Female #FoodHeroes

Thavy Staal

Thavy is responsible for sustainability and smallholder projects for BASF’s Agricultural Solutions division covering Africa and Middle East. It is a new role based in Limburgerhof, Germany that was created almost 3 years ago with the goal of having someone develop and coordinate overall sustainability strategy for the region.

 

Why is your role important?

One major focus of the sustainability strategy is the establishment of smallholder projects. This includes exploring innovative, sustainable business models; utilizing digital tools to increase smallholder reach; improving farmer productivity; and creating awareness on product stewardship and safety topics.

In this role, I am leading several strategic smallholder projects in conjunction with local BASF teams in the country. People sometimes confuse my role for corporate social responsibility (CSR). I always tell them, think of my job as working with smallholder farmers from a business side but having high social impact on the people we engage with.

Why do you love your job?

Not everyone can wake up to a job they are passionate about, but I am that lucky person who has found her true calling in life.

Anthony Bourdain, an American celebrity chef, stated that: ‘Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you.’

This job takes me to remote regions in Africa, places that I would most likely not visit as a tourist. I get to visit farmers in small villages, see how they farm, and listen to their challenges. I sometimes get to share meals with them, meet their families, and see them in their daily settings. I also get to attend conferences in big cities, meet Ambassadors and other high-profile people along with NGOs and social enterprises from different countries and backgrounds.

These stark contrasts and experiences have left a deep mark on me, one that will define the ‘second’ half of my life, and what I want to be remembered for. In turn, I hope that I have, in some small way, made a mark on these farmers and their communities.

How did you get here?

‘Getting here’ has not been so straightforward or easy. I entered this world during a turbulent, horrific time in my country’s history where almost two million Cambodians lost their lives under the Khmer Rouge regime. As a result, we fled to Thailand and spent two years in a refugee camp. By 1981, we arrived in America where we started to rebuild our lives with just the clothes on our backs.

I grew up in a poor part of Houston, Texas, and graduated as valedictorian of my high school class. This opened doors and I was able to attend college at Texas A&M University where I studied chemical engineering. My degree led me to BASF, the world’s biggest chemical company, where I have been working for almost twenty years now.

I started my career with a short stint at BASF production sites in small towns in USA. I quickly realized that I had a different calling and switched to market research which, through various marketing roles, finally lead to sustainability. My life has been one big journey full of learning, full of growth.

What is your advice for young women wanting to contribute to sustainable food and farming?

The opportunities in agriculture are diverse and tremendous. If you are interested in agriculture, go ahead…jump in. You might jump into cold water, very hot water, or you might be the lucky one and jump into your ideal temperature water, which very few find at the beginning or even at the end of their career. No matter what, keep swimming and use any and all experiences to be a better you!

To help you on your journey, find others that you can connect with and learn from. Above all, live this journey with passion.

How does agriculture need to change to be fit for the future?

Climate change is already, and will continue to, impact agriculture and the world’s food supply. It will have significant effects on agricultural productivity, increase pressure on natural resources, and slow progress in reducing hunger. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change and will carry the greatest burden due to low adaptive capacity of rural smallholders. Because of the high prevalence of subsistence farming, food insecurity, and extreme poverty in this region, governments and all stakeholder need to develop practical adaptation strategies.

What’s one challenge you face as a woman in agriculture and what do you think needs to be done to overcome this?

Quite often, I find myself in a room full of men: from formal business meetings to even informal discussions in remote villages. Sometimes I am not taken as seriously as my male counterparts due to my gender. But these challenges are minuscule compared to the gender disparities women farmers in Africa face.

Female farmers do not have the same access as men to land, assets, markets, inputs or training. FAO has said that if women worldwide had the same access to productive resources as men, they could boost agricultural production and help lift 100 to 150 million people out of hunger. A more enabling environment should be created for women to fully and more efficiently participate in agricultural markets.

 

Thavy is just one of many inspirational women working in agriculture. Visit our Female #FoodHeroes page to hear from other women working to improve plant science and nutrition.