Date released
10 November 2023

Building partner countries' scientific and policy capability is a crucial priority for ACIAR, with capacity-building initiatives running in 12 countries across Eastern and Southern Africa since 1992.

Graduates of these capacity-building programs, like the John Dillion Fellowship (JDF), join the growing global network of ACIAR Alumni, which currently boasts more than 800 members.

In Tanzania, Dr Makarius Mdemu is an alumni who has contributed to his country’s water and agricultural sectors for nearly two decades. His career has spanned the private and public sectors, and his involvement and contributions to ACIAR-funded research across the continent have been profound.

Dr Mdemu became the country project coordinator for an ACIAR-funded project that transformed smallholder irrigation into profitable and self-sustaining systems across Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Through this initiative, Dr Mdemu was selected for the John Dillion Fellowship in 2020 and received Alumni Research Support Facility funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a senior lecturer and Director of the Institute of Human Settlements Studies at Ardhi University in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Dr Mdemu is essential in inspiring the next generation of scientists and researchers to consider agricultural research and development as a career path.

On World Science Day for Peace and Development, Dr Mdemu reflects on his career and how involvement with ACIAR-funded initiatives has contributed to his journey in becoming a leader and force for change throughout the region. His story is about resilience, passion and dedication to making a difference.

Man smiling and inspecting rice grains in his hands with bags of rice around him
Dr Mdemu checking rice paddy at Magozi Irrigation Scheme rice storage warehouse. The warehouse is a brainchild of the Iringa District Agriculture Innovation Platform, one of the critical intervention approaches implemented by TISA.

What inspired you to pursue a lifelong journey in agricultural engineering?

Two men in lab coats looking a test tube in a lab
Mr Aldo Ndimbo, a Laboratory Scientist, demonstrating to Dr Mdemu the determination of Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD) on wastewater.

I grew up in a humble setting in a rural Mufindi District in Tanzania. Back then, children were not as fortunate as nowadays, where one can get inspiration on who they should model after. Agriculture was familiar; it helped my parents get by and educate my siblings and me. Also, I enjoyed fixing things in our home, which I later learned was engineering.

So, when the university selection process was complete, I selected agricultural engineering, which became a close academic passion of mine as I pursued it all through my undergraduate and master’s degrees here in Tanzania and eventually earned my PhD degree from the Center for Development Research at the University of Bonn in Germany.

My career was nurtured when I commenced as a research associate at Sokoine University in Tanzania, transitioned to the private sector and finally found a home at Ardhi University. I have been a lecturer for 14 years and served as a director for the last six years. The culmination of my career journey has carved a niche for me as a natural resource expert, particularly in irrigation.

Some people tend to diversify or branch out into other career prospects. Still, I needed to stick to the agricultural path as this field has numerous challenges. Yet, it remains the cornerstone of rural communities. My heart goes out to that, and I strive to ensure I transform smallholder farmers' lives and landscapes through my work by addressing critical issues such as water productivity, the value of water in agriculture and its economic implications.

What made you apply for the ACIAR John Dillon Fellowship?

It is interesting how things align in life. Before this opportunity, I had just begun overseeing the implementation process of the ‘Transforming Irrigation in Southern Africa’ (TISA) project while still running the institutional role as a director. I say this because a friend residing in Australia sent the advertisement to me, and I was intrigued as it touched on leadership. What perfect timing to further hone my skills as I performed my day-to-day duties! I submitted my application in November 2019.

How did you feel when you received notification that your application was successful?

My leadership journey took a significant leap forward when I was selected as the sole African representative for the ACIAR JDF. I remember it all too well; when I told my family all about it, they could not have been even happier than I. Then, plans were rolled out seamlessly, and on 28 February 2020, I was on a flight to Canberra and then, within a few days, to the Sunshine Coast, Australia. This was a humbling experience because I believe there were numerous applicants, yet mine stood out.

What has been your highlight so far being a JDF beneficiary?

This prestigious fellowship was designed to span three months, focusing on leadership and research styles. While the program was regrettably cut short by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it left a lasting impact on me.

My most excellent highlight from this experience was when I was fronted to be the acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Planning, Finance and Administration at Ardhi University, courtesy of my exposure through the fellowship. I played that role from May 2020 to January 2023, when the institution filled the position. Besides that, I believe my director stewardship has significantly improved because of this opportunity.

What were your main takeaways from the experience?

The JDF played a pivotal role in shaping my leadership style.

Despite identifying as a strong introvert, I discovered leadership has a place for diverse personalities, including mine. My personality has traits of perfectionism, and it would be frustrating when people fail to meet deadlines or with the finesse required. Furthermore, introverts thrive behind the scenes, but JDF turned everything around. I realised that a team's success is meeting targets and understanding the individuals behind those goals. I now place significant importance on teamwork and making incremental, impactful strides, a philosophy vital to effective leadership.

I also unpacked the importance of fostering teamwork to achieve departmental and institutional goals. Within each team, there are strengths and weaknesses that, when rightfully identified, can be used to foster a shared vision and common values. This has gradually propelled my team’s performance since no free riders exist.

I also learned the importance of communicating research and how to do so for various audiences. This has been helpful during the implementation process of the TISA project in how we relay information to farmers and foster an environment of continuous dialogue to ensure not only the project attains its set objectives, but also that beneficiaries get the best out of the entire process.

Man analysing soil samples in a lab
Dr Mdemu arranging dried field soil samples for chemical analysis in the Environmental Engineering Laboratory of Ardhi University.

Networking with the other fellows also enlightened me on what other countries are doing and their approaches to driving positive change in the field of water. I knew what I could borrow to implement in Tanzania and the sectors I work in.

What is next for you?

Despite my busy schedule, I want to advance my academic space and attain my professorship. This way, I hope my research efforts will contribute to better understanding and influencing policies and other agricultural-related initiatives to change farmers’ narratives in my country and Africa.

Man standing in crop field point at irrigation pipe
Dr Mdemu standing in one of the farmers' plots with tomato crops in the Kiwere irrigation scheme where the TISA project is being implemented.

About the John Dillon Fellowship

The Australian Government has played a vital role in building scientists’ capacity across Eastern and Southern African regions through structured training, informal networking, and learning at the project level. Several African nationals have benefitted from ACIAR’s fellowships.

The John Dillon Fellowship, established in 2002, develops the leadership and management skills of mid-career professionals, particularly scientists, researchers and economists working for more effective agricultural research-for-development outcomes in ACIAR partner countries.

Some fellows have risen to take senior positions, each playing critical roles in implementing their country’s national agricultural strategies. They are members of a strong ACIAR-Africa alumni network and are ambassadors for Australian research in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Learn more.