Zimbabwean ‘green oasis’ school wins UNESCO sustainability education prize

A ‘whole institution’ approach to sustainable development has turned a primary school in an arid stretch of Zimbabwe into an oasis with a rehabilitated forest, fruit trees, nutrition garden and livestock. The project, which has improved the local environment while generating income, has been awarded the 2017 UNESCO-Japan Prize on Education for Sustainable Development (ESD).

The prize, which is funded by the Government of Japan, consists of three annual awards of USD 50,000 for each recipient.

Sihlengeni Primary School in Umzingwane District, in the heart of the arid Matabeleland South Province of Zimbabwe, was awarded for its remarkable Permaculture Project. The initiative has transformed not only the school but also the surrounding areas with practical and learning activities involving everyone from the 17 teachers and 738 learners to their parents and members of a neighbouring community.

Head teacher and project manager Sibanga Ncube said of the win: “We are very delighted especially as it was so unexpected. It is a tribute to the many sacrifices made by our teaching staff and to the tremendous cooperation of our parents, most of whom are low-income subsistence farmers who need assistance with so many aspects of their lives. They do everything from dig ditches to carrying out agricultural tasks.”

The project began in 1995 after the school received training in permaculture, a system of agricultural and social design, which draws on patterns and features in the natural ecosystem to develop and maintain the environment.

In a school situation, it uses the principles of ESD to provide quality education as well as increased access to a clean environment, food and water. It impacts on the alleviation of hunger and increases knowledge on food consumption habits.

In practice, this means that learners, parents and teachers at Sihlengeni plant exotic and indigenous trees, grass, millet and maize. They also introduce ground cover to mitigate land degradation and deforestation. They have rehabilitated a forest and also kept chickens and pigs. Some of the food produced is used to feed infants with the rest being sold locally.

“Visitors are so surprised that we have created this oasis with oranges, pawpaws and tomatoes and they want to know how they can do the same in such a dry area,” said Mr Ncube. “And as far as learning activities go the Sustainable Development Goals are at the heart of everything that our teachers do.”  

The school promotes inclusive and quality education, lifelong learning and gender equality through all of its activities. Alongside a conventional curriculum, it offers formal and informal instruction in crop and animal husbandry, horticulture, cookery and ICT training. This often leads to students forming their own small-scale businesses when they leave.

The school got its initial funding from small levies from parents as well as larger funding and is currently self-sustaining. This new boost will go towards expanding existing agricultural activities with more plant and animal husbandry.  There are plans to use manure from the pigs to produce biogas, keep bees, rear goats, cultivate mushrooms, fence the rehabilitated forest as well as undertake additional training and research.

“We would also like to improve water harvesting techniques by adding more reservoirs serving the school,” said Mr Ncube.

The school, which has already won a string of awards, has held two field days to share their achievements with others in the surrounding provinces and prize money from the UNESCO award will also be used for wider promotion.

UNESCO’s Director-General and the Japanese Minister of Education will award the Prize in a ceremony at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on 3 November 2017. As with all winners of the UNESCO-Japan Prize, UNESCO will invite Sihlengeni Primary School to join its Partner Networks of the Global Action Programme on ESD (GAP) to foster close, long-term collaboration.