I got to know Maria through mutual connections on LinkedIn. I wanted the world to know her perspective about Agriculture and how technology has changed everything in that sector for the better. Here is our interview about her STEM journey:
Hi Maria, thank you for joining us this evening. I know it’s the end of a hectic day but you accepted to speak with me. Thank you for that
Hi Winnie, thank you for inviting me. What you are doing is really great! Thanks for the good work! it is important for young people, especially women, to understand the possibilities ahead of them and it is our responsibility as people who have gone through this journey to make this known to the young generation, and those interested in joining STEM.
It is true what you are saying! Please introduce yourself to our audience
My name is Ndagire Moreen Maria, a 24 year old Ugandan. I am adding my age because some people usually associate success with age. I want a young girl out there to know that what she is capable of accomplishing has nothing to do with her age. I am the Founder and Team Leader of Fastmere, a company that’s leveraging innovation and technology to give farmers market access, extension services and bring affordable and quality products to customers.
I am also currently working with StartHub Africa; an entrepreneurship training organisation that helps university students to understand what innovation and entrepreneurship mean. We also have an accelerator program that helps startups scale-up their business and gives them investment.
I am also a teacher – not a professional one, haha – I love sharing knowledge and information with others. Let’s just say I am a teacher by passion. My dream career has been to become an Agribusiness Consultant and I am almost there. I want to give organisations scalable business models that they can use to alleviate poverty. I desire to see an agricultural sector that depends on its system instead of hand-me-downs that we are used to.
Lastly, I am a founder of a youth organisation called I have A Future (IHAF) Foundation. We use young people’s curiosity to harness the potential in them through mentorship and capacity building.
You are very passionate about incorporating technology into agriculture! Please walk us through your journey into this passion
I grew up with a small scale farming father. This is the basic structure of most rural-semi-urban families in Uganda. I hated farming! Hate is an understatement; I hated farming! When my father looks at me right now, he probably wonders “how!”, haha. I looked at it as an activity that required a lot of effort with very little output. Add this to the whole stereotyping of agriculture being for the uneducated; man, I hated it!
I was always a science student throughout my primary and secondary education and everyone thought I was going to become a Medical Doctor. When I joined my A’level, I did Physics, Chemistry, biology, and Mathematics (PCB/M). I didn’t make it to the medical field but started doing a course in Biochemistry at the university. For some reason I have always had this feeling of “I am going to be more”. In my early days, I felt like being in a science class was enough to prove that I was becoming more than any ordinary girl-child. But like you mentioned, the imposter syndrome was bad; I have always had to put in more effort than my male colleagues because I have to prove a point to myself and to the world as a woman in STEM. I don’t think things should be like this!
During my degree, I also worked as a Researcher with Restless Development, which is part of the MasterCard Foundation. I was interviewing young people about their interest in joining various stages of the agricultural value chain; producers, manufacturers, marketeers. I also wanted to know their adaptation to technology in the agricultural sector and how they are harnessing this technology to make agriculture better in Uganda. This was my entry point into Agriculture; this experience birthed my passion for Agriculture.
I applied to Earth University in Costa Rica to pursue a bachelors degree in Agricultural science and Natural Resource Management. This experience taught me a lot of things I could do with Technology and Agriculture both in the lab and on farms. I then chose to do something that would allow me to use all this knowledge, and that was business and entrepreneurship. I knew that with this I could do as much innovation as I wanted and that is where we are today.
You have walked an amazing journey from hating Agriculture to being this passionate about it; what are some of the challenges you have faced along the way?
My first challenge way back was telling my father that I was going to pursue a degree in Agriculture, haha. He couldn’t imagine me leaving the country to study such a “thing”! Yes he was a farmer but didn’t imagine anyone doing that for a career as an educated person! So convincing my family that this was it for me was kind of a challenge but not so much because they are very supportive people.
My biggest challenge as a young African woman in this field has been the undermining from men! I get this a lot and it is terribly annoying! They try to downplay what I have done in order to make their ego feel better. When I need a service or partnership from someone, they look at me and praise what I have been able to accomplish but their next statement is always something in the lines of, “you should be my wife, I am looking for someone as ambitious as you”. This is not right because I don’t think as a young woman, this is what I should be addressed with! I am trying to make a difference, not to end up in every man’s house as their wife! I need to get the same respect a man gets when they speak about the work they have done and the services they are looking for at the moment.
The other challenge is related to my age. I am 24 and most of my colleagues are either married, or seriously dating. When I speak to them or even other people, my topics are about the kind of technology I want to incorporate in my business, who I want to partner with, how we can help such and such a community. This is completely different from their mindset, and that’s okay. It sometimes feels like I am missing out in things in life and might be losing the people I once called friends.
Related to my previous challenge, I am happy to come from a very supportive family; they are not asking me about when I will be getting married. But I know people who are not even that close to me who keep telling me to slow down; over being ambitious will make me end up alone. And I am asking, if I were a young man doing all that I have done and more, would anyone be asking me to slow down? For me this is not a challenge because my partner is very supportive of my dreams but the majority of young women being this strong are facing this challenge in Africa and the problem gets worse because they can’t speak about it.
The other challenge I can talk about is not gender-specific, any entrepreneur would face it. I have had moments of no breaks. When I was running a business in Uganda and doing my degree in Costa Rica; a country with a 9-hour time difference, I almost burned-out. I didn’t have enough time to process and rest enough as would have been needed. But that’s common for almost all entrepreneurs; we don’t get the big break.
How have you been able to overcome some of these challenges?
My values. There’s one thing that I learned at a very young age. I was attending a seminar somewhere and someone said that when things are changing a lot in your life, you have to focus on the things that don’t change. I am a Christian and to me God has never changed. That keeps me going. But also in a world where people keep changing, having a vision is very important. Sticking to your vision and staying true to your values is a very big source of motivation.
Also knowing where you have come from. Sometimes when we get to a point of “success”, we forget where we started from and that’s one way to lose focus of your vision. The reason for setting that vision is somewhere in your past. So, you losing that means losing reason for your vision. For example, I grew up in a farming community and I knew I wanted to do something to help farmers gain an equivalent to the much effort they invest into agriculture. For people listening in or reading this I would say that finding something that relates to you personally can help keep you motivated.
I also kept on thinking of the mark I want to leave in the world. I believe in having a purpose. I keep asking myself that if I don’t deliver or do my best then what’s the alternative? I don’t want to be anything else, so I keep pushing.
I also have friends I consider very supportive, and that’s a very important part of life. I have people who don’t even understand anything in agriculture but are there for me when I need them emotionally. It’s good to keep in circles where if you forget what you want, you are constantly reminded. Have people around you who keep you accountable.
Mentors have also played a big role in who I am today. It is very rewarding to get people who have walked the same journey that you are starting. There’s nothing new under the sun! The sexist things that men say to me have been said to women before me, even worse. How do I overcome? Talk to women that have dealt with the same thing and have won. Get people that are experienced in what you want and keep asking questions.
Another thing that I have realised works for me is being knowledgeable. One thing we face as women is the already existing doubt when it comes to understanding STEM related topics. So we need to read, get informed and know our content so that when we speak, everyone in the room listens.
Please tell us about your precious moments of recognition along this journey
One of my biggest achievements was starting my own company and being able to grow as much as we have to this point. I also co-authored a manual as a consultant with Food for the Hungry. This training manual was targeting young people in rural areas that are unemployed and teaching them how to scout and rung informal businesses. My company got a resolution award for social venture challenge fellowship, I am still having that fellowship now. I was part of the young people that participated in the social innovation warehouse where we learned how to use the SDG’s to change the world.
Who is Maria outside work?
I love spending time with my friends, you know, those moments of aimless and non-directional conversation with friends, haha, over a cup of tea or coffee. I love travelling, it helps me learn about new cultures and other things. It challenges me out of my comfort zone, really. Sometimes I just stay in watching a movie or reading a nice book. I have also started working out. Something I can’t forget are my church moments and speaking to God; that makes a big part of me.
What quote resonates with you most at the moment?
Someone sent me this and it really touched me; “commitment is staying true to the things you said you were gonna do long after the mood is gone” ~ Inky Johnson. We keep giving ourselves promises before people but it is very hard to stick to that once the cameras roll out. This is one of the things pushing me right now. I know that I have to keep going behind the scenes.
I would have asked about your advice for a young girl out there but you have taken care of that throughout the interview. Thank you once again Maria, for taking time to speak with me. You are one very intelligent woman! I am honoured to know you.