The Day I Became a Fellow Mentee: How AWARD's Mentorship Program Offered Me A Ladder
Pilirani Khoza is a forestry researcher at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), an advocate for women in agricultural research, and the founder of the Bunda Female Students Organisation (BUFESO) at LUANAR. Khoza is also a 2015 AWARD Fellow’s Mentee. In this blog post, Khoza shares how AWARD’s mentorship model instilled in her the confidence to set her goals higher, and helped her develop the skill set to achieve them.
I still remember with nostalgia the first day I met Catherine Mloza Banda. We met at a restaurant in Lilongwe, Malawi. After only a brief introduction, she said to me “let’s now travel, we should see countries and network.” I smiled at her ambitious attitude, but doubt swelled inside me. At the time, Catherine was my mentor. She was taking part in the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) Fellowship, a career-development program for female agricultural researchers, which required her to take on a fellow mentee.
Although we were almost the same age, Catherine had accomplished so much: She was and still is, an agricultural value chain officer at Farm Radio Malawi, she was a prestigious AWARD Fellow, and she had been selected as a Young Leader for the 2015 European Development Days (EDDs) gathering in Brussels, Belgium. It was this last accomplishment that I was most in awe of—I had previously applied to similar international opportunities, but without success.
Catherine and I got right down to work. She encouraged me to follow in her footsteps and apply to become an EDDs Young Leader. Attempting the application on my own, I felt the same flare of doubt I had felt sitting across from her the day we met. The application was too demanding, I decided and gave up. Catherine refused to accept this. She invited me to her office and, together, we completed my application, which was ultimately successful. I was overjoyed, but this was only the first step.
As I began preparation to travel to Europe, I became more and more nervous about the speech I would be required to give at EDDs. Though I was too shy to mention it, Catherine saw the fear in my face when we discussed my speech and began working with me one-on-one to improve my public speaking skills. Once I arrived in Brussels, I was one of the most confident speakers. In fact, I even enjoy speaking now. Since my first big speech at EDDs, I have been invited to several high-level conferences in various countries to offer keynote addresses. In 2017, I was selected as the youth keynote speaker at the MasterCard Young Africa Works Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. The same year, I was a youth representative at the 5th African Union-European Union Summit held in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
My time as Catherine’s Fellow's Mentee has ended, but AWARD has only continued to push me to excel. In April 2017, I successfully applied to participate in AWARD’s inaugural AgTech Innovation Challenge in Southern and Central Africa, under its Gender in Agribusiness Investments for Africa (GAIA) initiative. My GAIA application featured an organization I had founded as a student in 2012, the Bunda Female Students Organization (BUFESO) at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), Malawi. The organization aims to empower young women to pursue agriculture as a field of study by providing scholarships for students who otherwise could not afford it. In addition to funding courses, BUFESO facilitates field visits for students on scholarships to realize the impact of agricultural research. Much like AWARD itself, I want not only to enable but to encourage youth—especially women—to revolutionize African agriculture.
Although I was active and interested in agriculture and gender before I became an AWARD Fellow's Mentee, I consider that experience to be the launch of my success. Since meeting Catherine, I have become a confident speaker, and a more prominent advocate for youth, gender equality, and agriculture. As my mentor, she helped me understand that I can achieve my dreams, though not without hard work. With the help of GAIA, I have taken BUFESO to the next level to empower more women in agricultural research. I have also begun to mentor girls directly in several secondary schools in Malawi. With funding from Young Professionals for Agriculture (YPARD), I am also implementing career-building and role-modeling programs in rural Malawian secondary schools. For these projects, I have been awarded the 2018 Queen’s Young Leader’s Award, which recognizes the transformative impact of my work on my community.
Today, Catherine is more of a colleague to me than a mentor. Occasionally, we meet at conferences at which I am a speaker. I feel triumphant presenting my work to an audience of high-level delegates, and, among them, my very own mentor who has seen my journey from the start. When I reminisce about the day we first met, I realize just how transformative mentorship can be!