Meet Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire (33), who is using her qualifications in Drama, Sociology and Rural Planning to put crucial research into the hands of people who can use it to end hunger.

Posted on June 23, 2020

Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire (33) is a UP graduate with a PhD in Rural Development Planning and a postdoctoral fellow who coordinates the United Nations Academic Impact Hub (UNAI) on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2. She speaks to Primarashni Gower about her work and the role that youth can play in bettering South Africa – and Africa.

PG: What is your role as a UNAI Hub coordinator?

As the coordinator of the UNAI Hub SDG 2 [to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture], I am responsible for translating research on food security, nutrition and agricultural transformation into stories for the general public. I also pursue my own research interests in gender, food security and nutrition policy. 

PG: Why did you chose this career path?

My background is far from conventional: I have an undergraduate degree in Drama, a master’s in Sociology and a PhD in Rural Development Planning. I am eager to bring my different areas of training together in a way that can have the most significant impact on society. Coming from a low-income country like Malawi, I realise that research provides the evidence that we need to make development work for the poor, especially for women and children.

UP was appointed as the Hub for SDG 2 because of its incredible research conducted in the areas of food security and nutrition. For the most part, this research remains in scientific journals and rarely makes it into the hands of people who can use it to end hunger – the work I do draws on my creativity as a Drama major and my understanding of the technical concepts of food security and nutrition to make this possible.

I was privileged to have had the right kind of support to get me to where I am today. My dad – Professor Richard Mkandawire, director of the Alliance for African Partnership at Michigan State University and chairperson of the National Planning Commission in Malawi – always encouraged and motivated me to channel my creative and academic intellect towards pursuing a PhD. His interest in working with and for Africans inspired my research, which focuses on the role of men in gender equality, especially in the areas of maternal and child nutrition. My father helped me to understand the important role that men play in achieving gender equality.

PG: How rewarding is your career?

It is rewarding in two ways: firstly, seeing how the work we do as researchers can improve people’s lives has been incredibly fulfilling; secondly, on a personal level, I am able to benefit from working across various faculties involved in food security and nutrition research. I have learnt, and continue to learn, so much from interacting with staff from the Faculty of Health, the Center for the Study of Resilience, the Faculty of Humanities, and the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences. Having generated stories ranging from aeroponics research and educational psychology to video animations has expanded my understanding of the complexities related to ending hunger and working towards development for and with people.

PG: What is your advice to young people on how they can help to build a stronger South Africa?

We’re living on a continent where youth unemployment is rife. Finding your niche and being able to define what sets you apart from others is becoming a necessity. Learning how to sell your skills and unique talents will be vital to securing a promising career. Challenge yourself to be better by constantly learning. Giving up should never be an option. Each of us has the capacity to make a difference in the communities we live, even if it’s in just one person’s life. If you can harness your talent to do this, then I think we are well on our way to building a stronger South Africa and an even stronger Africa.

PG: Is there anything you’d like to say to older people about the way youth are treated, and how this could be changed for the better?

Young people are incredibly innovative, and older generations can learn as much from us as we can from them. The energy, motivation and innovation of youth can accelerate the changes in development that previous generations have been working so hard to achieve for years, decades even. We just need them to open the door, give us an opportunity and genuinely listen.


- Author Primarashni Gower

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