Some years ago on a quiet summer morning, my friend Ben Freeth and I paddled our red kayaks across a lake in southern Virginia, discussing a radical idea: how to disrupt Africa’s familiar pattern of drought, meager harvests, and dependency on food aid. Freeth’s in-laws once owned a successful commercial mango and citrus farm in Zimbabwe, but it was seized by the Mugabe government in the early 2000s, like thousands of others. Hundreds of their workers lost their jobs, and returned to subsistence farming, even as their farm has lain dormant for the past twenty years.
“What about looking at the Amish way of farming?” Ben asked. As executive director of the Zimbabwe-based Mike Campbell Foundation (MCF), a non-profit that helps small-scale indigenous farmers improve yields, he was always thinking about outside-the-box solutions to Zimbabwe’s frequent economic upheavals.
My paddle dipped in the water as I considered Ben’s provocative question. It felt like a stone thrown into the lake, casting long ripples. Amish farmers are largely independent of social and communication networks, and don’t need electricity, commercial seeds, fertilizers, or fuel to run their successful farms. African farmers find themselves in strikingly similar situations, but are hard-pressed to cope with droughts, and frequent shortages of their agricultural inputs.