It’s a won­der­ful won­der­ful expe­ri­ence to be shar­ing with you today and to talk to you about the work that I am doing. I have to say, com­ing from where I come from, from Zimbabwe, with the back­ground that I have of grow­ing up in Zimbabwe as a child who had to learn to work at the ear­ly age of sev­en years old, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about tomor­row’s meal is much big­ger. And it needs a col­lab­o­ra­tion of us all. 

What comes to mind at the thought of tomor­row’s meal is that tomor­row’s meal has to be a key that unlocks the poten­tial of every­body. Young chil­dren who are going with­out food in Africa. Young women who are suf­fer­ing in dif­fer­ent ways because of lack of food, because of lack of oppor­tu­ni­ty. Tomorrow’s meal has to be that key that unlocks that. Tomorrow’s meal has to be a dri­ver of socioe­co­nom­ic devel­op­ment. Tomorrow’s meal has to be a peace­mak­er that uni­fies us all.

I looked back to how I stud­ied as a child. How I missed an oppor­tu­ni­ty to study at the right age because of lack of food. And I think that is some­thing that we all have to joint­ly work togeth­er in every­thing that we do to make a meal that will make sure that we all get equal opportunities.

I lost my moth­er to AIDS when I was sev­en years old. I found myself liv­ing with my grand­moth­er who was over a hun­dred years old. She was a won­der­ful won­der­ful woman. And she used to like to sing a lot. It’s a pity that I’m here today and I don’t seem like she used to. My grand­moth­er was a wise woman. My grand­moth­er was a hap­py woman. And my grand­moth­er taught me a lot of things that made me want to hold onto life even when it was dif­fi­cult. When I would go to bed with­out food, when I would dream a way of how I would com­plete my primary-level edu­ca­tion and I knew there was no way what­so­ev­er I would be able to achieve that, because every­day life was com­prised of dig­ging in peo­ple’s fields all to get a small bowl of maize meal, my grand­moth­er gave me that hope things can change. She was a strong Christian. She used to sing with me songs that gave a lot of hope.

I was out of school when I was nine, and I was work­ing full-time. I would be mar­ried off when I was ten years old. And this pro­pos­al to mar­ry, the sug­ges­tion to mar­ry, came from one of the ten sis­ters from my mom. She was a grown woman. And she came to me, she says, Chido, I do see that life is very dif­fi­cult for you. And I know you’re stay­ing here with your uncle who will not let you leave the home­stead unless you’re get­ting mar­ried.” He would not let me leave, even to go and work. So she says, My hus­band has a friend. He is forty years old. And he has been strug­gling to find a wife. And we think this could be an oppor­tu­ni­ty for you. If you get mar­ried, when he gets a few cows, he lets me leave, and I could go away. Come and meet him next Wednesday. He’s dri­ving a blue car.” 

Of course, that was sup­posed to be super excit­ing news. That I would get mar­ried to a guy who has a car and I can final­ly have food on my plate. Wednesday came. I was so scared of leav­ing my grand­moth­er alone. I was so scared of leav­ing my lit­tle broth­er alone, because it was tak­ing care of my lit­tle broth­er also. And I did­n’t go on a Wednesday. I stayed with my grand­moth­er and I did­n’t say any­thing. We could­n’t call to say, Hey, I’m not com­ing,” so I stayed at home and I was quiet.

A few days lat­er, my sis­ter comes. She says, Oh Chido, I would like to let you know that from now on, you’re on your own. I offered you the only help that I could and you did­n’t take it.” So, that was me at ten years old. The strug­gle for food was there. And the only per­son who could help me with offer­ing me to mar­ry. And I did­n’t do it.

At the age of eleven, some­thing won­der­ful hap­pened. A uni­ver­si­ty in Zimbabwe, which is called Africa University. This is a uni­ver­si­ty for dif­fer­ent African nation­al­i­ties which is in Mutare. They were work­ing togeth­er with the an orga­ni­za­tion called ZERI Foundation. And what they were doing is that they were get­ting African sci­en­tists and send­ing them to China to learn to farm mush­rooms. They had a bit of mon­ey to do it, and they taught enough of them, and after­wards there’s a bit of mon­ey left. And they said, What shall we do with this? Now we know how to grow mush­rooms and we have a lit­tle bit of mon­ey on our hands.” And they said, Why don’t we teach this to young orphans?”

And because I was out of school and I was strug­gling to get food that every­body in my com­mu­ni­ty knew this was my sit­u­a­tion, a group of peo­ple from church, a United Methodist Church, when they got the news from Africa University, imme­di­ate­ly a woman called Loveness came to my vil­lage and spoke to my uncle, and says Well, there’s this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Can she go?” It was a train­ing for five days only, and so it was just five days. And Loveness was so good at nego­ti­at­ing my exit of the home­stead to go and learn for five days. 

I went. I remem­ber I was bare­foot. And each time they asked me what I was hop­ing for, [it] was to have a father. Because I’d grown up being told when I don’t get food if I report this, they’d send me to go and find my father. I was liv­ing on my moth­er’s side of the fam­i­ly. If they touched me in an appro­pri­ate way, if I report it, they would send me to go and find my father. Or there was no food for me. And it was always all these things.

So I learned to farm mush­rooms. And for the first time, I could grow my mush­rooms, and cook them, and have a plate full of mush­room all to myself. I could sell the mush­rooms and get mon­ey. I did­n’t have to dig for a bowl of maize meal any­more. And it was the most excit­ing moment of my life. To real­ize that I can go to bed know­ing that when I wake up tomor­row, I go and work in a mush­room house, I can har­vest my mush­room, and I have food.

But more impor­tant than that was that I real­ized that I was achiev­ing this using organ­ic agri­cul­ture waste that had been aban­doned. As a lit­tle girl, I had a small field that belonged to my grand­moth­er. How many of you have had to work in the fields when they were eight years old, nine years old, eleven years old? You have no idea what­so­ev­er how to plant prop­er­ly, how to make it work. They took about fer­til­iz­ers and you’re think­ing, what is that? You don’t even know where you get it.

So at the end of each farm­ing sea­son I had corn stalks stand­ing there and I could not eat them. And sud­den­ly I could con­vert that into mush­rooms. And for the first time, I real­ized if I can con­vert waste into mush­rooms, I can sure­ly take the same exam­ple and use it to turn my life around. 

And that was the begin­ning of my jour­ney with mush­rooms. And I set out to teach as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble to grow mush­rooms, sell them and earn income, send chil­dren to school, or just take care of their basic needs. So I trav­eled around the world teach­ing peo­ple how to farm mush­rooms, and it was a won­der­ful expe­ri­ence. But anoth­er thing that hap­pened was, now my uncles did­n’t have that con­trol on me any­more. Suddenly, I was not just grow­ing any food, I was grow­ing mush­rooms and that was a bit of sci­ence. And imag­ine if you’re in a com­mu­ni­ty where peo­ple have not real­ly been to school, it sounds so big, so very sci­en­tif­ic. And I was doing some­thing unique. 

They don’t beat me any­more and tell me to go and find my father. Now they want me to stay. And that for me was the first moment that I real­ized that actu­al­ly, food can be this peace­mak­er. Food can be that uni­fi­er that actu­al­ly dilut­ed all the ten­sion that was between me and my uncles. Of course I was still hurt, but I knew I could not be beat­en any­more. And in with this in mind, tomor­row’s meal has to speak to issues of oth­er young girls out there who are in the same sit­u­a­tion as I was. Of grown women out there who are in the same sit­u­a­tion, where they need some kind of escape.

But it did­n’t end with me just secur­ing my food, help­ing my lit­tle broth­er, and just train­ing a few peo­ple. I kept think­ing about it. It sparked some­thing in me. It sparked a desire to want to reach out more. And I con­tin­ued work­ing to sim­pli­fy the art of cul­ti­vat­ing mush­rooms. I reached out to entre­pre­neurs around the world with the most pop­u­lar thing around mush­room pro­duc­tion right now that, if you’re all drink­ing cof­fee here, the cof­fee waste in the end can now be used to grow mush­rooms. And it was me who was going around the world and say­ing, Hey, you can do it.” And it was slow­ly grow­ing beyond just me try­ing to fill my stomach. 

And I saw all of that and I was think­ing this is the way to go. So, after so many expe­ri­ences teach­ing peo­ple, and entre­pre­neurs, women and girls around world, I thought what then? As a young girl, I had many stress­ful sit­u­a­tions. And as a way of over­com­ing those stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, I had writ­ten a biog­ra­phy of myself which was titled The Future of Hope. And actu­al­ly this was inspired by a con­fer­ence which was held in Hiroshima by Elie Weisel, my adopt­ed father now who’s called Gunter Pauli, and a few oth­er peo­ple at the time. And it was titled The Future of Hope, and the main aim of it was to call upon the young peo­ple to fill in the gap that the then lead­er­ship was fail­ing to address. And that is still the sit­u­a­tion today. We are still work­ing so hard to call upon the younger gen­er­a­tions to come and contribute.

When I wrote my my biog­ra­phy, it was hard to write it. And at the end, we had it, and so we were think­ing how to title this, and so it was called The Future of Hope. And that was when I was around nine­teen, twen­ty years old. And I looked at it when I was twenty-three and I said to myself, Yes. This is where I was when I wrote that. This is where I am today. And now I’m clear where I want to go. What is the future of hope?” And I asked Chido that. What is the future of hope? And I thought to myself, shall I sit down and write, or shall I do some­thing that speaks the future of hope to me?

And I decid­ed I am a very very prac­ti­cal per­son. I can’t write. I want to do some­thing prac­ti­cal, so I cre­at­ed a foun­da­tion called The Future of Hope Foundation. The aim of the foun­da­tion is to empow­er young orphans who are liv­ing in child-headed fam­i­lies, young orphans who don’t have a chance to go to school, young orphans who don’t have a chance to find a job even if they do get a chance to go to school, women in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties around Zimbabwe, to start with. And the empow­er­ment mod­el that we use is based on food. Because that was what spoke to me. What start­ed my jour­ney was food. 

We teach them to grow food. And of course the main focus is on mush­rooms, and there’s a good rea­son for that. Mushrooms are one of those very very very spe­cial things to grow, and espe­cial­ly in the com­mu­ni­ties where I come from, where the one thing that is avail­able in abun­dance is waste. People are starv­ing, but there’s a lot of waste mate­r­i­al that is going to the trash with­out being used for any­thing valuable.

I take groups of young girls into my space. I stay with them for two weeks. I teach them every­thing I know about cul­ti­vat­ing mush­rooms and how they can use the waste from the mush­rooms to start a lit­tle veg­gie gar­den. And how they can use what­ev­er they have from the veg­gie gar­den to start a poul­try projects and dif­fer­ent things like that. 

And next to that, we also teach them how to express them­selves, how to share about their hopes and their dreams. But always in every group the first most impor­tant thing is that for them to be able to learn, they have to be able to eat. And they told me that when I went to my first train­ing, one of the things that I did was that at the moment there was food on the table—I mean, it was the only time I would see food on the table when I went for my first training—I said it was bis­cuits and tea, and I was grab­bing every­thing and putting as much as I could on my plate. And one of the things that we try to do is to actu­al­ly use food in that same way to cre­ate a plat­form that facil­i­tates learn­ing. And this is one of the things that comes to my mind when I think about tomor­row’s meal. Tomorrow’s meal should cre­ate a plat­form to facil­i­tate learn­ing. Not only in dis­ad­van­taged peo­ple, but also amongst all of us. Tomorrow’s meal has to facil­i­tate a plat­form for learn­ing not just about food, [but] about our envi­ron­ment. About the dif­fer­ent cul­tures and how to fuse them togeth­er to make some­thing much much more stronger. 

And so, the Future of Hope Foundation was cre­at­ed in 2013. And since then we’ve trained thir­teen com­mu­ni­ties around Zimbabwe and helped them to set up dif­fer­ent projects. What we have been able to achieve in those com­mu­ni­ties was that for the first time in some of the com­mu­ni­ties, men and women are com­ing togeth­er to work on a project that sup­ports vul­ner­a­ble chil­dren in the com­mu­ni­ties. Something that would­n’t nor­mal­ly hap­pen. But because we are work­ing with food that speaks to every­body, we are able to get the dif­fer­ent peo­ple who would nor­mal­ly not get togeth­er to talk about an issue so important.

Currently, we are work­ing to train twen­ty com­mu­ni­ties, And in the same way, we are work­ing to cre­ate all these food pro­duc­tion units in all the dif­fer­ent places we can go to. One of the most inter­est­ing things that I find is of course I’m a young woman and I am a farmer, and I have to set up a busi­ness. I’m fos­ter­ing sev­en chil­dren. I’m also a moth­er of sev­en chil­dren. And this isn’t last year. And I told myself, Okay, now I have to make it work, this mod­el. I have to build it at my own place where we’re build­ing a cen­ter, we’re build­ing a school. But we’re build­ing a busi­ness there.”

And one of the things that I still have to over­come is being a young female farmer. You have your pro­duce. You go to the mar­ket. And you get there, every­body looks at you like, And what are you and who are you?” And I always have to fight my way through. And one of the things that I have seen to be a very very strong weapon is to bring some­thing excel­lent. So when I go there, I tell them, Yeah. I’m a mush­room farmer and I got the best mush­rooms in the country.” 

And they’re like, Best mushrooms?” 

Yeah, best mushrooms.”

Well, bring them.”

And they look at my mush­rooms, they say, Oh my god. These mush­room sell them­selves.” And I’ve been able to estab­lish a mush­room busi­ness where I sell my mush­rooms for dou­ble the price and I can afford to take care of my sev­en children. 

And these are some of the expe­ri­ences that make me under­stand exact­ly how excel­lent food can help to trans­form com­mu­ni­ties. We are going to the mar­ket. We are chang­ing the mar­ket. Even though this is a sto­ry that starts with a lit­tle girl who just had to feed her­self. She escaped get­ting mar­ried at the age of ten to escape all this pover­ty and abuse. Now we’re trans­form­ing the mar­ket for food in Zimbabwe. Normally, I go to the mar­ket, I arrive and they tell me this is not the stan­dard. Well, I am hop­ing that tomor­row’s meal can also be that… It can it can add more val­ue to the farmer.

Tomorrow’s meal has to inspire farm­ers to be proud of what they do. It has to empow­er farm­ers to go to mar­ket with a lev­el of pride that accords them the respect that they deserve with­in our com­mu­ni­ties. Tomorrow’s meal has to get rid of the divide between what farm­ers should be. How farm­ers should only be old­er peo­ple and not younger peo­ple. To break the divide between them and us, between the rich and poor. Tomorrow’s meal has to uni­fy us all. Tomorrow’s meal has to help us to go for­ward togeth­er, and to be more peace­ful, and to live togeth­er in har­mo­ny, to leave togeth­er nature, in harmony. 

This is what I hope that we can all col­lab­o­rate [on] in our own ways. We can all take the mes­sage out into the world that we can start tak­ing the first steps where food can actu­al­ly be the trans­for­ma­tive force that it is. It is not defined only by the bound­aries of cul­ture, but it can actu­al­ly be that thing that brings the diver­si­ty in our cul­ture togeth­er, and to build some­thing much stronger for the future. Thank you.

Further Reference

Overview page for the MAD SYD / Tomorrow’s Meal event.