Darlington Mafa, 2023 Community Solutions Fellow

Local problems require global solutions. Nobody realizes this better than Darlington Mafa, of Zimbabwe, and Felician Ezekiel, of Tanzania, whom Rural Action hosted as Community Solutions Fellows last year.

Each year, the United States Department of State welcomes over 100 emerging social innovators from different countries to the United States for a four-month learning and exchange opportunity with nonprofit organizations.

From Africa to Appalachia, Ezekiel and Mafa participated in a cultural and professional exchange in hopes for a better future. Bringing their skills to Ohio to share with Rural Action, they were able to develop professionally and personally, become a part of the Athens community, and serve as a major inspiration to staff.

But above all Ezekiel and Mafa found that southeast Ohio’s sustainability problems mirror that of Sub-Saharan Africa’s — and perhaps if the same problems transcend country, culture, and climate, we can work together on solutions, too. Both Ezekiel and Mafa are accomplished nonprofit leaders in their home countries.

Mafa is a social entrepreneur and founder of RimaAfrika Trust Zimbabwe, a nonprofit initiative that seeks to help marginalized and economically distressed communities adapt to climate change, diversify food systems for better nutrition, and achieve intentional climate justice.

Mafa is passionate about community agriculture, climate-smart agriculture, and modernizing agriculture in his country and across Africa. His work outside of his time with Rural Action consists of helping rural communities achieve food and nutrition security through handouts of vegetable seeds, startup support for gray oyster mushroom production, and partnerships with other nonprofits.

Mafa worked with the Rural Action Sustainable Agriculture program, who “made sure I got the best out of the experience,” he said. He was “shocked at the food system parallels that exist between southeast Ohio and Zimbabwe.”

“The sweet potatoes, the corn, soy beans, sorghum, and pumpkins are just the same,” Mafa said. “I also discovered some persimmons that were just different in color from the ones I grew up with at my grandmother’s rural home.”

For his fellowship practicum, he worked on three pillars: climate-smart approaches for sustainable food security; ways to improve farming enterprise health; transitioning farms into sustainable, profitable businesses; and sharing his culture.

Felician Ezekiel, 2023 Community Solutions Fellow

The last pillar culminated in a community presentation at the Athens Public Library at the end of his fellowship. Alongside Ezekiel, Mafa shared agricultural initiatives and feasted upon a potluck dinner of Zimbabwean and Tanzanian foods, which demonstrated similarities and differences between the fellows’ and local food systems.

“We also had conversations about our traditions and shared interesting facts about our respective countries and our dreams for our nonprofit initiatives,” Mafa said. “I’m sure someone is trying out my people’s recipe of cooking fresh pumpkin leaves and peanut butter after preparing them like celery!” Mafa added.

“I definitely learned a little bit about American etiquette, sports, and experienced the music festivals firsthand,” he added. “From conversations with Debbie Phillips, Rural Action CEO, I also learned how to organize my nonprofit initiative in a more professional way and foster a culture of transparency and accountability.”

Mafa lived at the Firehouse Coop with other Rural Action staff and service members where “I shared our food culture and my way of life as an African and a Zimbabwean with them, on some nights I would try to teach them to dance like me.” Beyond cultural exchanges, he learned about seed saving, cover cropping and food system structure while on the ag team.

“I enjoyed learning new things about the world and I was really inspired by the intentional talks we had about race and ending racism that have become part of Rural Action’s work culture,” Mafa said. “They made me realize that as a majority in my own country I also have to play my part in easing any existing or potential tensions with the minorities of my society.”

He was very inspired by his experience. “The long-term vision for RimaAfrica’s Zimbabwe community reach and impact is inspired by the initiative, dedication, innovation, and team spirit exuded by Rural Action team and staff.”

Like Mafa, Ezekiel’s work also focuses on adapting to climate change and supporting African farmers.

Former Sustainable Forestry Program Director Karam Sheban said Ezekiel provided “some of the big inspirations of 2022” for the forestry team. Ezekiel leads a nonprofit called Ecowise that works with rural farmers who live along the edges of Mikumi National Park.

Specifically, Ezekiel helps farmers cultivate crops that are wildlife-resistant — elephant-resistant.

“On average, one farmer can farm four acres, which is enough to sustain them to give them food for the whole year,” Ezekiel said. “And one herd of elephants can eat four whole acres per day. So we’re trying to find how we can prevent elephants from entering the farms, and also finding alternative crops that elephants don’t like, like sesame and mushrooms.”

Ecowise also helps farmers take their crops to market, he added. Rural Action was his first choice for fellowship hosts, he said; he wanted to bring agroforestry practices home, as well as social enterprise systems.

Both Ezekiel and Sheban see major parallels between southeast Ohio and Tanzania.

“Most of the issues we’re experiencing are similar environmental challenges like climate change, which is a global issue right now,” Ezekiel said. “And it’s something that is mostly driven by socio

economic factors. Despite the fact that we differ in geographical and economic background, I can see the solutions that need to be addressed are almost the same.”

“In many ways, Felician’s work parallels the work we do here at Rural Action,” Sheban added.

“Felician inspired us every day, and it was a tremendous privilege to have him here, working with us,” Sheban said. “We were sad to see him go, but look forward to hearing all the ways his work continues to move him forward.”

But Ezekiel won’t be gone long — in the fall, he’ll return to Athens County, Ohio to pursue a master’s degree in environmental studies at Ohio University.

Previous Rural Action Community Solutions Fellows:

  • 2022: Felician (Tanzania) and Darlington (Zimbabwe).
  • 2019: Marcelita “Marce” Ponce de Leon (Peru), Sustainable Agriculture.
  • 2018: Natalia Lozano-Broncales (Peru), Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry.
    • Former Sustainable Agriculture Program Manager Joe Barbaree visited Peru in 2019 to partner with Lozano Broncales on beginning farmer work presentations.
  • 2017: Antoine “Tony” Kabandana (Rwanda), Zero Waste program.
  • 2017: Helena Goncalves (Brazil), Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry.
    • Former Sustainable Forestry Program Director Karam Sheban traveled to Brazil with Goncalves to share agroforestry practices with Amazonian Brazil nut harvesters.
  • 2016: Zi Xiang Chan (Malaysia), Sustainable Agriculture and Forestry.