One out of three people in Africa experience hunger and extreme poverty as a daily reality. To explore this problem on an individual level, we interviewed Chido Govera, a 29-year-old woman from Zimbabwe. Despite a childhood blighted by poverty and hunger, Chido is now a successful farmer and entrepreneur, international campaigner, role model and teacher.
Born into poverty, Chido’s life became impossibly difficult when she was orphaned at only seven years old.
“I never knew my father and my mother died from AIDS when I was seven. When she died I was left to look after my younger brother, my blind grandmother and myself. We had relatives, but we didn’t get much help from them as they were also struggling. I dropped out of school at age nine in order to earn enough for food, because it was unbearable getting home and seeing the hungry faces of my granny and little brother.”
When Chido was 10, one relative suggested she marry a man 30 years her senior, so that she would be fed and looked after. Although this would have lifted her out of poverty and taken her away from the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her uncles, it was not a solution she could accept:
“I knew that getting married would mean that I would not be able to take care of my grandmother and brother.”
From an early age, Chido was adamant about helping other orphans so that they didn’t have to experience what she went through. Providentially, when she was 11, she was one of 15 orphan girls from Zimbabwe invited to learn mushroom cultivation.
“The ZERI foundation (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives) founded by Belgian environmental entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, introduced the art of cultivating mushrooms to African scientists who then provided training to others. After a week of training, I, and 2 other girls from my community, returned home to start growing and selling mushrooms.”
Growing and selling mushrooms allowed Chido and the other girls to earn enough money to care for themselves and others. It also ignited her passion for the art and science of mushroom cultivation, and gave her a way to help others as she had always intended.
“I was fascinated by the idea of growing food on waste, that waste can amount to something more. When you grow up in a community where you don’t have anything to inspire you, you just feel like a piece of garbage, and don’t believe you can amount to anything. Growing mushrooms taught me that if I can do this, then I can do something with my life and help other young orphans in the same situation as me. So I decided to teach people who need it the most, people who would use it to save their lives.”
Chido’s initial training, dedication and talent helped open doors for her to receive further instruction at the Africa University in Mutare at only 12 years old. There, she learned about the protein and nutritional benefits of mushrooms for her community, particularly for those affected by HIV/AIDs. She also learned the entire growing process thereby eliminating her need to rely on the growing kits initially provided to her by ZERI. After honing her craft, she simplified the process to make it accessible for more people and figured out how to reuse organic waste such as coffee grounds, to cultivate mushrooms.
“Mushrooms are a good entry to farming because they are produced on waste material and grow quickly, yielding produce in three weeks and a special byproduct (spent substrate) at the end of three months. The spent substrate can be used to feed animals, fertilize vegetable gardens and promote the growth of beneficial microorganisms in soil, creating value for other food production streams.”
“I figured out how to simplify the production process and equipment so that we can use a normal African hut built with mud, wood poles and grass to grow mushrooms. For a mushroom production base (substrate) we can use a wide range of waste that comes from agricultural practices. We adjust the process and materials to fit the resources available in each environment we work. Where I come from, most poor people grow maize, and at the end of the season they don’t have anything but stalks and cobs. So we use these to grow mushrooms and use the spent substrate as fertilizer in the garden to enrich the soil.”
Despite her success in growing mushrooms, there were some challenges. But Chido took this in stride, finding creative ways to overcome potential barriers.
“One barrier was that mushroom production was not typical in communities like mine. We were used to harvesting mushrooms from the forest, not growing them. It was a new experience for people to go to a house and see mushrooms sprouting out of a bag. It took a while to convince people that these mushrooms were edible and to explain the link between cultivated mushrooms and those found in the forest. When I was 11, we overcame this by sharing cooked mushrooms. Once people developed a taste for them, it was easy to establish a market for them.”
Chido has reached thousands of women, girls and entrepreneurs in more than 15 countries with her training and leadership. She is a foster parent to 7 children and runs a foundation called “The Future of Hope” that aims to empower young orphans to become self-sufficient and engaged agents of change in ending abuse and poverty.
“With my foundation The Future of Hope, my goal is to train 100 orphans every year and 40 women who will as act as mentors for the orphans to make sure that in every community we will have a little mushroom production that expands into an integrated food production system where young people and the whole community itself can learn.”
Chido believes that lack of access to resources, innovative ideas and transformative knowledge is a big part of the problem. “We need to teach our children and introduce them to food production as early as possible. We are building a school in the training center where we will combine normal basic education curriculum with our food production training so young kids can learn that as well. “
She is also adamant that agricultural training be done with the environment in mind. “We need to take into account the biological and cultural diversity of the areas where we work and advance with that in mind. We need to think about how to work with the earth in a way that we are not just taking as much as we can and not giving in return.”
She calls upon governments and donors to support results-oriented empowerment programs like hers. “They should change how they address the problem. It’s not enough to have meetings. Governments and NGOs need to include the poorest in the conversation and on-the-ground engagements and give them the tools to empower themselves.”
Learn more about Chido’s organization, The Future of Hope Foundation, and the life-changing work they do here. Make your voice heard and sign our petition here, to ensure that 50% of aid goes to programs like this that help the poorest people in the poorest countries.