PhD student Ndoni Mcunu was awarded a prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship. Ndoni chats to us about what an empowering experience it was and how she plans to use the insight she gained to propel her interests further…

In 2017 PhD student Ndoni Mcunu accepted a Mandela Washington Fellowship, and just recently returned to South Africa from her trip abroad to the USA. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is a six week leadership programme that targets African leaders who are committed to making meaningful change in their communities.

Ndoni is one out of 63 South African leaders who were chosen to participate in this programme out of approximately 6 000 applications. She states her selection was based on two components:

the work she undertakes for the NGO she founded, Black Women in Science (BWIS); and
her PhD studies which looks at agriculture and climate change.
She was placed at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln due to her research focus area on agriculture, and was selected for the Civic Leadership Track.

“This programme was an amazing opportunity for me to develop as a researcher in terms of: networking; looking at potential collaborations; and investigating aspects of leadership, social entrepreneurship, and agricultural systems. The main highlight I gained from the fellowship was interacting with other African fellows. It was a bit daunting at first to be the only South African Fellow at the University of Nebraska, but it forced me to get out of my shell,” says Ndoni.

In an African context, Ndoni comments, “This programme and interacting with fellow African researchers really challenged me to change the way I think and view problems and solutions in Africa. I have gained incredible insight on how to better position myself as an African woman being a leader to other African leaders and men. I was challenged to investigate different methods with regards to improving and strengthening relations.”

Ndoni says that the leadership programme has also assisted in coming up with ideas for BWIS: “From a future planning perspective with regard to my organisation BWIS and other future ventures, the programme provided me great insight. It made me question the actual value proposition BWIS offers to students, private, government and public sector – and potential ways to improve this. I am planning on developing a more sustainable revenue model for BWIS. The aim is to make it self-sustainable so that we can expand and influence more scientists.”

She does however lament the fact that interaction amongst African researchers is not as strong as it can be. “It took me going to the USA to have valuable interaction with my fellow Africans. With regard to the programme, I would love to see more African scholars or non-scholars participate to tailor make the theory more applicable to African problems,” she adds.

“Overall, I feel that this Fellowship was an invaluable experience. I aim to stay in contact with my African fellows and establish collaborations across Africa. There is a lot of self-inflicted pressure to be better and perform after a Fellowship, and I am confident that I am up to the task,” concludes Ndoni.