Conservation, Community Resilience and Cows: Two months at Zimbabwe’s Africa Centre for Holistic Management

15 Apr

The Africa Centre for Holistic Management (ACHM) sits in the middle of 3200 hectares of land outside of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It’s not exactly your typical office. The admin building is perched on a small hill overlooking the railroad tracks; the white brick structure was built as an office for what was then the Rhodesian Rail. The nearest paved road is about a 2 hour walk by foot from the admin building by foot so the staff are bused in every morning from town. But a river – the Dimbangombe – runs through the land on its way to the Zambezi.

AB1When I arrived in Zimbabwe at the height of the rainy season we were both very green.

Being new to Holistic Management, the rangeland environments with which ACHM works, and sub-Saharan Africa in general I spent (and spend) the majority of my time here asking questions. Luckily this is the sort of place that answers them.

The Centre is in fact a learning site and training centerthe Savory Institute, which promotes Holistic Management internationally. There are several programs here at the Centre: direct training and support for local communities managing their land, training for individuals and NGOs that work within agro-pastoral communities and, of course, the work of the ranch itself. The whole propertyis managed under Holistic Land and Livestock Management (HLLM), which uses grazing planning and herd management to improve soil health.

But it’s not just about soil health. It encompasses the health of the land, certainly, but also the watershed, the livestock health, the improved crop yields that come with nutrient-rich soils and the extra income and self-sufficiency so vital for local communities. That’s the beauty of holistic management; when you consider the soil you must consider the micro-bacterial communities within that soil, the insect populations, the varieties of grasses you would like to grow for forage, the amount of forage necessary to quickly fatten a cow to be slaughtered in time for school fees. HLLM works to achieve increased soil health, replenished watersheds, plentiful harvests and resilient communities, and it does this through its grazing practices.

They run 500 head of cattle here, from the Centre and from surrounding communities, along with sheep and goats (and some chickens to keep the tick population in check). The cattle are herded strategically and grazed in certain areas, keeping grass short enough that the sun can reach the base of the plant, trampling grasses for ground cover to help retain moisture, and ingesting certain varieties of seed.At the end of the day, they’re herded (using no-stress herding techniques) back to the corral. The corral is placed on deteriorated land, usually with bare earth and a hard cap. It is here in a moveable canvas paddock that they rest each night, both for protection from predators (there are lions about) and so they’ll break the hard capping with their hooves and nourish the land with their waste. The corral is moved every week or so, to avoid over-trampling and over-fertilizing any one patch. During the daytime the grazing is planned so that animals don’t return to a spot too soon and overgraze plants, but to ensure old and rank grass gets trampled down to create a soil-covering mulch.


It works. The plots where cattle have been corralled look like muddy rectangles at first, but grow back beautifully in the period of recovery that follows. On weekends I wander along the property, up into the pink-flowered teak forest where the wild elephant move, and back down to the Dim. I begin to notice the grasses. At first they seem to be a bit like prairie grasses, and indeed it’s difficult to categorize this incredibly diverse land. The slippery transition between savannah and grassland and forest and plain occurs so gradually that such a categorization seems a hopeless simplification.  I borrow a well-worn copy of “Common Veld Grasses of Rhodesia” from Andy, our Ranch manager, and start to identify the varieties. I learn what Black Sudan Grass or Red Top Natal tells about the soil health. I see the grasses double in height.

AB3                                                An elephant herd leaves their mark

With the incredible landscapes and proximity to wildlife comes, well, proximity to wildlife. As in more varieties of beetles, spiders and crickets than I have ever encountered. Waking up with ant cadavers hanging from your hair takes a bit of adjustment but when you get up in the middle of the night and see a bushbuck 20 feet from your door you realize how extraordinary and yet how ordinary it feels to be so interconnected with the other species.

Ab4A meal of sadza (thick maize porridge) and Kapenta/Matemba fish from the Dim. Beware of crocs!

I spend my weekdays haunting the office and my nights hanging out in the kitchen with Gezekile, my neighbor and fellow intern.  I learn about fundraising, grant writing and NGO management, but I also about how to cook sadza, eat even the slimiest okra with my fingers and peel sugarcane with my teeth. Everyone shares their jokes, skills, and snacks and laughs in horror at my attempts to speak isiNdebele. I go crazy for Nemo beans, collards with peanut butter, and the two daily teas (at 10:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon, of course), but mostly for the friendliness and generosity of my coworkers, who share pictures of their families and invite me to their homes. It’s going to be difficult to leave them in a few weeks, but something tells me I’ll be back. The Centre and HLLM methodologies have radically altered my thinking on land management and taught me how to examine my environment at a level I never thought possible.  Most vitally, the regeneration of bare, barren land here has given me hope – hope for these eroded lands and for the all of us who depend upon them.

Amelia Burke, ’16 is in the process of accelerating by an academic year to compensate for time spent working and learning abroad. She studies Middle Eastern Studies, Environmental Science and Policy and concentrates in Sustainable Food and is interested in HLLM implementation in North Africa. She will return to Smith in the fall as HR of Parsons House.

You can watch Allan Savory’s TED talk on Holistic Management HERE.

One Response to “Conservation, Community Resilience and Cows: Two months at Zimbabwe’s Africa Centre for Holistic Management”

  1. sibonokuhle moyo November 28, 2014 at 8:18 am #

    It was great having you at ACHM Emelia…this place is not the same without you..Your smile brightened our (Geze and Sibo) days.. I can’t wait to see you again.Please come back again pleeeeeaseee..

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