The World Is Your Oyster – Forget Shareka

I got to know Forget through LinkedIn. She is one lady whose work in Agronomic Engineering and Agricultural Sciences caught my attention, especially the way she uses it to give back to the communities around her. Here is our interview about her STEM journey;

Hi Forget, thank you for accepting to be our guest today
Hi Winnie, how are you? Thanks for reaching out to me. Your work sounds interesting; I am happy to add my voice to it.

Thank you for the kind words. And, I am fine, thank you.

Briefly introduce yourself to our audience please
My name is Forget Shareka from Zimbabwe. I am currently doing a Masters degree in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Edinburgh Business School. I did Agricultural sciences at Earth University of Costa Rica, hence my job title is Agronomic Engineer. I am also currently working as a climate innovation intern at Solidaridad Network.

As an entrepreneur, I am the co-founder and product developer of Chashi Foods, a social and environmentally-conscious enterprise that aims to reduce post-harvest losses and food waste in sub-Saharan Africa. We have products that range from pineapples, bananas, apples, spiced groundnuts, among others. All these products are natural and cater for health benefits.

I also co-founded Imperishables, a company which has almost a similar purpose as Chashi Foods but focuses specifically on the mango post-harvest losses in Sierra Leone. I am currently working on a new project that has an aim to fight malnutrition and promote health and well-being of women and children. It is called Nutrisharbe.

Kindly walk us through your journey into Agriculture
I grew up in a rural area of Zimbabwe, raised by my late grandmother. I attended a school there and joined secondary school under the sponsorship of Camfed. This sponsorship came in at the right time because I was at the verge of dropping out of school. My grandmother couldn’t afford my tuition any more. This led to my position as a Camfed association alumni. Camfed supports girls’ education in Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, and Ghana.

I initially wanted to become a bank teller because that’s what my mother was doing. I had concentrated a lot on Commercials and neglected other subjects. During my form 2 holidays, a nieghbour visited and asked my grandmother for a very small amount of fertilizer. I was curious about what that small thing was going to be used for. He said it was to treat his ox’s wound. I followed him to the kraal and saw how he was treating the wound. This was a very disturbing experience to watch by the way. But you know urea fertilizer is more of a salt, so it had a very strong effect on the ox. This entire process almost cost a young girl her life as the ox jumped up and down in pain. This was the point where I decided that I wanted to do agriculture (animal science by that time). My only problem was that I was in the A class where people didn’t do practical subjects like Agriculture; it’s things like technical graphics and computer science that were emphasised in such classes.

When I returned to school, I informed my teachers that I wanted to do agriculture but their response was negative. According to them, a bright student like me should have nothing to do with agriculture! It was a crazy decision but I fought for what I wanted. I talked to my technical graphics teacher about dropping the subject and he was okay with it. This decision cost me subjects like computer science, which I enjoyed and was highly expected of me. I spent the entire form 3 without practical subjects because my teachers were tough on my decision. Things changed in my finals year and I was able to rejoin agriculture, this time with the practical part of it. Surprisingly, we were around 55 students in the A class and about 36 went with me in the Agriculture practical class. It means that many people felt the way I did but were scared of taking the move. That’s how I ended up studying Agriculture.

I wanted to do sciences for my A’Level but didn’t get good grades in Mathematics. That was another challenge. I wanted to do Agriculture, Geography and Biology for my A’Level. The only options I had remaining was to do Commercials (Accounting, Economics and Business Management), but I still couldn’t afford it with a C grade in Mathematics. I resorted to Geography, History and Divinity. I remember my family being happy because they thought they were about to have a Lawyer in the family.

Come university, my brother advised me to do Law, Political Science or Psychology. I tried to apply for these programs but they were not my passion. I ended up applying to Earth University in Costa Rica, thinking I was going to do animal science. I found out that the university only taught Agricultural sciences, without any specialisation. That’s how I ended up doing Agricultural Sciences. I was disappointed at first but I have to say that it was at Earth University where I truly discovered my passion in Business, community and developmental work. Most of the changes in my life happened while I was in Costa Rica. It was then that I realised how serious a problem agriculture is for many parts of the world, and I wanted to be part of the solution.

My initial idea was a gas installed facility that helps improve shelf life of the crops after harvest. For my final year elective course project, I did food processing and that’s when everything became clear. I combined my knowledge in post-harvest and food processing, plus my business knowledge from a course I had taken for 3 years and came up with all these business ideas. I did all the prototypes in Costa Rica and got my co-founders from the university of Edinburgh. I got many other options of study along the way but they were all limiting my interaction with people, which is something I am very passionate about. I love knowing how people are living their lives, especially low-income people. This always helps me develop ideas on how their lives can be made better.

I decided to concentrate on the business side; save the planet, save people, solve social problems and get money for myself. All in one package – business. That’s how I ended up where I am now.

So, you actually transitioned into STEM; it wasn’t your initial area of study. Please tell us about the challenges you faced while joining the field
School fees was one of the major challenges I ever faced. I grew up in a rural area as an orphan raised by my 85year old grandmother. Camfed came to my rescue and paid for my 6 years of secondary school. From there, MasterCard took over and paid my fees in Costa Rica and here in Edinburgh.

Another challenge was getting into agriculture with a gender aspect. This used to be a male dominated area. Yes agriculture has women in it but most of them only do domestic agriculture. Coming in with a plan to make real money out of Agriculture was always seen as a man’s thing. I got a lot of discouragement from family and friends. Everyone else only started believing in me after seeing success in what I was doing. Men had a different attitude towards things like seeing me drive a tractor or doing other “manly” tasks.

Amidst criticism from family and friends, what kept you from giving up?
I am one person who really believes in myself, what I can do and what I can potentially make happen. For example, the time we didn’t have money for me to join secondary school, I had to take steps in different directions to make sure I got something. I had to knock on people’s doors for help.

I also choose to do things that are meaningful to me; things that I might have experienced at some point and would love to be the change so that they don’t happen again. That in itself is motivation for me to keep going. For example, most of the start-ups I have co-founded have something to do with food preservation. This is because I come from a farming background and I know the struggle of spending a lot of time in the fields, only to end up throwing away rotten produce.

My other source of inspiration are the world statistics of hunger and malnutrition. These figures are alarming! I give myself the responsibility and mandate to do something about this through the knowledge and skills I have gained over the years. I am also a climate change advocate. I am tired of seeing people die because of floods and other natural calamities.

Let’s talk about your achievements, awards, and prestigious moments of recognition
In February of 2020 I was awarded the best young entrepreneur award by International Labour Organisation (ILO) in partnership with the Swedish embassy and the government of Zimbabwe, plus the green enterprise which conducted the competition.

While in Costa Rica, I participated in the sustainability lab challenge and was a semi-finalist. I also participated in the first cohort of fish bowl and was a runner-up.

Recently I was awarded the Emy Maxwell award which is a University of Edinburgh student award, given to an outstanding student in charity work. I received this award after 5 years of work but still never saw it coming, haha.

I also had the opportunity to be selected to join the COMESA Federation of women in business in Zimbabwe and attended the SADC meeting to set trade rules and regulations that aim to increase women participation in business.

I was also acknowledged as the most outstanding advocate in issues concerning reprductive health among young people with HIV and AIDS in Zimbabwe in 2015. Academically, I had the privileged to be awarded the prestigious MasterCard Foundation scholarship twice.

I have recently been invited to represent Zimbabwe at COY16 & COP26 as a youth delegate.

These are very humbling opportunities that I am happy to be considered for. However, my lifetime achievement is the impact I am able to make on people’s lives in the communities I work in.

Who are you outside work?
Outside my work I am a sister, an auntie who spends most of my time talking to my nieces and nephews about life. I am also a mentor to a number of girls. I am very proud of how powerful these girls have grown up to become. I also love cooking; I am a mini-chef. I am also an evangelist – another thing I am very proud of.

What is your favourite quote?
The world is your oyster” ~ William Shakespeare. You can be anything that you want to be, do anything that you want to do and go anywhere that you want to go. When I was a child I had a dream of going to America, one day I found myself in America. I then dreamed of being in all continents and I have been to 3 so far. Next year I will be visiting Asia. Every time I say I want to do something, I see myself do that exact thing exceedingly. You just have to work hard and give your all in everything you do. Don’t forget to pray.

Please leave us with a word of encouragement for a young girl who is passionate about joining STEM
Young girls, don’t be intimidated; be unapologetic. Anything that you are capable of doing, do it. There’s nothing defined for men or women. Most of these things are created by society to disadvantage women. Just believe in yourself, even when no one believes in you. Don’t limit yourself to gender or confine what you can do in gender. There will be points of tension as you enter certain rooms, just because you are a women. Always know that you belong there and all this starts by you building this confidence in you. You are the best person for that job, role, academic field, and the rest will fall into place. The rules that govern any area you enter in will respect you because you are capable. Always know that once given the right shoe, you can conquer the world. You only need an opportunity.

Thank you Forget, for taking time to speak with me. I admire the courage you have to take on even the non-promising territories. I am picking this from you today. Thank you for standing up for the less advantaged in our communities.

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