Meet Bettie Kawonga, a 2014 Scholar in the Borlaug Higher Education for Research and Development Program, implemented by Michigan State University and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development under Feed the Future.
A lecturer in dairy science and technology at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources Bunda College of Agriculture (LUANAR) in Malawi, Kawonga is earning a PhD in dairy sciences at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences. She is also one of four winners of this year’s 40 Chances Fellowship at the World Food Prize in Des Moines, Iowa. After she completes her studies, Kawonga will use the $150,000 from her 40 Chances award to establish a network of Community Business Incubation Centers, which will enable under-employed Malawian youth to become successful entrepreneurs in Malawi’s dairy sector.
Watch a video highlighting Kawonga’s work or read on to see what she had to say about increasing opportunities for young people in her country.
Tell us a little about yourself: How did you become interested in livestock and why did you decide to focus your efforts on promoting employment for young people in Malawi?
My interest in agriculture dates back to the time when I helped raise chickens and grow vegetables for home consumption in our backyard garden while growing up. With this background it was easy to choose a career in agriculture after completing secondary education.
In 2000, I was one of two students from Bunda College who participated in a World Poultry Science Regional Youth Program in South Africa. Among many other things, I learned there how South Africa’s poultry industry developed through engaging both the private sector and youth along the poultry value chain, with youth receiving mentoring to help them become future leaders in the industry. This is the business model I want to promote with the Malawi Young Dairy Entrepreneurs Project (MAYODE).
Studies in Africa, including Malawi, have shown that close to 60 percent of the population are youth, many of whom are unemployed, in part due to a lack of skills. I believe the time has come for us who are working in the livestock sector to harness the potential of young people by providing necessary leadership and technical skills in the dairy value chain.
How do Community Business Incubation Centers work? Can you explain the process of skills training and start-up funds for youth in a bit more detail?
Groups of young people (20 members per group) in rural communities with an interest in dairy will be matched with mentors – accomplished business leaders and animal scientists – and provided with leadership, agribusiness, financial and technical skills in the dairy value chain. The groups will have access to start-up funds from an endowment trust to be created with part of the 40 Chances award.
Each group will be mentored for a period of one year, after which they will be required to mentor another group under the supervision of a mentor. Prospective new groups will access a competitive grant from MAYODE after satisfying set guidelines for the project. The cycle will continue with subsequent groups as a way of propagation and skills transfer at the community level. Each group will have a loan and savings system to inculcate a savings culture among youth and enable members to graduate and start independent dairy enterprises of their choice after two to three years of incubation. The groups will be managed through a Dairy Technology and Business Innovations Hub at Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
What kinds of opportunities can youth in Malawi find in the dairy sector? In your experience, are young people excited about job opportunities in food production?
There are a number of opportunities along the dairy value chain that young people can be engaged in, including feed manufacturing and production, dairy heifer production, animal health services, artificial insemination services, dairy processing and dairy extension services.
Young people are excited by enterprises that can offer them a regular source of income, and dairy enterprises can provide that kind of opportunity.
Are there one or two things you think governments, companies, and/or other organizations can do to help make careers in agriculture and food security more attractive to young people?
Provision of infrastructure such as rural roads, electricity, water and telecommunication should be prioritized by both government and the private sector. Young people are technologically oriented, and access to such facilities should be a priority in order to attract young people to rural and peri-urban agricultural areas.
What advice do you have for youth who are interested in careers in food and agriculture?
Science-based subjects such as biology, physics and chemistry will form a good foundation for a career in food and agriculture. Hard work, determination, focus, and having mentors will help shape young people’s dreams and aspirations for life. Every young person needs to optimize his or her strengths and be willing to work on their weaknesses to achieve their goals.
Preparing for and serving in the Peace Corps was a journey I could not have completely prepared for. My decision to serve stemmed from my desire to utilize the skills I had acquired in agriculture and resource economics and animal science at Tuskegee University by assisting individuals to reach personal sustainability in lower-income countries.
Unaware of what I was getting myself into but excited about the opportunity to serve, I accepted my invite to serve in Malawi as soon as it arrived. I wasn’t exactly sure where on the map Malawi was (knowing only that it was located somewhere in Africa), but I knew this opportunity closely related to my personal and professional interests.
I arrived in Malawi during rainy season and instantly fell in love. The temperature was warm, the land was lush and green, and the people were welcoming and loving. I learned that I would be placed in Kasungu National Park and subsequently dreamed of animals and paradise, a beautiful landscape with lush surroundings. I imagined befriending one of the elephants and using her as my means of transportation.
This is what I envisioned…
Photo by Patrick Chiyo/Duke University (courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
But this is what I actually saw…
Photo by Jazmian Allen, Peace Corps
A wildlife park with no wildlife!
A major part of Peace Corps service is integrating into the community in order to understand its dynamics and needs to guide collaboration on future projects. While integrating into my community in Malawi, I learned that, in the past, many of my community members poached wildlife because there was a lack of meat (protein) in the community.
When most people think of poaching, they see it as a way to sell parts of the animal across borders (for example, ivory from elephants). But that was not the case here: My community saw poaching as a way to survive.
After speaking to my community and learning more about the challenges they faced, I knew there had to be a better solution to address protein deficiencies. How could more protein-rich, balanced meals be provided to decrease malnutrition? I reflected back, drawing from my extensive knowledge of goats and experience working at the Caprine Research Center (a goat research farm) while I was an undergraduate, as I searched for an answer.
I knew there had to be a better solution to address protein deficiencies.
In graduate school, while researching my thesis “Economics of Goat Meat Raising in the Alabama Black Belt Counties,” I had focused on goat farmers living in an area with extreme poverty very similar to Africa. I was aware of all the amazing properties of goats and how they could help low-income individuals. For example, goat’s milk is close to a woman’s breast milk and can serve as a milk replacement, helping increase survival rates of babies born to mothers infected with HIV/AIDS. Not only that, but goats also have the leanest and healthiest red meat for consumption.
Thinking of all the benefits of goats, I proposed the idea of raising them to my community to determine its level of interest. Once members expressed interest, we had to figure out how to bring the goats to them.
During my graduate studies, I had learned about an organization called Heifer International. It has an amazing “pass-on” program that I wanted to emulate, but I did not have much time and wanted to reach as many people as possible in my two years of Peace Corps service. I wrote (and received) a President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) grant for $10,000, through Peace Corps Malawi, to implement the project.
The project started with 16 individuals who would then train others in the pass-on program. Local agriculture extension workers and local agriculture non-profits trained these 16 individuals for one week. Incorporating extension workers and local non-profits ensured a level of sustainability that I would not be able to provide once I left Malawi.
During the week-long training, participants received information on goat production, management and sales. After the training, they returned home to build secure housing for their goats as their contribution. They each received five female local-breed goats, delivered by breeders in southern Malawi, for a total of 80 female goats across the 16 participants. We also purchased two male South African Boer goats from a local Malawian non-profit, Small Scale Livestock and Livelihoods Program, for breeding purposes. South African Boer goats have a high muscle mass (more meat) and higher production rate (twins and triplets). Breeding them with local Malawian female goats produces offspring with these desirable genetic traits. After the offspring were old enough to live without their mothers, five females were passed on to the next person in line for the pass on, and the process continued.
I left Malawi in April 2011. Over the past six months, I have been in contact with my Malawian counterpart, Chegwenyu, and he informed me that the program is still going. Initially, we started with 500 individuals that we estimated would expand to 2,500. To my surprise, that number had been surpassed and Chegwenyu believes that there will be an impact double or even triple the amount originally projected!
The fact that my community, Chulu Village, now has access to more protein-rich, balanced meals every day has solidified my belief that goats can be used to create a better quality of life for those in lower-income communities around the world. And, as an added benefit, it means wildlife in the village can remain where it belongs: in the wild at the local national park.
Editor’s Note: The author is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. As part of Feed the Future, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Peace Corps have teamed up to provide more than 1,200 Feed the Future Peace Corps Volunteers. These Volunteers work with communities around the globe to improve food security at the grassroots level—and you can too! Visit peacecorps.gov to learn more. This post also appears on the Peace Corps Passport blog.