THE agricultural world has lost a pioneer and the smallholder African farmer, a fierce advocate who used her passion and influence to speak on their behalf.
Evelyn Nguleka, who died in Lusaka on Saturday after an illness, was born in Zambia in 1970 and later studied Veterinary Medicine at the University of Zambia. She was raised by her grandmother in Ndola and had previously attended Fatima Girls’ Secondary School during her high school years.
In an interview with the Independent Observer last year, Dr Nguleka had shared her vision to see Zambia as the anchor for food, safety and security and as a place of refuge for the Southern African region, and the true bread basket of Africa.
“I would like to see farmers making money out of agriculture, getting out of poverty and having a decent living. I want to see many rich farmers – both small scale and large scale,” she said.
She desperately wanted to make farming more profitable through good food policies, reduced cost of production, mechanising agriculture and going more into value addition of the country’s products.
In her line of work, Dr Nguleka was drawn to two specific groups of people – women and the youth. This is because she believed they had much to offer and had a lot of reason to achieve more in life.
She was also the mother of two sons who gained inspiration from women who worked hard to provide food for their families.
Passionate about veterinary science and agriculture, she would later make her mark not only locally but on the international stage as well.
In 2013, she was elected the first female president of the Zambia National Farmers’ Union (ZNFU), and prior to the election she had also served as first female vice president of the ZNFU.
Widely regarded an advocate for the protection of local family farmers and food producers, Dr Nguleka was also a smallholder family farmer herself. As such, she was a reference point for local farmers who, in Sub Saharan countries like Zambia, have considerable difficulties treating diseases that affect their livestock.
On June 25, 2015, she again made history when she was elected president of the World Farmers Organisation (WFO) during the organisation’s General Assembly in Milan. During the event, she famously delivered the line: “Farmers ensure the nutrition of the world.”
The WFO is an organisation of agricultural producers that aims to strengthen farmers’ positions within value chains, with a particular focus on smallholder farmers by advocating on behalf of farmers and representing their interests in international policy forums.
Her election as a woman to head one of the world’s biggest agricultural organisations made big news in the agricultural arena and highlighted the importance of the too often overlooked role women play in agriculture as well as in fighting hunger.
“Women contribute to more than 60 percent of the world’s food production. Therefore, statistics show that women are a central and pivotal figure in agriculture, especially if we look to Africa and Asia. As a woman and as a small scale farmer, I am not only a food producer, but also a real economic actor of a sector that is not different from any other economic sector,” she said following her 2015 election as WFO president.
The WFO considered Dr Nguleka part of the million small scale farmers who, through their daily work, are the real foundations of agriculture worldwide.
In addition to her qualifications in Veterinary Medicine, Dr Nguleka obtained a diploma in International Poultry Breeding from IPC Barneveld in the Netherlands. It is partly thanks to this qualification that she was always ably involved in the diagnosis and treatment of major diseases that affect poultry farming.
Her veterinary background led her to practise poultry husbandry and disease control. She worked at different levels of production for many years and her experience with poultry also made her a NEMAS Community of Practice (COP) member.
Dr Nguleka was interested in learning about different value chains in poultry and identifying where she could play a role. As a farmer, she produced vegetables and reared layers and goats. She also explored areas of pig production and fish farming.
By starting Golan Poultry Solutions, she would go on to run a business which involved the sale of poultry inputs, including feed, chicks, medicines, vaccines and services that go with rearing pullets such as injecting chickens and de-beaking.
In addition, the business offered consultancy services and information on management and production processes.
Kingsley Kaswende, who worked closely with Dr Nguleka at ZNFU for close to three years, remembers her as a dedicated and hardworking woman who had no limits to what she could achieve.
“In her circles, so many people used so many adjectives to describe her: bold, brave, daring, tough, resilient, strong.
“They all suited her perfectly,” he shares.
Mr Kaswende recollects fondly that she was the sort of person to break glass ceilings and move mountains; one who was quick to make decisions and stick to her guns once she believed in something.
“She always kept saying ‘It’s good to compromise with others, but we can’t compromise for the sake of it, there must be reasons’,” he says.
Her striking record was dented when she was arrested and charged by the Drug Enforcement Commission in September 2016 together with former ZNFU executive director, Ndambo Ndambo.
The pair were jointly charged for allegedly obtaining money by false pretences and for money laundering.
The arrest followed separate audits by KPMG Finland and EMM Corporates in which both the embassies of Finland and Sweden in Lusaka commissioned separate forensic audits that exposed extensive fraud, embezzlement and theft of over K34 million at ZNFU.
The donors withheld further funding to the union and demanded criminal prosecution of the culprits as well as a refund as the money embezzled was from tax-payers in their respective countries.
Following the arrest, Dr Nguleka resigned from her position as president of both ZNFU and WFO.
While still enduring her fair share of public criticism and court appearances, her death came as an absolute shock when it first filtered through last Saturday. It was reported that she died at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) after being admitted to the Intensive Care Unit last Wednesday. She was 47. Her supporters are sad that she died before having chance to clear her name and believe that she was an innocent person merely dragged into a scandal as an easy scapegoat.
They cite a slow, lazy justice system and cyber bullying as factors that only added injury to what they feel was an insulting arrest.
Even with her international recognition as WFO president, Dr Nguleka still insisted that she was a small-scale farmer just like her associates.
This powerful quote came following her election as WFO president: “For too long the role of the farmer was taken for granted, almost as if we were vending machines for food, called to respond to that role, who carry out with joy the task of feeding the planet in a compulsory and annihilating way, without margins of profits.”
The international spotlight did not lead her away from what remained close to her heart: the struggling small-scale farmer seeking to eke out a decent living each day.
Yes, she died young and suddenly, but not before leaving a lasting legacy and passing the baton to women pursuing fair recognition despite conventional limitations in the contemporary era./