Maggie as a student working on DNA extraction
From as early as she could remember, agriculture held no fascination for Maggie Phiri. The drudgery of the farm and accompanying low education and income levels, especially for women, repulsed her. Today Phiri is not only practicing agriculture but using modern science to contribute to food security in Malawi.
She began her career as a health professional, by enrolling as a nursing student. Two years into the course, she realized that it wasn’t the field for her. However, she didn’t have a very good sense of what she wanted out of a career. She enrolled into agricultural college, though the field and its potential were still unclear to her. As she continued with her agricultural studies, she was pleasantly surprised to learn that there was more to agriculture than drudgery. She was particularly drawn to the science of agriculture.
Her studies exposed her to wheat fields, orchards, forests, dairy factories, and gene banks. During her undergraduate years, she spent most of her time in the agricultural laboratories working on plant genetic material, tissue culture, genetic markers and other genetic related techniques. “I enjoyed doing it. My friends admired my passion for my new field, and were fascinated by my work. I studied agriculture genetics and biotechnology, which allowed me to work behind the scenes and still make an impact in the field,” she recalls.
However, she felt challenged to make even more direct contributions and impact in communities by exploring the social aspects of her science. This commitment to directly impact farmers inspired her to pursue graduate studies in rural development and natural resources management, at a Masters level. Through this course, she gained a deeper understanding of how the agricultural labor force was structured in Malawi.
While working as an intern at a UN Women’s project on women economic empowerment in agriculture, she had to review policies on gender and agricultural labor markets. This exposure helped her realize how policy interventions are crucial in closing the gender gap in agriculture and rural economies. For instance, she got to learn that most women farmers in Malawi produce less yields than male farmers, not because they are less skilled but because they have less access to inputs such as improved seeds, fertilizers and equipment. Additionally, women faced limiting cultural attitudes, discrimination, a lack of recognition for their role in food production and had limited access to new technologies and improved crop varieties. Because of the absence of agricultural policies that factored in gender dimensions, there was a serious need for a stand-alone gender and agriculture policy.
She later joined GOAL Malawi as a gender and climate change intern, working on a USAID funded research project that looked into the impact of floods and droughts from a gender aspect. “In the project, my colleagues and I conducted separate focus group discussions with each gender to determine the issues. What emerged was a real eye-opener: many of the issues arose from differences in education levels and decision-making; with men having the upper hand at both levels. Not only were women and girls less privileged in education, but they also happened to be excluded in the management and decision making processes at the family and community level and yet they bore all responsibilities for feeding those same families and communities,” she says.
This brought into sharp focus all the challenges that women face. She vividly remembers one woman complaining of how difficult it was to use treadle pumps as they were not female-friendly.
“Without the project and research, we would never have known how women felt about agricultural technologies because they had never before been provided with an opportunity to voice their feelings.” Indeed women’s voices are a useful resource in developing technologies as they result in less biased technologies for agricultural use,” she explains.
Phiri is currently implementing a World Bank-funded project that seeks to involve youth in contributing to food security through irrigation. “Thanks to the training and exposure I have obtained from my AWARD Fellowship, I am leading this project with confidence. I am certain that we will succeed in our vision to tap into the innovation potential and energy of the youth to develop agricultural innovations that will allow Malawi to reduce our reliance on erratic rain-fed agriculture” she notes.
Download: Maggie Phiri, 2015 AWARD Fellow, Malawi