Finding career fulfillment in tree work

Isabel talks about her career journey and her dedication to fostering climate resilience and supporting farmers to become more prosperous.

Life at One Acre Fund

For Isabel Phiri, our Zambia Tree Operations Project Senior Specialist, job satisfaction extends beyond contentment in her career. It embodies a blend of passion, purpose, and a relentless commitment to making a positive impact. Motivated by the need to address the effects of climate change on farming communities, Isabel harnessed her innovative spirit and dedicated herself to fostering resilience and supporting farmers to become more prosperous.

Isabel Phiri

Please tell us about your career journey and how you got started in agricultural development and forestry.

In 2018, fresh out of university, I began my career journey by joining One Acre Fund as an intern in the Business Operations team. Over the course of my three-month internship, I developed a keen interest in the organization’s Innovations department, prompting me to make the switch to join the team. Here, I focused on scaling innovative solutions to deliver impact to the farmers we serve. This role allowed me to work closely with farmers, spending significant time in the field and witnessing their hard work and the challenges they face, with one of the most significant being the impact of climate change. As a member of the innovations department, I also gained exposure to the importance of trees and agroforestry which helps farmers build resilience to climate change. 

The Zambia program then pivoted to a climate-smart agriculture-based program, and I saw an opportunity to share knowledge with farmers on preserving farmlands and mitigating climate change. In my current role, my responsibility revolves around introducing climate-smart agricultural products and services to smallholder farmers. This entails not only the provision of resources but also extensive knowledge-sharing aimed at educating farmers on soil fertility, supporting them to increase their overall farm profits, and bolstering resilience.

In your work with farmers, what skills and experiences have you found most valuable in your current role?

I have discovered that creating positive social change and increasing impact relies heavily on fostering trust and collaboration within the community. Engaging with various community stakeholders has become a cornerstone of our initiatives.  When introducing new and unfamiliar information to the community, establishing meaningful connections is crucial to moving forward, implementing trials, and achieving success.

Another skill that I have found immensely valuable, though it might sound cliché, is project management. In order to maintain a farmer-centric approach and achieve project objectives, effective project management is crucial. This skill becomes even more significant when dealing with projects that require behavioral change among farmers and involve multiple complex layers.

We can all agree that trees are vital for the environment, but if you could make one lesser-known fact about trees common knowledge, what would it be?

In today's world, where discussions around mental health are gaining prominence, it's fascinating to note that the presence of trees can play a pivotal role in enhancing our overall quality of life.

For me, when One Acre Fund Zambia moved from a conventional office building to an environment with a lot of nature – it made a significant difference. I have found that I now prefer working under the calming shade of a tree, which not only helps me concentrate but also provides a natural outlet for stress relief.

In your role, you take part in a number of tree-planting events, if you had the chance to invite two historical figures to a tree-planting event, who would they be, and what kind of trees would you plant in their honor?

That would be Wangari Maathai, the visionary behind the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, and Felix Finkbeiner, a German environmentalist and the founder of Plant for the Planet. In Maathai’s honor, I would choose to plant indigenous trees, with a special emphasis on the African Acacia. This tree is vital to the African ecosystem, and symbolizes Maathai's commitment to the well-being of her community and the planet.

To commemorate Felix’s contributions, I would plant the Douglas Fir, a majestic tree known for its resilience, rapid growth, and exceptional carbon-sequestering capabilities. This choice aligns with the ethos of One Acre Fund’s current reforestation efforts and ties back to the significance of the trees we are planting.

Do you have a favorite quote or saying that resonates with you and your approach to your career or life in general?

It's a quote by Steve Jobs: "Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

This philosophy influences my choices, ensuring that I only pursue endeavors that align with my interests and values. I do not want my days to be spent lamenting my work; instead, I strive to love what I do, echoing Jobs' wisdom in every step of my journey.


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