Chido Govero, a young woman from Zimbabwe, just won the Sustainability Award at the 2009 Specialty Coffee Association of America conference. The association celebrated her contributions to sustainability and innovation within the coffee industry. The award is not only a critical success for Chido and her partners at the ZERI Foundation, it is also a triumph for sustainable development.
Govero was orphaned at a young age when her mother died of the AIDS virus. Zimbabwe’s population is being decimated by AIDS, with approximately 25 percent of the country testing positive. AIDS orphans are ubiquitous, and thus many young children are homeless. Couple the AIDS pandemic with Zimbabwe’s failing economy and poor domestic food production, and you have a true humanitarian and environmental crisis. Many of the youngest and most vulnerable Zimbabwe citizens are in desperate need of food, shelter and healthcare. This is the country into which Govero was born.
A scientist for the ZERI Foundation found Govero in an orphanage at age 12, and was impressed by her intellect and determination. She was given a position in a university laboratory, conducting research on mushroom tissue samples. Govero’s team eventually determined that native mushrooms in Zimbabwe are a viable, protein-rich and excellent food source.
Govero ran with the project and developed a mushroom mulch composed of discarded green waste – coffee husks, grass clippings and fallen leaves. These inputs are readily available across the country, even to homeless children. The native mushrooms flourish in Govero’s mulch, and eventually grow into a nutritious food source. Govero is now focusing on teaching mushroom cultivation and mulch composition to young homeless girls in Zimbabwe, encouraging them to be self-sufficient by finding and nurturing wild mushrooms.
Self-sufficiency is a crucial principle of sustainable development. Foreign Aid is often unreliable, poorly distributed and encourages African countries to rely on hand-outs from the first world. Unfortunately, self-reliance usually requires raw inputs and resources, many of which are scarce in sub-Saharan Africa. Govero’s project is brilliant for two reasons: it transforms a plentiful native species into a viable food source, and it allows for people to cultivate this species by using found organic materials.
It gets better. The mushroom spores enrich the mulch. The mulch can then be fed to animals, as a high-fiber livestock feed. The manure from the livestock is then used as compost for further agricultural production. The mulch also sequesters methane, a greenhouse gas. Govaro has effectively invented a closed-loop food system, which benefits humans, livestock and the environment equally.
It gets even better. Govero partnered up with ZERI at a young age, but she more recently collaborated with Equator Coffees. Equator is a very fancy, woman-owned, California coffee company known for promoting and roasting cause coffees. This week, Equator released their newest roast- Chido’s Blend. The coffee is a mix of three distinct African beans. All the profits from the blend will go back to Govero in Zimbabwe, and will be reinvested in her community in the form of housing and training programs.
The most fascinating part of this story, to me, is not Govero’s individual tale or even the tragedy of Zimbabwe’s AIDS orphans. It’s the fact that one woman, armed with an education and an opportunity, developed a system that encourages self-sufficiency, biological efficiency and community empowerment. This system that she has developed is currently being replicated in other African coffee-growing nations, and has no barriers to entry. It’s fair trade, mixed with sustainable development, blended into closed-loop ecology. And I bet the coffee tastes great.