La Rochelle estate, comprising of 108 hectares, was built by Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld in 1951 as a retirement home.
The estate has a large botanical garden covering 20 acres of land, established with the professional help of the UK Horticulturist John Henry Mitchell, with exotic plants and trees gathered from all over the world. The indigenous wild bush lands were carefully preserved. There are numerous walking paths around the gardens.
Orchid houses contain exotic, rare and indigenous orchids including the Peter Horrocks and Darell Plowes’ collections including red and purple Vanda lombakensis from Malaysia; Phalaenopsis of all shades from East Asia; Dendrobium, Arachnis and Bulbophyllum.
There are interesting exotic trees in the arboretum as well as palms, cycads, azaleas and other flowering shrubs. This diversity provides ideal habitats for a large variety of bird species
The property was donated to the National Trust of Zimbabwe (NTZ) in 1970 and it has been managed as a small boutique hotel ever since.
In 2014 the NTZ with Acumen Africa (independent business consultants) began the restoration of the property to its former glory, through the renovation of the buildings and rejuvenation and redesign of the gardens.
In 2015 The La Rochelle Country House re-opened. Accommodation consists of 7 beautifully appointed and individually designed suites in the historic Courtauld House, one free standing West Wing comprising of 5 rooms and a honeymoon suite situated a small distance from the Country House overlooking the dam. All rooms reflect the elegance of the Art Deco and 1920’s era.
In 2016 the Old Craft Hall was restored to its former glory. The project achieved Lady Virginia’s request in her Will to use La Rochelle as “a venue for conferences either of a public, national, international or educational character”.
Spa facilities were also added to improve the visitor experience.
About the farm
In 2016 Organic Africa, in a Joint Venture with Acumen, approached the NTZ with a view to enter into a long term partnership establishing a regional agricultural training centre of excellence at La Rochelle to train small scale farmers.
The training centre has already seen the establishment of 10 hectares of ‘field test’ (trial plots) of organic herbs. Students are gaining practical ‘hands on’ learning experience.
The plots were established and trials conducted at La Rochelle farm by Organic Africa who focus on organic production and are the only company certified in organic fair trade products in Zimbabwe. They are also the only company in southern Africa whereby its small scale farmers have their land certified and so are able to produce high quality herbs for export.
The certification means that their farmers produce high value crop (low volume) and are paid a premium price. Most of the out growers are women.
An export market was secured for the crops grown by the small scale farmers by a leading herbal tea producer based in Germany.
To date, trials include the following herbs:
Organic Chamomile which grows well in winter, Lemon balm which grows well in the rainy season and Stinging Nettle, that flourish in sunshine. There is a crop of Safflower almost ready to harvest. The linolenic and linoleic acids in safflower seed oil might help prevent hardening of the arteries, lower cholesterol, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Calendula (which has good antibacterial and anti inflammatory properties) is also being grown.
Caraway is a hardy herb with and grows well in the rainy season. In addition to their use as remedial items in traditional medicines the seeds have many health benefitting nutrients, minerals, vitamins and antioxidants.
Other crops being trialed include two varieties of ginger, lemon verbena and three varieties of turmeric anise.
Organic Africa invests a lot of time and money in undertaking research into identifying and developing potential commercial applications for indigenous under-utilised species. There are a large number of locally-available plant species that could be used by small-scale farmers, especially in the drier parts of Zimbabwe.
The planned agricultural training facility will show how the farmers can grow crops without using chemicals or fertilisers and how to make compost according to strict organic global regulations.
Organic Africa work extensively with all their producers to help them attain Ethical Biotrade, Organic and Fair Trade certification.
A leading Professor of Architecture described the property as follows:
“La Rochelle is a rare example in Africa of a major early Modern Movement (in architectural terms) private house, and almost unique in Zimbabwe, given the quality of its architectural detailing and of its interior decoration, especially in the Fantasia room and the Peacock cottage.”
During the time that they lived there, La Rochelle was a “Mecca” for important local and overseas people from all walks of life, and included artists and film stars, as well as influential politicians, in addition to family members. Most of these distinguished visitors were asked to engrave their signatures with a diamond-tipped stylus on the two large end windows which are of great historical importance.
Visions for the farm
In 1964 Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia Courtauld funded an agricultural training school named ‘Kukwanisa’ in the Tsonzo area of Nyanga which was established for small holder farmers in the area. Initially it was an outstandingly successful venture but it was sadly destroyed during the war years.
It is planned, in 2018, to re-establish a agricultural training centre of excellence at La Rochelle. The centre will offer courses in sustainable organic farming for small scale farmers in southern and central Africa.
Needless to say this is an exciting opportunity for all the organisations involved and for Zimbabwe.
In the past Organic Africa has carried out training of famers under the shelter of a tree, looking to the future they want to build the agricultural training centre will really give them a chance to understand and have hands on practice experience which will lead to more small scale farmers being trained at a high level.
In addition to the agricultural training centre there are also plans to expand the existing county house accommodation as per the wishes of Sir Stephen and Lady Virginia.
To make a booking, please contact Ange Hama, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org