When Yanira Ntupanyama was in high school, her father bought a stretch of land in Malawi and began farming. Life on the farm was practical, so Yanira decided to do the next practical thing and focus her studies on agriculture.
“My parents…were always my source of inspiration,” she said. “They told me I could become somebody only if I wanted to. They had so little but always wanted to achieve more through us, their children.”
Now, as one of the pioneers in agroforestry and principal secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change in Malawi, she’s committed to her considerably demanding job. “In Africa, food security, health, and education are at the core of government business,” she said. “But ensuring environmental sustainability is key to sustaining the basic needs of any country.”
The WSU Connection
In the late 1980s, Yanira was working on an agroforestry research project. She was trying to understand the relationship between water and trees and how they work together to enrich soil. Her boss in Malawi, WSU alumnus Trent Bunderson, was a part of their USAID research program and suggested she consider WSU for graduate school. She thought, “Well, there must be good people where he comes from,” and applied. In 1991, Yanira graduated from WSU with a master’s degree in forestry and range management.
“What I remember most is the commitment lecturers demonstrated through their dedication to deliver information. And the energy and interest in every single student was amazing.”
While studying in Pullman, she was especially inspired by Bunderson, as well as by Linda Hardesty, John Bassman and Roger Chapman in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences. “There was no single day Roger didn’t have energy,” she recalls. “I always thought if he had so much energy, why not me? There were also three families who always gave me their time and a home to go to. I remember Steven and Mary Ulrich, Bob Harvey and his family, and a certain family at church—they treated me as family and it sure helped me to keep going.”
After graduating from WSU, Yanira studied an indigenous sugar plum (Uapaca kirkiana) and food staple in Malawi for her Ph.D. at Norwegian University of Life Sciences. She then joined the National Research Council in Malawi to prioritize research in poverty alleviation projects. She hadn’t originally planned to work in government, but always thought an element of policy was missing. She describes the job as a challenge that takes hard work and patience.
Back in Malawi
Yanira has big goals. One of the most urgent is to increase Malawi’s forestry cover, which is currently at only 28 percent. “By improving the country’s forested area, Malawi will be mitigating climate change as well as contributing to the gross domestic product. Our forests affect our overall agricultural productivity, the backbone of economic growth in Malawi,” she said.
Yanira is encouraged by the growing number of her fellow countrywomen involved in agriculture. With more women farming, crop yields are higher and farming is more diverse, she said. Women are beekeeping, dairy farming, marketing, and processing and packaging produce.
“Malawian women are strong,” she said. “They survive life where it is nearly impossible. They are multi-talented, goal-oriented, and easy to teach. All they need is mentorship and resources to contribute to Malawi economic development.”
The biggest challenge for women farmers in Malawi’s rural areas is a lack of funding, information, and credit, Yanira explained. Women in the urban areas are also taking up farming as a business, but they lack international market access and “know-how” in terms of exportation.
“If these problems are addressed, I am sure Malawi in two years will be a different country altogether,” she said. “The change is here already in food production and conservation with the interest demonstrated by the president—who is also a woman.”
By Rachel Webber