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Fail Again, Fail Better

Colleen Magner
March, 2015


Growing vegetables has been an experience of failure and frustration.  Each spring I start with great excitement and within a few months my plants either stubbornly refuse to grow, die, or become invaded by insects.  Pretty soon the fallow patch of earth and I are locked in a mutually disappointed stand off.

I started my food garden six years ago when I began working with the Southern African Food Lab.  After visiting an inspiring permaculture food garden project, I came home filled with visions of my own garden bursting with organic vegetables and herbs.  And so began my annual cycle of intention, hope, initial success, failure, frustration, and back to hope again.

This cycle has been true for our experience of working together in the Food Lab. There have been periods where its projects have attracted interest and commitment from leaders across the food chain and exciting progress was made. And there have been times where change has been frustratingly slow. Initiatives that seemed ripe for impact fizzled out. Looking back at this cycle of hope, success, frustration and renewed energy, it reminds me that change doesn’t happen in a single workshop.  Inspiration certainly happens, particularly in those moments of insight or connection. But longer-term change happens with the constant chipping away at the problem, and by paying attention to what we’re learning from our successes and our failures.

Yesterday, as I facillitated the launch of a set scenarios that have been produced by the Southern Africa Food Lab, I was reminded of what is possible when we are able to stay the course and learn from our successes and failures. Through the co-ordination of the Lab, some 50 unlikely allies have spent a year working together to develop an understanding of the way South Africa provides food for its population and the shortcomings of the various parts of that system.  The ‘Possible Futures of the South African Food System’ are stories of what might plausibly happen over the next 15 years, with particular focus on the environment, food production, political economy and nutrition. These stories are a contribution to the national conversation around food and help us understand how we can respond and act together now to influence the future.

Last year I decided that, come what may, I would keep my garden going.  I spent a few minutes in the garden almost every day, doing what I could.  Now that it’s the end of summer, my efforts have paid off and the garden looks pretty good. But I know that winter’s arrival will test both my garden’s resilience and my own commitment.   Having seen what is possible if one is willing to keep chipping away, as we've done over the years in the Food Lab,  I wonder how different might things be if we expected failure, made room for it and allowed ourselves the chance to learn from it?

Too rarely do we allow for failure in our plans for change.  As Samual Beckett said ‘Fail again. Fail better’.


This is the second edition of ‘Moving through Tough Terrain’, a monthly post that reflects experiences from working in places where there are no easy answers. It’s something new and an experiment in how we can share some of the things Reos is learning about this work. Click here to read the previous article.

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