She steps forward to the podium, her face breaking into her characteristic charming smile. Her black, short cropped hair compliments her light skin. Standing at average height, she is comfortable in front of the microphone as she would be in her own kitchen. Her name is Siboniso Moyo, popularly known as ‘Boni’- the regional representative in Southern Africa, for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
The occasion was the November 2013 meeting in Gaborone, Botswana of the alumni from the southern Africa region who participated in a capacity building program for sustainable use of animal genetic resources (AnGR) in developing countries.
The meeting, aimed to catalyze changes in the strategies and practices in the utilization of AnGR within sub-Saharan Africa, just like two others before it, one in Kigali (eastern Africa) and the other in Ougadougou (West and Central Africa).
The AnGR capacity building program started in 1999 and was jointly run by ILRI and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) with a focus to reach all of sub Saharan Africa. The 2013 regional workshops were jointly organised by ILRI, SLU, the African Union’s Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) and United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Ever since Boni joined ILRI in 2006, Maputo, Mozambique has been her base until December 31, 2013. She pioneered ILRI’s work in the region, meticulously working over the years, opening new ground for ILRI in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Since January 1, 2014, the position has moved to Harare, Zimbabwe .
ILRI’s director general, Jimmy Smith notes that under Boni’s leadership, ‘ILRI has been well received by the key partners in the region… Boni’s move to Harare is part of strengthening ILRI’s work and to enhance its role in the CGIAR Research programmes (CRPs).’ She will be part of the coordinating unit of the Eastern and Southern Africa Target Region of the Dryland Systems Consortium Research Program (CRP). This is besides her continuing role as ILRI’s ambassador in the region.
The 2013 regional workshops were jointly organised by ILRI, SLU, the African Union’s Inter-African Bureau for Animal Resources (AU-IBAR) and United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
Who is Boni? How did she as an African woman get to the leadership of a top science institute such as ILRI?
Boni was born in a mission hospital in the beautiful Matobo hills in south western Zimbabwe. Her parents were teachers and her father later became a Reverend Minister who served in different missions around the country. As a result, she and her siblings – three brothers and three sisters – moved with their parents a lot during most of her primary school days. Perhaps, due to the fact that her parents were both teachers, they had a very positive attitude towards girls’ education.
‘My late father used to tell us that he had no inheritance to leave us except to provide us with good education that would open doors for us’ she remembers. She worked extremely hard, made good grades in high school and qualified for university. ‘I also wanted to achieve a higher level of education than my parents, so that I could look after them in their old age’, she goes on.
At school however, Boni heard stories from some class mates about how their parents chose to pay for the boys in their families. Some of the girls were in school because the missionaries, teachers and other well-wishers paid for their education.
She studied for her first and second degrees at the Patrice Lumumba – People’s Friendship University in Moscow, USSR where she studied agriculture with a major in animal science (Zootechnica). For her masters’ dissertation, she did a comparative study of the main milk components of different dairy breeds in Askania Nova. She went on to obtain a PhD in animal science with a specialization in animal breeding and genetics from the University of Pretoria in 1997. In the same year she became a Fellow under a three year Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship on Initiative for Development and Equity in African Agriculture (IDEAA).
In keeping with her childhood lessons, she knows she must be helpful to other people. So she is passionate about mentoring younger women scientists, spurring them on to achieve their dreams. Indeed, she was nominated a mentor under the African Women in Agriculture Research and Development (AWARD) programme from 2008 – 2010.
Boni started her PhD studies when her second daughter was 10 months old so she recognizes from her own experience the specific challenges that young mothers face. The balance between career and bringing up young children is a critical area she walks along with them. Her own efforts at managing family and career are paying off –her eldest daughters’ wedding and the arrival of their first grandson have been cause for recent celebration. She is quick to acknowledge the great support from her husband who is a veterinarian, their three daughters, extended family, friends and colleagues.
Under Boni’s leadership, ‘ILRI has been well received by the key partners in the region… Boni’s move to Harare is part of strengthening ILRI’s work – director general, Jimmy Smith
Unfortunately, it is never always summer for anybody and Boni is no exception. The day her father passed on is one she would rather not talk about. ‘He was loving and very supportive of my work. He brought me up to be a confident woman who looks for solutions where there are barriers’.
For the eight years that Boni has so far served in ILRI, she has enjoyed the diversity of the work and the collegiality of the teams. Her work moves across the spectrum from reaching out to farmers and their communities to meeting many different people from the partner organisations that ILRI works with. The constant travel though tiring opens new frontiers, new places outside her country of birth and she learns about new things all the time.
Still, she believes there is room for more growth. She says ILRI should partner more with organisations that have structures to reach out to farmers (extension services: both public and private) and development oriented organisations. ILRI needs to better understand the challenges and constraints that famers are facing so that we can better target our efforts in addressing priority areas. We need to organise more partnerships days for knowledge sharing and communicating results from our research work to a wider stakeholder audience, says Boni who previously worked as the National Director for Livestock Production and Development in Zimbabwe .
Indeed just like Zig Ziglar said, for Boni, success is not a destination. It is a journey.