Chikondi Chabvuta: Spotlight on Malawian agricultural beacon
By Tukeni Obasi
Malawi has become a role model in African agriculture for a number of reasons, one of which is the efforts the late president made to transform the country into a grain-exporting country. As the agricultural sector struggles to thrive under the new dispensation, some young women on the scene are also working hard to make this happen. One of them is 24-year-old Chikondi Chabvuta.
Chikondi is an environmental conservationist and sustainable agriculture enthusiast with a B.Sc. in environmental science from the University of Malawi. She is currently pursuing an M.Sc. in environmental science and working as a gender specialist for the Farmers Union of Malawi to promote the rights of women farmers in the country. An evangelist for ecological sanitation manure – reusing human waste as manure – she is also an advocate for women rights and gender equality, especially in agriculture.
“It all started with my B.Sc. research which was focusing on manure substrates for garden composting,” she disclosed to me last week. “This led me to do more research on organic manure, and on ecological sanitation (ecosan) manure, and then meet with women farmers to discuss my research findings.”
Chikondi later revealed that she was born into a family of farmers and fell in love with farming at an early age, but it was not until after a career talk she had listened to from a representative of the University of Malawi when she was 14 years old that she was fully convinced that agricultural research was her calling. Years later, Chikondi expresses no regrets about taking that step, describing agriculture as a fulfilling career. “The rewards are immense,” she says. “Apart from having a job, you get to change people’s lives, improve food security and contribute to economic development. My work is fulfilling because taking research back to the community is always fulfilling and I love science and working with people to unravel the mysteries in agriculture.”
Speaking to the long-lasting effects of organic manure, she said that after applying the manure on a farmland for three years, one can still plant maize on the farm in the fourth year – without any further application – and reap high yields. She also pointed out the importance of organic manure as a climate change adaptation mechanism as the manure is able to retain moisture during periods of drought.
But there have been challenges along the way, Chikondi confesses. One major initial challenge was the resistance she faced from some communities while she was doing her ecosan advocacy, but this was overcome through extension methods, effectively tailored to appeal to her various audiences, thus ensuring that people would be receptive of her message. Another challenge was the closure of the university during her time there, which resulted in major delays in her personal progress. But Chikondi persevered until everything fell into place.
In her current job as a gender specialist, her age was a big challenge at first as the women farmers – most of whom were married and much older – were skeptical of what the young single Chikondi had to offer. But the key is self-confidence and preparedness, she revealed. “I always do my homework on the people I’m about to meet and this has helped to break those barriers, allowing people to be more receptive of my messages and input.”
She shared some of her thoughts on women’s participation in agriculture: “There should be deliberate measures put in place to bring women to the front of decision-making in agriculture. As I go around the country meeting different women groups in agriculture, I see the potential that has not yet been tapped. Women have a lot to say and to contribute when it comes to agriculture. This is true because women are more involved in actual operations – than the men – and thus their voices have to be heard and they have to be part of decision-making bodies and deliberations.
“Also, there is a need to tap [into] our legal system and change it to accommodate female participation in all spheres of agriculture because data from several studies have shown the benefits of inclusion. This should be in ownership, the marketing of agricultural goods, [equitable] division of labour, institutional capacity issues, policy, agro biodiversity and several other issues. If all the systems are fair, the disparity barriers that are affecting agriculture would be removed and dealt with because gender is about fairness and equality which is a human right.”
Some weeks ago on this column, I shed light on the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship programme for young women professionals in the agricultural space and encouraged my readers to apply. As a past fellow in the programme, Chikondi says professional development for young women in agriculture is key. “AWARD lets you draw a roadmap of your professional life – where you see yourself in future. It helped me realise my potential. It helped me establish networks, and it also helped my science and leadership skills…. I am, personally and professionally, a more focused human being than ever before.”
When I asked her about her professional goals and where her academic pursuits were leading her, Chikondi’s answer was unequivocal: “My ambition is to leave a legacy, an impact in areas of environment, sustainable farming, women and girl rights and education, and make women more self-reliant. In short, I want to leave my country better than I found it. Hence I will pursue a PhD, start my own company and incubator for agricultural business ventures, and ultimately become an influential policymaker.”
She also emphasised the importance of being a whole woman and letting all of one’s passions shine through one’s personality. To this end, she actively pursues her other interests which include reading books, doing aerobics, swimming, dancing, sharing knowledge with and learning from others, and social networking. This year, Chikondi was identified by the Moremi Institute for Women’s Leadership in Africa as one of the 28 most promising young women leaders on the continent. These women – all between the ages of 19 and 25 – were selected from a pool of thousands of Africans from the continent and the Diaspora and from a diverse range of fields – health, technology, public interest, education, agriculture, etc. Attending this institute in Accra this summer, Chikondi underwent training on a range of topics, from money and time management to political participation, project planning and implementation, and team building. By pursuing knowledge from, and acquiring and applying skills in, various quarters and ultimately equipping herself to lead her community into a glorious future, Chikondi stands out as a shining example to young women on the continent and across the entire globe.
This article was originally published in Business Day