From Lilongwe to Glasgow: Crafting a career path

by Dave Gerow

Stewart Paul had just finished college when he attended the 2017 SFA Symposium in Botswana. “I graduated on Wednesday, and on Sunday I flew to Botswana,” he recalls. “It was my first international trip”. In fact, he’d applied for an express passport in order to attend. Having missed two international trips while studying for his undergraduate degree, he was determined not to miss this one. “During the Symposium I could sense that there was a lot of excitement,” Stewart says. “Here was a group of people from various backgrounds, from various disciplines, from various geographical locations, from various academic and professional backgrounds, coming together to discuss things that affect Africa.”

He had heard about the SFA Network through Dr Deepa Pullanikkatil, co-founder of Abundance, an organisation Stewart volunteers with. She nominated him to get invited to come to Botswana and make a presentation on environmental degradation, particularly deforestation, and Malawi’s potential in that area. Stewart prepared carefully for his presentation, the first he’d ever made to an international audience. It was extremely well received, but Stewart insists the credit should go to Dr Pullanikkatil, SFA’s co-director, and Dr Boyson Moyo, director of the Malawi hub. “I came in with some input and made the actual presentation, but I would say 90% of the input came from these two. I can’t thank them enough for giving me the opportunity, and I’m glad it went well. It was good for my confidence, and to receive such feedback was a morale-booster for me.”

Later that year, Stewart’s SFA involvement led to a role in a study conducted by Dr Nader Karimi of the University of Glasgow. The project examined the types and amounts of biomass energy available to rural and urban people in Malawi and Kenya. Together with Renew’n’Able, a Malawian NGO, Stewart and his Abundance colleagues collected data throughout five districts: Lilongwe, Dowa, Dedza, Machinga and Zomba. The findings showed that firewood was the most commonly used energy source, followed by charcoal. Both fuels emit dark, carbon-heavy smoke, posing a health risk; most of the respondents reported respiratory problems. As well as a health issue, Stewart explains that this is a gender issue – most cooking in Malawi is done by women – as well as an environmental issue, with pressure being placed on communal forests and bushes to provide fuel. Stewart says that this “contributes to the degradation of land as a resource, as well as the forests and the bushes and the entire ecosystem.” Throughout the study, respondents consistently expressed a willingness to switch to alternative sources of energy, but they report having no alternatives. The findings from this study forms the basis for a proposal that is being developed to impact positively and provide solutions to the energy crisis Malawi faces.

His work on that project had benefits for Stewart’s personal and professional development. By managing a team of researchers, he says he was able to exercise his leadership skills “on a new level”. He also had to interact with district council officials in order to gain access to the communities. “It took some time to convince them,” he recalls. “I told them that it was not a one-off thing, but the data we collect will be used for further research and activities that will ultimately help to bring a change in people’s lives.” He ultimately succeeded in gaining access for the team, playing a key role in the study.

Stewart later on had the chance to take up the position as Malawi’s SFA hub administrator. Through this position, he learnt to handle domestic and international communications on a daily basis and deal with finance and administration. “I’ve gained new skills,” he says. “Just this week we were working on proposal-writing for funding for projects.” He recently participated in a Research Administrators Workshop in Tanzania, organised by the University of Glasgow by where he named communications, financial management, budgeting and costing as areas where he learnt new ideas.

He hopes these skills will help him in his coming adventure as a student at the University of Glasgow, where he will earn his Master’s degree in Education. Through an SFA proposal submitted to Global Challenges Research Council, Stewart will be Glasgow bound in a few months’ time! His independent research will explore the implications – for access, inclusion, and attainment – of international educational policy and aid on local and place-based pedagogies.

As he prepares to head to Glasgow, Stewart remains busy with his work as hub administrator in Malawi. “I am challenged continuously to do the best that I can,” he says. He’s quick to attribute his success to the help of his colleagues: “Through the never-ending support that I receive from my hub director, Dr Moyo, as well as other local and international partners, we are able to move forward, achieve our objectives and be better. I think that the future of the SFA network can never be as bright as it is now.”