Forestry in Africa confronts a pressing dilemma – an insufficient number of young professionals actively choose to embark on careers within this field. This challenge necessitates our attention and concerted efforts to foster forest education, raise awareness, and establish sustainable solutions. While recent years have witnessed an encouraging rise in the number of youth and women pursuing forestry studies, the statistics are disheartening when it comes to those who remain dedicated to this profession. A significant portion of these aspiring professionals find themselves struggling to navigate the intricacies of the forestry sector. A dialogue between Temitope Adelola (Conservation Catalyst), and Scovia Akello (PhD. student in Forest Product Science at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University).
Temitope: Could you tell us about your background and what inspired you to pursue a career in forestry?
Scovia: Forestry wasn't my preferred first degree and I enrolled in it circumstantially, and I think many forestry professionals can understand this. However, I knew from the start that I wanted to make the best of it. I didn't waste any time with doubts and after a short time, I realized that we were perfect for each other in many ways. That was the beginning of the absolutely fulfilling journey I am currently on. I am a PhD student in Forest Product Science at the Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University. I identify as a forest researcher, but I am also very interested in restoration and mentoring.
Temitope: What are some of the challenges you've faced as a young professional in the field of forestry in Africa?
Forestry is male-dominated
Scovia: Forestry is male-dominated and as a woman, I have been overlooked at first glance and my abilities are constantly questioned. The need to constantly prove myself and do more to earn my place at the table is sometimes exhausting. The great thing, however, is that in most cases, once I get the chance, there is no question that I can do forestry as well as many of my male colleagues – sometimes even better. Apart from this, am having a great time.
Temitope: The attrition rate among young professionals in forestry is notably high. Why do you think so many young individuals struggle to stay in this profession? Especially women?
Scovia: The very first reason is that the majority of students completing a forestry degree or training did not want it, and many never get over the frustrations and resentments that arise from not getting their choice career. So, if they stay long enough, they can't wait to graduate and of course, move on to other interesting things in their lives outside of forestry. That is the first hurdle, and many fall off the forestry cliff at this point.
Regardless of gender, forestry requires hard work, patience, resilience, and a good attitude toward work – qualities that many young people consider old-fashioned.
Those who have completed their first forestry degree with some love still need to overcome the fact that the core forestry work is quite physically demanding. It is not the rosiest profession and although both genders are bound to struggle, the female counterparts have a lot more to grapple with. Regardless of gender, forestry requires hard work, patience, resilience, and a good attitude toward work – qualities that many young people consider old-fashioned.
Most forestry operations are located in remote and harsh environments. One must be willing to work in rural areas for long periods of time, especially during the field season. Although this can be challenging for both gender groups, it is even worse for young women. Rarely do these work environments have adequate facilities that meet women's health, hygiene, and safety needs. Many promising foresters drop out at this point, especially if they cannot find less field-intensive options in the sector.
In many African countries, career opportunities in forestry have long been limited
In many African countries, career opportunities in forestry have long been limited, in particular, the multidisciplinary nature of the sector has not been fully exploited. On the other hand, forestry institutions have not proactively sought to incorporate young people into their workforce. Many young foresters have been and are suffocated by this combination, especially if they are unable to venture into entrepreneurship as well. The status quo is gradually changing, but we must be aware of the damage that has been done to the current workforce.
Temitope: In your experience, what initiatives or strategies can help retain more young professionals in forestry, especially women, and encourage them to actively contribute to the sector's growth?
Although technology is making forestry more inclusive and presenting more options, the sector still needs to proactively address the needs of women
There has been a longstanding comfort in the perception that forestry work is primarily suited for men and while this is true for some aspects, very little effort was put in removing barriers for female candidates. Although technology is making forestry more inclusive and presenting more options, the sector still needs to proactively address the needs of women. Instead of furthering gender biases and stereotypes around the physical abilities of women, the sector should invest more in designing roles that are tailored to women so that they provide maximum value while being fulfilled at the same time.
Scovia: In your opinion, what are the most critical steps that governments, organizations, and educational institutions should take to promote forestry education and empower young professionals in this field?
Increase awareness of forestry and the career opportunities it offers
There is an urgent need to increase awareness of forestry and the career opportunities it offers. We also need to showcase and highlight success stories of young professionals making a difference in forestry to inspire other young people (an excellent example is the book “Building a Successful Forestry Career in Africa”, please insert download link here). It is in the interest of the industry that young people are informed early in their training about the diverse opportunities that exist in forestry. Although the fight against climate change has significantly increased interest in tree planting, the sector needs to proactively use this opportunity to stimulate interest in forestry training. This will potentially increase the number of motivated forestry professionals with a genuine desire to transform the sector.
I think a good forestry professional is someone who has a solid foundation of balanced training. This balance will be achieved through joint efforts by industry (civil society organizations), academic institutions, and government agencies responsible for forestry. It is particularly important for the industry to engage in forest education as the lowest-hanging fruit but the most critical factor in improving the workforce. Active involvement in the development of curriculum materials and knowledge transfer not only ensures that the knowledge imparted in forestry training is up to date and in line with the industry, but also that the graduates are suitable for work. When employers have more confidence in the quality of forest professionals, they will be more open and willing to integrate them into their workforce through programs.
Additionally, the forestry industry must harness the power of mentorship to retain talent and foster a knowledgeable, skilled, and resilient workforce. This will help bridge the gap between experienced and entry-level professionals to ensure the sustainability and career growth of individuals in the sector. Finally, more financial incentives are needed to promote forestry training, research, and development and to adequately remunerate workers.
Temitope: What advice would you give to young individuals and women aspiring to build careers in forestry in Africa?
Resolve to enjoy your career in forestry and you'll see the challenges in a different light
Scovia: Regardless of the circumstances in which you land in a forestry or forestry-related field, there is plenty of room to spread your wings and not just fly, but soar. Resolve to enjoy your career in forestry and you'll see the challenges in a different light. Identify mentors and role models in your area who are successful in forestry and pursuing the career you envision. Be humble enough to learn from them and let them guide you in your career path. Mentoring has made a huge difference in my journey, so I can’t emphasize it enough. Be prepared to put in some work and have the courage to defend your ideas and explore new avenues. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the forestry sector, collaboration and open-mindedness are particularly important. Technology and cutting-edge innovations are making the forestry sector more accessible and attractive for us women. You will be fine!
Temitope: What valuable lessons have you learned over time that you believe are worth sharing?
Scovia: I learned to be consistent and hardworking. Don't rule yourself out of opportunities before you've even tried them, and when you finally do, write a strong application. Surround yourself with people who inspire you to be better and do better. I also learned to find interesting ways to overcome the challenges of my career. For example, I hate scarring my skin, and instead of stressing about and resenting fieldwork, I dress appropriately for it. I respect and acknowledge my limitations and ask for support whenever I need it, from whomever.
Maintain consistency, be hardworking, and surround yourself with people who inspire you to be better and do better
Temitope: Looking ahead, what is your vision for the future of forestry in Africa, particularly concerning youth involvement and gender inclusivity?
Scovia: Forestry is highly multidisciplinary and increasingly becoming technology intensive. Rather than importing already-manufactured solutions, I see Africa investing in building the capacity of young people to develop innovative solutions tailored to the continent's challenges. Gender and similar forms of bias are being eliminated so that all young people have a level playing field in the forestry sector. Forest education is being promoted at all levels and a new breed of highly motivated forest professionals are rising on the continent and making a difference.
Temitope: Is there anything you feel is missing from this topic that you would like to touch
Scovia: Absolutely not, thank you for letting me share my thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed responding to these questions.