011). These challenges inspired three Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs): Fambidzanai Permaculture Centre (FPC), Zimbabwe Organic Producers and Promoters Association (ZOPPA) and GardenAfrica to develop a project called Livelihood Security in a Changing Environment: Organic Conservation Agriculture (OCA). It was implemented from 2011 to 2014 to support the development of farmer capacities in:

  • Agroecological farming and organic production: rebuilding of soil organic matter, increasing agro-ecological diversity and production towards household food and nutrition security; and
  • Collective organic marketing through organising producer and marketing networks organic certification and working with power (soft advocacy directed at government and traditional leaders).

Primary data generation that was conducted during eight workshops involving all the district associations identified four sets of nexus issues. These were broadly defined as agro-ecological; and socio-political and cultural, technological and economic – which are contextual; and group development, which are internal. These can be summarised as follows:

  1. Agroecological, namely:
  • Climate change and variability manifested through increased frequency of droughts and mid-season dry spells, and resulting in falling water tables, inadequate water for rain-fed agriculture and irrigation of horticultural crops that comprise the bulk of the farmers’ organic produce. Secondly, extreme temperatures in the form of excessive heat, increases evapo-transpiration and worsens water shortages and prolonged frost periods destroy or slow down the growth of horticultural crops.
  • Low inherent soil fertility arising from poor parent rock and worsened by conventional and some traditional farming practices that did not focus on building the agro-ecological potential of the land; and
  • Lack of effective organic means for controlling certain horticultural crop diseases and pests;
  • Low range of crop varieties suited to the dynamic social and ecological conditions, arising from the marginalisation of locally adapted traditional seed varieties and knowledge through the visible power of government (policies and budgets) and the hidden power companies (shaping the political agenda behind the scenes). This eroded farmers’ awareness of rights to their traditional seed and knowledge. The rights were made invisible by dominating ideologies, norms, values and forms of behaviour.
  1. Socio-political and cultural, namely:
  • Skewed power relations between smallholder farmers and policy makers, which produces farmer-unfriendly policies;
  • The government’s Green Revolution paradigm works against agroecological principles that organic agriculture is based on;
  • Some cultural norms such as the tall poppy syndrome and cultural taboos on the utilisation of sacred sites (e.g. caves with guano, and perennial pools that could be used for irrigation), and fear of spiritual powers (witchcraft) by some association and non-association members; and
  • The organic farming standards and certification requirements and costs that demotivate the farmers from collective and cooperative behaviour and associated long-term gains as consumers are not yet ready to meet the costs.
  1. Economic and technological, namely:
  • Poverty, declining national economy and lack of cash in the economy undermine buyers ability to buy organic produce or pay on time, which in turn reduces income that is needed for organic production and related land and value chain investments; and
  • Lack of water conserving and labour-reducing technologies and of efficacious organic pest and disease control tools, partly arising from the marginalisation of traditional knowledge.
  1. Association (group) development and performance, namely:
  • Low local farmer group cohesion and under-developed district inter-group linkages and coordination largely attributed to the limited period and scope of group development support by the project partners; and
  • Low scales of organic production, coordination of district production plans, bulking of produce for collective marketing, bargaining and income generation arising from agroecological, socio-political, economic and technological issues discussed above.

Initial insights into the context show that transgressive and transformative learning difficulties are likely to be encountered at multiple levels, namely:

  • The systemic level where the top-down learning approach is dominant in government research, training and extension; private sector training and also NGO capacity development of smallholder farmers in the country. The approach does not allow for the questioning and challenging of   norms, values, structures, systems and stereotypes and the co-production of transformative knowledge and tools – nor does it encourage the co-production of knowledge and solutions by farmers and their stakeholders;
  • The institutional level in which the OCA project partners have (apart from participatory action research) used a top-down knowledge transmission approach, which may have been necessary at some point;
  • The nature of the agricultural activity – certified organic agriculture, which has strict standards that have to be adhered to, and which may limit farmer experimentation even under the Participatory Guarantee System. These learning concerns are revealed in the following statement made an Organic Conservation Agriculture Facilitator during the process of generating mirror data on the case study “Farmers cannot possibly see themselves adapting the tech unless they have taken part in experimentation and assessing their viability for themselves according to their sites… They are not being put in the driving seat to make informed decisions. In other words, unless OCA partners go beyond the top-down ‘training’ then it is not possible to support farmers to move to the next stage”.

The gate-keeping that is done by organic facilitators may further prevent the generation, adoption and testing of new ideas that have potential to address some of the farmers’ agroecological challenges. This may be linked to inadequate appreciation of the value of transitioning and the long time that it takes to build fertility is some of the soils in the study site.

This research project is likely to constrain T-learning in two ways: interventionist researchers not having adequate and direct T-learning contact with all the individual organic farmers or local organic associations; and the learning process being spread over too short a short duration (less than three years) to enable and sustain the deconstruction and reconstruction of deep-seated smallholder agriculture and marketing learning and practice norms and perspectives in the study site.

The initial contextual profiling process suggests that T-learning researchers should be sensitive to the research participants’ immediate and not-so-complex issues even though it focuses on the more complex matters. Apart from making us responsible researchers, supporting farmers to work on their immediate challenges also potentially energises them to work together on the longer term matters. As part of cognitive justice, it appears necessary to redefine a content specialist to include local innovators with relevant cognitive skills. At a deeper level, T-learning needs to consider power relations between organic farmers, who are the key actors or practitioners in the study and their stakeholders (such as NGOs that support them and policy makers and implementers). Understanding power relations and how to tackle them means embracing emancipatory learning, learning as activism and drawing ideas thinking from other discipline. For example, in tracing agentive talk during CL workshops, it may be necessary to go beyond Sannino’s (2008) types of agentive talk and the one added by Mukute and Lotz-Sisitka (2012) on awareness to critical activity systems in order to include advocacy or activism theory of change in the middle ground between knowing and acting – will to act. The agentive talk categories would be either expanded or be sensitised with five components of developing the ‘will’ to act:

  1. Taking a position on an issue or solution (opinion);
  2. Developing a strong opinion on the issue or solution (intensity of opinion);
  3. Seeing relevance and importance of the issue to the person’s life, which drives them to make a political choice (salience);
  4. Possess confidence, knowledge and skills to take the desired action (capacity); and
  5. Preparedness to take a particular action despite the risks and trade-offs associated with the action (willingness) (Coffman & Beer, 2015, p. 3).


Coffman, J. & Beer, T. (March, 2015). The advocacy strategy framework: A tool for articulating an advocacy theory of change. Washington D. C.: Centre for Evaluation Innovation.

Engeström, Y. (2011). From design experiments to formative interventions. Theory & Psychology, 21(5), 598-628.

Engeström Y (2015). Learning by expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research (2nd edition of the 1987 book with new introductory chapter). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Engeström, Y., & Sannino, A. (2010). Studies of expansive learning: Foundations, findings and future challenges. Educational research review, 5(1), 1-24.

McAlister, G. (2015). Restoring degraded ecosystems by unlocking organic market potential: Case from Mashonaland East Province, Zimbabwe, pp. 249-260, In: Chabay, I., Frick, M. & Helgeson, J. (Eds.). Land restoration: Reclaiming landscapes for a sustainable future. San Diego/Oxford: Elsevier.

Moyo, S. (2011). Three decades of agrarian reform in Zimbabwe. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 38(3), pp. 493-531.

Mukute, M. & Lotz-Sisitka, H. (2012). Working with cultural-historical activity theory and critical realism to investigate and expand farmer learning in southern Africa. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 19, 4, 342-367.

Sannino, A. (2008). From talk to action: Experiencing interlocution in developmental interventions. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 15(3), 234-257.

September 2016