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