Much more than a backyard social experiment

Marianne Knuth, founder of Kufunda Village

Kufunda Village sits on a rocky plot of family farmland just outside Harare, Zimbabwe’s bustling capital city. It could easily be mistaken for a collection of African mud huts, but look a little closer and you’ll see something out of the ordinary… a community of Zimbabweans brewing up herbal tinctures, growing organic veggies off arid land and planting trees in compost toilets. The brainchild of Marianne Knuth, Kufunda Village is a living demonstration of self-reliance. Together the community is learning how, instead of relying on others, they can rely on themselves.

Before we take you to Kufunda, we want to share with you Marianne’s past. Half Zimbabwean, half Danish, Marianne grew up in two colliding worlds. Not one to ignore difficult questions, from a young age she struggled to accept the supposed superiority of western ways. Marianne remembers her Danish grandmother as being very unhappy, whilst her Zimbabwean counterpart was every bit your life and soul. And yet they conformed to all the stereotypes. Her Danish grandmother was “beautiful, bridge-playing and relatively wealthy”, whilst her Zimbabwean grandmother was, “very rural, strong and materially poor”.

Marianne’s pre-occupation with the global North-South divide played a central part in the years to come. Whilst studying in Copenhagen, she became a mover and shaker behind the World Summit for Social Development and discovered a passion for bringing people together to discuss pressing global themes. With this agenda in mind, she won an election campaign to become first, Director, and then Global President at AIESEC International[i]. AIESEC is a student organisation with over 50,000 members recruited from business-orientated courses across the world. As a tri-lingual high-achiever studying for a masters in International Business and Finance, Marianne fitted the profile of President perfectly. Her approach, however, brought something quite different to the table.

Opinionated, extroverted, goal-driven and egotistical – these are common traits of student leaders. And then you have Marianne. Gentle and utterly sincere, Marianne doesn’t force her views on you, quite the opposite. Her interest is not in preaching her manifesto, but in bringing people together to figure out things in their own way. She doesn’t play the end game and believes that obsessing about outputs is damaging.  “Start small, work with emergence, trust and listen”, she told us. As a couple of over-planners always chasing a result, this felt totally alien to us and stood in stark contrast to the other social entrepreneurs we’ve met. In an effort to mirror her open-mindedness however, we resisted dismissing her approach as wishy-washy and quickly became enthralled by the merits of “letting things unfold”.

After graduating in 1998, Marianne set in stone her life’s mantra of “follow your heart”. She turned down a conventional job at Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) and co-founded the organisation Pioneers of Change. Backed by big hitters from the US, Pioneers of Change stuck two fingers up at the people who dismiss student idealism as naivety. Cheesy though it sounds, the organisation was founded on the principle of “keeping the stars in the eyes of young people” and its core principles were:

1. Be yourself.

2. Do what matters.

3. Start now.

4. Never stop asking questions.

5. Engage with others.

Capitalising on Marianne’s natural talent for facilitation, as well as her and her co-founders’ bulging international network, Pioneers of Change attracted a 1000-strong community of graduates. In local groups, as well as in large gatherings, Pioneers came together to discuss how they could create positive systemic change in the world, using examples from their own jobs as food for thought.

In keeping with Marianne’s style, the organisation didn’t obsess about outcomes, but she did share with us a few fascinating anecdotes. One group of Pioneers who did take jobs with PWC persuaded PWC’s Culture Team to refresh their Business Values. Another group was part of starting an international network of Hubs which provide creative work space for social entrepreneurs.[ii]  Pioneers of Change also acted as a launch pad for many of Marianne’s current joint ventures , including the ‘The Art of Hosting’ (a global community of people interested in facilitating group conversations that enable action for the common good) and ‘Reos Partners’ (a business which supports governments, business and civil society organisations working in complex social systems to create positive collective action).

After three years spearheading Pioneers of Change, Marianne’s heart took her off on in a new direction. She invited a group of her globe-trotting friends to celebrate her 30th birthday in her grandparents’ village in Zimbabwe. At the party, attended by 200 villagers, Marianne succeeded in sharing with her friends the joys of ‘real Africa’ but it also brought home to her arguably one of Africa’s most deep rooted problems. In a farewell speech, the village chief pleaded for support from the foreign visitors.  “Without people like you”, he said, “what could we do?” Marianne recoiled in embarrassment at this comment. In a country with so much to offer, she felt desperately that people needed to stop looking outside for help and start looking inwards to their own communities.

Compelled by a feeling that she needed to “reconnect people with the wealth and wisdom in Zimbabwe”, Marianne upped sticks and moved home to live on her parents’ farm.  Totally at ease with the unknown, Marianne admits that she had no idea how she was going to achieve her vision: “I didn’t know what it looked like to create a healthy, vibrant, rural community, but I trusted that I had enough skills to bring people together so they could connect with the questions and figure it out for themselves.”

Marianne travelled around Zimbabwe’s villages and, using her empathetic charm, she facilitated gatherings of young people and community leaders to reflect on their own life stories. Using examples from around the world, she motivated them to think about the resources they could use to overcome their own challenges:

  • Modern building materials too expensive? Eco-building and thatching lets you build a house from scratch using natural materials from the forest.
  • Land too arid to turn a decent harvest? Permaculture techniques can transform a useless patch of land into a rich vegetable patch.
  • Dilapidated toilets and poor sanitation? Compost toilets are easy to build and even better, once the pit is full of your waste it makes great fertilizer for fruit trees.
  • Medicine too expensive and inaccessible? Herbs that are easy to grow in your backyard can act as excellent remedies for a range of medical conditions.

Instead of teaching people these new techniques via conventional ‘chalk and talk’, Marianne realised that she needed a space where people could put their thoughts into action. Kufunda, which is the Zimbabwean word for ‘learning’, was built on a plot of land on her family farm to do just that.  A living demonstration of the art of what’s possible, every component of the Kufunda Village has evolved out of people’s ideas for a new way of life. Not really knowing what to expect from Kufunda, we were amazed at just how inspirational we found it. In each hand-crafted eco hut, we found another surprise. A health clinic, an internet room, an herbal remedy lab, a mushroom greenhouse and then a pre-school. Marianne too has been taken aback at the popularity of some of the solutions, the compost toilets in particular. “We thought people wouldn’t want to plant a tree in their shit”, she said laughing, “but they’re fine with it and their trees are very happy.”

Kufunda Village could be judged as a  social experiment in someone’s backyard – yet it’s so much more than that. It’s a totally new challenge to sceptics who think that environmentalism is little more than a hobby for the extreme lefties of the northern hemisphere. Moreover, it’s a practical solution to the perceived ‘hand-out’ culture, which so often gives Africa a bad name. Over the last ten years, groups of local people selected by their village elders have been coming to Kufunda Village to learn and explore what self-reliance means for them.  They spend anything from a week to a year at the village and then transition their learning into their home communities. They are supported through their journey by ‘Kufundees’, a team of Zimbabwean specialists who work at the village full-time sharing their skills in herbal medicine, organic gardening, environmental housing and much more. The Kufundees, who all originally came from surrounding villages, are total converts to their new way of life and Marianne is hugely proud of their achievements. When chatting to the team they told us, “Kufunda is the lifestyle we’ve chosen to live. It’s not work.”

In trying to put our finger on what makes Marianne so special, we concluded that her personality contains a great fusion of African and European traits. She knows how to do business but she doesn’t mimic the mania of the corporate world. Operating on her own kind of ‘Africa Time’, she proves that you don’t need to constantly rush ahead to get stuff done. She’s let Kufunda Village naturally evolve over the last ten years and, sensing that they are now ready for bigger things, she’s moved back in full-time to support their expansion.  Once Marianne is satisfied with Kufunda, she’ll probably follow her heart into another awesome project which brings people together to tackle tough questions head on.

These qualities, coupled with her awesome CV of achievements, are almost certainly why she was awarded ‘Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum’ in 2009.[iii] But what really trumped it for us was that, despite her quasi-hippy ways, Marianne doesn’t take things too seriously. After dinner in her house, just up the road from Kufunda Village, we cracked open a bar of Lindt chocolate (not organic or fair trade) and a bottle of good red wine (almost certainly imported) and laughed together at the irony of it all. Eating and drinking home-grown organic produce might be Marianne’s ideal but there are a few places where she’s willing to make an exception.

For more info visit:

Kufunda Village:

Reos Partners:

Pioneers of Change:


Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011