Ian Fenton is a recent graduate of the MIDEA program (now incorporated into the Master of Sustainability) and has been working in Sofala Province, Mozambique with Allan Schwarz, founder of the Mezembite Forest Centre since February 2013. Since joining Mezembite, Ian has worked on agroforestry projects and is currently responsible for restoring and managing oil production in an organic coconut plantation that had been ravaged by the country’s civil war. His job requires him to install equipment to produce virgin coconut oil, sustainably harvest the unproductive coconut trees of the plantation for wood, and protect the resource from biological infestation, fire and community invasion. He also trains young workers from the community in all the different areas of production so as to ensure the plantation is preserved and restored (new trees) to guarantee its production capacity for the future. The income generated from the plantation will play a large role in ensuring the survival of the mission and school as a financially viable institution. We wrote to him and asked a few questions about his career choices and current job.
Why did you choose your current career path?
I think I chose my current career path because I wanted to make a difference in the world and in the past I’ve had great experiences doing interesting things in countries where a lot of people don’t get the chance to go. I saw working in international development as an opportunity to develop a strong knowledge in issues across different fields such as conservation, human rights, agriculture and education. I also view my career as a way to contribute to changing various systems and structures I disagree with. I guess I consider myself to be fairly ideologically and morally driven but don’t mind being proven wrong, so that makes working international development a constant and enjoyable challenge.
What did you major in before you decided to pursue your Masters, and why did you choose the Monash MIDEA program?
Before I studied the MIDEA program I majored in Journalism and International studies in Canberra. My aim had always been to become a foreign correspondent, coming out of my university degree the paths that I would have to take to achieve that goal were not appealing to me so I decided to look elsewhere. I finished my bachelor degree in the midst of a poor economy and realized that there were issues developing in the world that I still had no idea about. Foremost among those issues was the global economy and how it related to the environmental situations and issues of countries with very different political and socioeconomic circumstances. I quickly realised that these relationships were at the coal-face of where I wanted to work.
When did you finish your Masters and what have you been doing since?
At the start of 2012 I was on my way to completing my masters at the end of first semester. However, one of my professors runs a geography and development unit in South Africa every two years and I was keen to be involved. I wanted stay on to do volunteer work and an internship in Africa, afterwards, but was worried that the requirements might not allow me to do so. I spoke to her and she said, “No, we’ll sort something out, just whatever you do don’t finish your degree now, wait until 2013.” So, I dropped back to part time and saved money to travel Europe for the 2nd half of 2012, flew to South Africa to finish my degree in February of 2013. She suggested I could do an internship, if I was interested, with a dynamic person working in the field of environment and development near Beira in Sofala Province, Mozambique and volunteered to introduce me to him. I was very keen to pursue the opportunity, so she introduced me to Allan Schwarz of Mezembite Forestry and requested him to take me on as an intern. Now, six months later, I manage a coconut plantation in the same area. I haven’t been home for over sixteen months.
What are the most valuable professional skills you’ve gained from MIDEA?
I think quite simply MIDEA has taught me to think logically, empathetically and creatively about poverty, economics, environmental issues and sustainability. It has encouraged me to think cynically and critically about people and their environment and challenged me to basically not be dumb when considering solutions. That last bit is important because when it comes to fixing poverty in a sustainable, practical and enduring way there have been many plans and actions that have been just that; dumb.
What advice would you give students wanting to pursue careers in International Development and Environmental Analysis?
I think to work in successful development you need to be able to assert yourself in difficult situations, demonstrate initiative and intelligently and considerately direct projects and ideas without trying to take complete control. While you don’t always have to be the leader, some good leadership skills are a necessity. MIDEA will help you develop these because it will teach you how to critically analyse issues, ideology and structures of power and control. However, I believe that the best leaders are good generalists, what MIDEA won’t teach you is a wealth of practical and technical skills that can help you move forward and achieve objectives
I recommend to others, (and am now taking my own advice) to combine the necessary skills that the MIDEA will give you with some technical and/or scientific knowledge. I’m not saying you need to be an engineer or a chemist to work in development, (although it is great if you are able to combine such a high level of technical knowledge with intelligent development work), I am simply saying there are a range of skills that you will find helpful to have when working in developing countries, including; basic mechanics, an ability to install a water pump or basic irrigation system, some carpentry or cabinetmaking skills, a good knowledge of agriculture or biology, some knowledge of marine science, experience in mapmaking or GIS and even the ability to design and create a website. You’ll probably learn these things and others in the field, but start learning now and when you get there you will exponentially learn more and be more equipped.
Based on your experience, what are the emerging opportunities and challenges in this professional field of work, and what new skills should our students require?
I think the biggest challenge in this field of work is to maintain your optimism, determination and force of will in the face of the fact that what you dream you will be able to achieve will not match reality, but you can help to make a significant impact nonetheless. I think one of the great opportunities and also skills of this line of work is learning languages. I now speak Spanish and Portuguese along with my native English of course and am currently trying to learn a bit of Tdao, the local dialect in this part of Mozambique.
Tell us about the most rewarding experience in your career since MIDEA
In my experience so far my most rewarding experience in my career has been developing and implementing a permanent system of agroforestry with some of our local workers. Then, having that system contribute to the organization I work for receiving finance to fund further projects and development.
And the weirdest one ….
Weird, I don’t know, but there is some stuff that sounds ridiculous upon thinking about it but has become the norm for me. I live in a tent, our campsite roof houses a black mamba, I regularly drive a car down footpaths or just directly into the bush, most of the time it is a smoother ride than the most used national highway. A news story about possible a civil war appeared on BBC a while ago, it mentioned a railway and a highway, both no more than 50 metres either side of where I was sleeping at the time. On a drive into the bush to organize and buy wild harvests I met a guy not much older than me who had 6 wives and 22 kids. My boss has a doctorate of science from MIT, Masters of theatre from MIT, Bachelor in Architecture from WITS university, over 20 years of experience working in conservation and development and lives in the tent next to me. Our project is tiny but of its type it is the biggest and most authentic of any I’ve seen or heard about in Mozambique.