Today at Berkeley Lab

Researcher Uses Her Expertise to Help Women Grow Food in Zimbabwe

— By Keri Troutman


A research scientist in the Lab’s Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Divsion, Naama Raz-Yaseef was looking for a way to apply her expertise in water-limited ecosystems to a humanitarian project. Last year she met the director of a small NGO, Mounde Trust, who has been working in the same small village in Zimbabwe for the past 30 years. That meeting led to what Raz-Yaseef describes as “one of the most amazing adventures I’ve ever experienced,” travelling to Zimbabwe last year as a volunteer consultant and developing a deep understanding of the challenges the villagers face.

“The people in this village in Mazvihwa, Zimbabwe, truly live off the grid,” Raz-Yaseef explained. “There’s no power, no running water, barely any roads, no merchandise coming in… they have to survive on what they grow.”

With climate change, growing food has become more difficult for people living in dry parts of the world, something that’s acutely clear to the Mazvihwa villagers. “They understand climate change and are worried about the future,” says Raz-Yaseef.

During the rainy season, Mazvihwa villagers grow staple foods such as corn, wheat, and potatoes in fields. But since fresh vegetables are vital year-round, they grow these in gardens located near rivers and use the river water as a source of irrigation. Traditionally, women are in charge of growing vegetables and they do so in communal gardens that they tend together. The process of irrigating their crops is extremely challenging and labor-intensive — they women must carry buckets down the steep riverbanks to fill them with water and then back up 30-foot slopes with the buckets on their heads. Each woman makes the trek many times per week. When the river dries up during drought years, which has been the case the past few years, the women dig holes in the sandy river floor and quickly scoop up the water that accumulates, adding yet another step to their irrigation work.

“There’s a much more efficient way for them to irrigate, using irrigation pumps instead of human labor to get the water into these women’s gardens,” says Raz-Yaseef. The perfect solution lies in the right combination of affordability, usability, and sustainability, she adds. Cultural considerations must be taken into account as well; Raz-Yaseef relates a recent story she read about a failed implementation of bicycle-operated pumps in another part of Africa. The women didn’t like the feeling of sitting on stationary bikes and pedaling, and the men thought it inappropriate, so the solution didn’t take hold. “That’s why I like the idea of working with Mounde Trust; they have such a deep, intimate knowledge of the community they’re trying to help,” she says.

naama-webRaz-Yaseef (right) spent much of her two weeks in Mazvihwa helping the people engineer various solutions for “harvesting” rainfall, taking slope measurements and redesigning collection pits to make them more efficient. She also talked a lot with villagers, teachers, and elders about their struggles and challenges, while observing daily life in Mazvihwa and its stark contrast to any place she’d ever been before. “It is such a beautiful place, and the people were so warm and welcoming,” she says. “They really enjoy living off the land, and want to continue to do so.”

Raz-Yaseef wants to continue to help the Mazvihwa people do so. She and a UC Berkeley environmental engineering student have teamed up to develop a pilot program that will bring irrigation pumps to five communal gardens in Mazvihwa. They plan to test a variety of pumps and power sources to determine a solution that’s ideal for the women and their gardens. Raz-Yaseef plans to travel to Mazvihwa again later this year if she’s able to raise enough money for the project. She’s currently raising funds via a UC Berkeley crowdfunding campaign, which ends at the end of April.

“The Mazvihwa villagers can’t wait to get the irrigation pumps,” she says. “The only mobile communication method they use there is WhatsApp, and I’m still getting regular messages from them checking in about the pumps.”

Raz-Yaseef’s main scientific focus these days takes her to the Arctic, working in Barrow, Alaska, on the NGEE Arctic project. “Even though I work now in the Arctics I am more of a dry ecosystem scientist,” she adds. Raz-Yaseef is from Israel and did much of her early research in Southern Israel, which is similar ecologically to Africa. Her Postdoc work brought her to UC Berkeley, and then to the Berkeley Lab in 2013. “I’ve always wanted to put my scientific knowledge to work for society in a more hands-on way, and I like working in Mazvihwa because that personal connection is so important, and I can really see the difference this project will make.”

To learn more about Raz-Yaseef’s project, contact her at [email protected]