Elizabeth Sibale, FAO consultant on cassava commercialisation projects and recipient of three agricultural awards speaks on leaving her young family to study for her masterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and doctorate degrees and working to improve the life of the less privileged.
Tell me about yourself
I was born Elizabeth Mary Minofu, seventh in a family of eight children; three males and five females. I grew up in Chindamba Village, Malindi in Traditional Authority Chowe in Mangochi District.
What did your parents do?
My father, the late James Enerst Minofu, worked as a ship assistant in the Universities Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) boat the MV Chauncy Maples from 1940 to 1958.Ã‚Â After that, he engaged in fishing before he retired completely due to ill health in 1965.Ã‚Â He died in 1984 at the age of 78.
My mother, the late Nexane Jocelyn Minofu (nee Mkambula) worked in the home. She was a very strong minded-woman who inspired her girl children. She would keep an eye on types of friends you associated with and if she thought they were a bad influence, she would tell you so and advise you to cut the friendship.
She engaged herself in farming and income generating activities to supplement my fatherÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s income. She ensured that we had good meals, decent clothes and that our school fees were paid. She died at the age of 85 in 1997.
My brothers took over from our parents when they started working.Ã‚Â Because of the good family support, all the eight children in our family had jobs and were economically independent.
What does your career progression read like?
My first employer was the Ministry of Agriculture; I was posted to Kasinthula Research Station in Chikhwawa to work as technical officer in cotton agronomy. After I got married to my beau, Pickford Sibale, who I met while in college, I transferred to Chitedze Research Station in 1975 to work on pasture agronomy. After working for five years and three years into marriage with two children, I decided to take study leave to advance my education and went back to Bunda College of Agriculture for a degree in 1978.
I graduated in 1980. Upon graduation, I was promoted to professional officer and worked as a maize breeder.Ã‚Â I worked for the Department of Agricultural Research in the Ministry of Agriculture for another 17 years.
In 1996, I retired from civil service and joined the European Commission Food Security Programme as projects officer for 10 years before joining FAO in 2006. Currently, I am a consultant on cassava commercilisation projects.
Was agriculture always your passion?
My passion since I was a little girl was to serve people.Ã‚Â I often admired nurses and longed for a day I would join such a noble profession.Ã‚Â But at the time I was getting ready to sit for my school examinations, new gates of opportunity for girls to enter other professions were opening.
Bunda College of Agriculture of the University of Malawi had just opened its doors for women to study agriculture and I quickly seized the opportunity, as I thought the work in agriculture would also be about working to help people better their lives.
I also knew that knowledge and skills in agriculture would prove invaluable in Malawi, where up to 60 percent of households face chronic food insecurity.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered as a woman climbing the career ladder?
It has not been a smooth ride.Ã‚Â I had to juggle my family, career and education. As a family, both my husband and I had to sacrifice a lot in order to advance professionally.Ã‚Â When I went to study towards my degree at Bunda College, I left my second born eight-month baby at home with my husband.
I am thankful that he gave me space to advance in my profession.Ã‚Â I am also thankful to members of my extended family who supported me by taking care of my children while I was studying.
Soon after my graduation, my husband got a scholarship to study for his Ph.D. in the US from 1980 to 1984.Ã‚Â After one year of his arrival, I also got a scholarship to studyÃ‚Â for my master of science degree in the USA, and left my three children aged nine, seven and four with him for two years from 1985-1987. After that, I again went to the US to study for my Ph.D from 1991 to 1994.
How did both you and your family cope with this?
Being separated from family in pursuit of academic advancement was tough.Ã‚Â Sometimes I asked myself if the choice I made to pursue further studies was worth it, especially when I faced academic pressure such as taking a full load of courses and pursuing research at the same time in order to spend as short a time as possible away from family.
But, then I would sober up when I reminded myself of why I found myself in this foreign land to start with ; to have better professional qualifications for career advancement which would ultimately translate into better life for my family. Most importantly, I realised that God favoured me for giving me an opportunity which many did not have.
How did you get into maize breeding?
My professors and advisers for my M.SC. programme, Dr. Larry Darrah and Prof. Marcus Zuber, at the University of Missouri Columbia motivated me to work on maize breeding.Ã‚Â They taught their students the virtues of diligence and dedication to work.
I graduated with a great sense of appreciation for the effectiveness of their humble leadership in the plant breeding department. I later realised that this is essential for success in the field of agricultural science, since you can only make good progress through team work.
On my return home, I put the knowledge and experience acquired from my professors into practice and was consequently successful in my career as a maize breeder; developing, testing and releasing a number of maize varieties including MH 17, MH 18, and a number of open pollinated varieties such as Masika Mtchotsanjala, and Sundwe, among other varieties.
I also developed a number of maize populations for a systematic maize breeding programme.
What achievements have you brought to the nation?
As an agricultural scientist, I have played a part in shaping food security and nutrition policies in Malawi. I have helped, in a small way, to ensure that smallholder farmers have access to improved maize seed.
I have played a role in accelerating the adoption of improved maize seed through breeding shorter height and intermediate maturity hybrid and OPV maize varieties, acceptable to farmersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ traditional processing and storage methods, in contrast to the SR 52 and UCA maize varieties which farmers resisted.
I have also contributed to the development of a sustainable smallholder seed system for production and marketing of improved seed of crops that are not marketed by the large seed companies.Ã‚Â These include crops such as groundnuts, beans, pigeon peas, rice, OPV maize, soybeans and cassava.
In 2000, you won the annual World Bank Group and IMF Africa Club award for your work on breeding open pollinated varietiesÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
Actually, I was first recognised by Government in 1992, when my fellow breeders at Chitedze and I were awarded the Malawi Award for Science and Technology Achievement (Masta) by the first president of the Republic of Malawi, Dr. H. Kamuzu Banda.
In 2000, I was awarded the Malawi Meritorious Award for National Development, by the second president of the Republic of Malawi, Dr. E. Bakili Muluzi.
In the same year, I was also recognised and given the annual award by the World Bank/IMF Africa Club for my achievements in breeding improved open pollinated maize varieties to improve food security.
Your job is quite manly and very technical, what would you advise fellow women who shun such professions?
I would give an example of my own mother who never went to school herself, but she surely knew the importance of going to school and could not let me or any of my sisters abscond classes without good reason.
From an early age, she instilled in us love for education. I would advise women to keep advancing themselves so that they are better equipped for the job market. Furthermore, women are the core of the family. When a woman is educated, she will have a healthy family and her children will very likely attain good education.
An educated woman is likely to have a good job which adds up to additional family income.Ã‚Â This is even more relevant these days with the high cost of living.Ã‚Â The womanÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s income will contribute to meeting family responsibilities.Ã‚Â This would result in less tension in the home because both spouses are contributing. Such a peaceful household creates a good environment for raising children who are likely to do well in life.
What motivates you?
Probably my passion in working to improve life of people that are less privileged. Coming from humble beginnings, I can testify to the fact that, given the right support; families can rise from poverty.
I never foresaw that I would get this far in life, and I thank the Almighty God for everything, because it is by His Grace that I have gotten this far. That is why in my small way, I try to help those in need wherever I can.
I like working with smallholder farmers, sharing knowledge on modern agricultural technologies which can improve their productivity and income.Ã‚Â Consequently, I get satisfaction when farmers express how the application of the knowledge I shared with them improved their productivity and economic well-being.
It is this type of feedback that gives me pleasure and encouragement to do more as I realise that my contribution is making a difference in the lives of people in need.
What would you want your children to learn from you?
I advise my children to pursue excellence in whatever they do. Honesty, diligence and dedication are virtues I have planted in my children. I always pray to God they should also plant the same virtues into their children because I believe they are keys to a successful life.
What does your average day involve?
My average day is spent at work.Ã‚Â After hours are spent relaxing, cooking and watching news on television before retiring to bed. Saturdays are days for laundry and general cleaning.
Sunday is dedicated to worship and thereafter relaxing at home or visiting relatives and friends. My favourite foods are nsima with local chicken and traditional vegetables with nsinjiro (ground nut flour) such as chigwada, nkhwani, kholowa, khwanya, chitambe, and therere.