Malawian students ready to make a difference back home

Malawi's first cohort of BHEARD scholars has returned home after studying at South Africa's University of Pretoria since January 2015.

Malawi’s first cohort of BHEARD (Borlaug Higher Education for Agricultural Research and Development) scholars has returned home after studying at South Africa’s University of Pretoria since January 2015.

The goal of BHEARD, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is to develop agricultural scientists and increase agricultural research capacity in partner countries. The program is named after Dr. Norman Borlaug, an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate who has been called “the father of the Green Revolution.”

In addition to their academic work at the University of Pretoria, members of this Malawi cohort attended professional conferences in South Africa. BHEARD also organized conferences in 2015 and 2016, where more than 60 students studying in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Mozambique came together in Kenya. The conferences offered participants week-long sessions on leadership training and scientific writing. In addition, the attendees had an unparalleled opportunity to interact with fellow BHEARD students from Kenya, Mali, South Sudan, Mozambique and Liberia, making lasting professional and personal friendships, sharing research ideas and planning collaborations for the future.

Following is a short profile of each student in the Malawi cohort.

Elizabeth Chimera, an employee of the Malawi Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Irrigation Development, earned a master’s degree in veterinary epidemiology at the University of Pretoria. While there, she also improved her communication and presentation skills and acquired skills in statistical software.

Chimera’s research topic was spatial distribution of bovine trypanosomiasis, a public health issue in Malawi. The aim of her research was to establish the species of trypanosomes that affect cattle and determine if those cattle pose a risk of human infection. She hopes to encourage awareness of trypanosomiasis in order to prevent loss of cattle, as well as loss of human life.

Chimera’s dream is to continue her research in the animal health sector, especially on diseases that pose a risk to both humans and animals. She believes medical doctors, veterinarians, epidemiologists and environmentalists need to join arms in these fights. Recent outbreaks of Ebola and avian influenza have shown that no discipline can stand on its own to prevent, control or eradicate such diseases. She said only a joint task force can do that.

Wezzie Kumwenda, a food and nutrition officer with Malawi’s agriculture ministry, said her BHEARD experience enriched her understanding of nutrition issues and improved her presentation and research skills. The trainings organized by BHEARD sharpened her research writing skills, and helped her find more effective ways to communicate and disseminate her findings. Her stay in South Africa also improved how she interacts with other scientists.

Earning a master’s degree has the potential to get Kumwenda a better-paying job, which would be beneficial to her family. Her community also is benefiting from the knowledge she has acquired. She’s now a role model to young girls who want to achieve more in education.

In Malawi, Justice Munthali, who earned a master’s degree, plans to use the learning strategies and models he’s studied to help build the capacities of staff members at the ministry of agriculture and local council level.

On the academic side, Munthali plans to participate in fellowships, symposiums and conferences. He also hopes to use his postgraduate research knowledge to excel in other activities, thereby influencing and advocating for positive change in nutrition policies, programs and strategies.

In recent years, Malawi has been fighting hard to eradicate chronic malnutrition, especially in children. Munthali believes aflatoxins – a family of toxins produced by certain fungi and associated with a number of health problems – contribute to chronic illnesses in later years. Children under five remain particularly vulnerable to aflatoxin exposure, significantly hindering their growth and development while damaging their immune systems. Munthali’s research will result in the formulation of comprehensive and inclusive policies and interventions for dealing with malnutrition.

Pacsu Simwaka, who earned a master’s degree, studied integrated soil fertility management (ISFM) strategies, with the goal of improving soil quality and crop production.

Maize is a staple crop in Malawi, and for decades its production relied on the use of inorganic fertilizers to improve soil quality. The government uses a subsidy program to pay for these fertilizers, but the program relies on donor funds and its sustainability is uncertain. There is a need to generate low-cost alternatives.

One alternative is generating ISFM strategies, such as conservation agriculture, manure application, legume intercropping and rotations. It is hoped that by using these methods, soil fertility levels will improve and farmers will harvest adequate yields.

Albert Makumba’s goal is to be become a crop science researcher, especially in the field of agronomy. He wants to take the knowledge he’s gained through BHEARD and bring it to the people who need it most – farmers and extension workers in Malawi. His goal is to help Malawian smallholder farmers improve and sustain their productivity through improved soil fertility and ecologically sound management strategies.

“I want to see the poor Malawian farmer wake up, be agriculturally more productive and realize their yield potential per hectare,” Makumba said.

Daniel Manduwa said that even though Malawi is an agricultural country, its horticultural sector is underexploited.

“My interest in horticulture grew as a result of the pain I feel when I see horticultural products are being imported when we have all that it takes to produce our own,” he said.

Mangoes have potential, but mango trees are being cut down for fuel due to a shortage of other types of fuel wood. Manduwa intends to conduct genetic characterizations of mango germplasm, identifying and documenting the different varieties in Malawi so they can be selected for conservation.

Manduwa also wants to be a successful researcher and trainer, who will improve the livelihoods of Malawians through research and outreach. He would like to see smallholder farmers and households become food-, nutrition- and income-secure through horticultural activities, and thereby resilient to the effects of climate change. He hopes to one day see live gene banks conserve the country’s abundant plant resources.

Doshanie Kadokera, studying agricultural economics, has learned about the role of micro-finance on smallholder livelihoods. Microfinance is an important strategy for poverty alleviation in developing countries.

Kadokera wants to work in an environment where the conceptual, interpersonal and administrative skills he’s acquired through training and experience will make a significant impact on his employers and clients, as well as on his country’s growth.

– Matt Milkovich


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