Tawonga Zakeyu does not want to be the first woman from her community to get a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.
“I want to be the first one to have a masters; and the first one to have a PhD,” she smiles. “That would make me happy.”
And- in the process- she hopes to inspire and empower other girls and women in her native Malawi to farm on the front line of an ever-changing and challenging landscape.
Irish Country Living is chatting to Tawonga (26) via video call in the US, where she is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Florida, working in the nematology lab (studying nematodes/roundworms). It’s a long way from her home in the Machinga district in southern Malawi, Africa.
Tawonga explains that she grew up in a typical farming family in the region. Her father farmed tobacco until it became unprofitable, and now concentrates on corn, vegetables, legumes and rice, while also rearing goats, sheep and chickens. Her mother, meanwhile, runs a restaurant close to the village market, specialising in local delicacies like mandazi (doughnuts) and thobwa (a fermented drink made from white maize and millet).
Tawonga explains that both her parents received a limited formal education; in her mother’s case, just three years at primary school, and six years for her father. Both, however, were determined for Tawonga to fulfil her academic potential.
“My mum told me that she really wanted to go further with her education, but circumstances wouldn’t allow her,” she recalls.
“She kept encouraging, ‘Tawonga, you have the opportunity that I did not have’, together with my dad.”
Tawonga did complete primary school as this is free in her country; but with secondary school fees and associated costs to pay (about $150/year to educate a girl in Malawi, all in), the odds were stacked against her going forward. That was, however, until CAMFED stepped in.
CAMFED (Campaign for Female Education) is a pan-African movement that supports girls to go to school and to become leaders and changemakers in their own communities. With the organisation’s support, Tawonga was able to pay her fees and buy her school books, uniform and essential products, like sanitary towels, to continue her secondary education.
(With a one month supply of sanitary towels costing the average family in Malawi the equivalent of 20 meals, many girls simply cannot afford them and end up missing school/exams during their periods.)
Pursuing such a path, however, meant going against the grain, as 95% of girls from underserved rural communities like Tawonga’s never get the chance to finish secondary school due to a lack of resources and role models.
“It was up to me to keep going,” reflects Tawonga.
Not only did Tawonga successfully finish secondary school; she also had the opportunity to attend the African Leadership Academy in South Africa for two years to complete her A-levels, after receiving a scholarship from the Kellogg Foundation.
During this time, she considered various careers, from nursing to teaching, but eventually settled on agriculture as she recognised that this would allow her to give back to her own community.
Pursuing her passion, however, required another leap of faith: in this case, a move to Costa Rica in Central America to attend EARTH University: a private, non-profit international university that specialises in agricultural science.
Fortunately, Tawonga was able to avail of a Mastercard scholarship to cover her costs; but she had another challenge to tackle before she even started her studies.
“I had to learn Spanish within five months before starting my agronomy course in January 2018,” explains Tawonga, who moved in with a host family while completing an intensive language course.
During her studies, Tawonga found that she was particularly interested in learning about integrated pest management.
“When the teachers started showing pictures of some of the signs and symptoms of these diseases [caused by pests], I was like, ‘I’ve seen this on my mum’s farm!’ But I didn’t know what it was,” she recalls.
She also enjoyed learning about water, soil and crop management: lessons she was able to impart when she returned home to Malawi to do a 15-week internship with CAMFED, and again after graduation, as an agricultural guide on their “Climate Smart” programme, which won a UN Climate Award in 2019.
“The main purpose of the project was to help young women, especially farmers, to know about climate change effects and to develop initiatives to adapt to the changes and also to become very resilient and to grow their farms into profitable businesses,” explains Tawonga.
Her own family has found itself on the frontline of such challenges. A cyclone this March, for instance, meant that they- like many others in the region- lost a significant portion of their crops.
“We used to grow enough corn for the whole year [until harvest in April] but right now, my mum was saying that the corn we have, it might not even reach December, because they lost most of it due to the cyclone,” says Tawonga.
With the harvest impacted by additional factors, such as drought, simply having enough food to live is a struggle for many rural families.
“Right now, a bag of maize in Malawi is about $50. That’s 50kg of maize,” explains Tawonga.
“That’s a lot of money because most families, they live below $1 per day. Imagine having to look for $50 to buy a bag of maize?”
Through her links with CAMFED, however, Tawonga has worked with farmers- especially females- in the field, educating them about water conservation and harvesting, crop diversification/rotation, agro-forestry and soil health.
She finds this work “very exciting.”
“I could see how some of them were determined to bring a change in their communities,” she says. “They are doing their own business, they are having their own farms.”
Tawonga hopes to have her own farm- specialising in growing tomatoes and poultry- in Malawi in the future.
At the moment, however, she is completing her scholarship in Florida, while also undertaking an online masters in global food security and nutrition with the University of Edinburgh, with the support of the Mastercard scholarship programme. After that, she hopes to complete a PhD.
And Irish Country Living reckons that Tawonga Zakeyu will achieve her ambition of becoming the first woman from her community to have a doctorate.
But as a role model... we also bet that she won’t be the last.
Since 1993, CAMFED has supported 6.4 million girls to go to school in Ghana, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, including 1.8 million girls at secondary school. The CAMFED association- a network of women leaders educated with CAMFED support- is a “sisterhood” that is 254k women strong. Each member, on average, supports another three girls to go to school with her own resources, as well as by mentoring and role modelling. To learn more, https://camfed.org/eur/