Three T-learning researchers – Tichaona Pesanayi, Chisala Lupele and Phindile Sithole – recently won the Rhodes University Student Community Engaged Researcher of the year award. The three T-learning researchers are leading development of practical approaches to developing socially engaged, transformative learning research.

PhD scholar Tichaona Pesanayi’s study works with the concept of boundary crossing learning to engage agricultural college lecturers, local universities, the Local Economic Development (LED) office, farmer’s associations, and farmers in a co-engaged learning network where diverse forms of knowledge come together and are found to be valuable.

The learning network focused on practical ways of securing water (Amanzi in isiXhosa) for food for smallholder farmers and homestead food gardeners in the rural Eastern Cape using a blend of indigenous knowledge (found locally amongst farmers) and new scientific knowledge (shared by the Water Research Commission).

Working alongside Tichaona and extending aspects of the learning network interactions and practices are Masters scholars Phindile Sithole, Kim Weaver and Chisala Lupele.  Phindile’s research investigated ways of re-orienting extension practice towards a co-engaged social learning model. Such a model is being proposed by South Africa’s draft extension policy.

Kim’s research on communities of practice supported the development of a training of trainers programme which allowed all members of the learning network to access and use valuable research knowledge on rainwater harvesting and conservation produced by the Water Research Commission. At the start of the project we found that this knowledge, while seen to be valuable, was not being used in Colleges or in the field.

Chisala has been investigating the potential of community radio to share knowledge of rainwater harvesting and conservation practices with farmers further afield extending the social learning potential of the learning network. Engaging actively in developing this potential, and as part of her engaged research process, she developed a practical radio handbook for community radio stations to guide uptake and sharing of such knowledge.

At the core of the co-engaged learning model in the learning network was the establishment of productive demonstration sites. These productive demonstration sites were developed in the college grounds at Fort Cox College and in participating farmers’ fields. They demonstrated how farmers’ indigenous knowledge comes together with new scientific knowledge of rainwater harvesting and conservation to support increases in household and smallholder food production, making a difference in the lives of people on the ground.

Together this team of postgraduate researchers working with college lecturers at Fort Cox College, colleague at the University of Fort Hare, and members of the learning network, have helped to develop a new model for co-engaged learning that crosses traditional boundaries between research institutions, university, farmer, college, government services and municipality.

The results of their three year’s of work are to be found in curriculum innovation and new courses on rainwater harvesting and conservation in the agricultural college, a co-engaged social learning approach to farmer extension services, and wider uptake of valuable new knowledge of rainwater harvesting and conservation practices produced by the Water Research Commission. Importantly too, are increases in household food production amongst rural farmers.

This learning system innovation comes at a time when South Africa has been experiencing one of the worst droughts in history. The project is operating in an area where farmers were given back land for farming, but without adequate access to water resources.

The project also responds to an early finding that there is little attention being given to rainwater harvesting and conservation practices in South African Agricultural Colleges and training institutions. This is because the curricula continue to promote a particular culture of agriculture which emphasizes large-scale, mono-cultural forms of agricultural practice and thinking. This effectively leaves smallholder farmers’ needs out of mainstream agricultural college curricula, and thus sector thinking and practices. And it fails to decolonize the minds of agricultural college students.

Visit their project website: or the amanziforfood facebook page for further insight.

The Amanzi for Food research programme was supported by the Water Research Commission, with additional support for scholars’ bursaries provided by the CATTHSETA, and the NRF SARChI Chair on Transformative Social Learning and Green Skills Learning Pathways based in the Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University ( The project forms part of the South African learning networks case studies being developed by the South African team involved in the International Social Sciences Council Transformative Knowledge Network researching ‘transformative, transgressive learning in social-ecological systems in times of climate change’.