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  • Writer's pictureAna María Vázquez-Catoni

Meet Janeth Bonilla Andrade, Agricultural Engineer and Co-founder of the Kichwa Institute of Science, Technology, and Humanities-KISTH

Committed to agriculture and education, Janeth embodies her vision of merging science, technology, and ancestral knowledge.


Janeth Bonilla Andrade is an agricultural specialist at a financial institution, focusing on the northern and central regions of Ecuador. Her work involves developing agricultural strategies and solutions to support farmers in these areas. Additionally, she is the co-founder and vice president of the Kichwa Institute of Science, Technology, and Humanities (Fundación Kichwa Institute of Science, Technology, and Humanities, KISTH). The foundation is dedicated to promoting social projects in science and technology aimed at communities, integrating and valuing ancestral knowledge in each initiative.


"Don't give up, and never stop."


For Janeth, curiosity about nature began at a young age. Being among the first in her family to attend university, she chose agricultural engineering, thinking about how she could help small farmers like her grandfather.


"My grandparents were farmers, and I was always in direct contact with nature. Although I didn't know exactly what career to pursue, I was sure of my love for plants and animals."

However, the transition to undergraduate studies in agricultural engineering was not easy. Coming from a high school background in Social Sciences, Janeth faced academic challenges and even some skepticism from a professor who suggested that her place was not in that field. Janeth decided to persevere, dedicating double the effort to catch up with her peers in subjects like mathematics, biology, chemistry, and physics. The support of her friends and mentors was crucial in this process.


"A mentoring experience was very significant and changed my focus towards plant physiology, awakening a passion I didn't know I had. My thesis advisor provided me with tools, helped me correct the thesis, and told me, 'Don't give up, and never stop.'"

From post-graduation uncertainty to professional success


After Janeth graduated from university, she encountered several challenges in her job search, which caused frustration and doubts. Janeth's graduation coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which complicated her job search.


"Definitely, the most challenging part is confronting all the stereotypes that exist in society: coming from a rural community, being an indigenous woman, graduating from an engineering career, and furthermore, graduating from a university that is not widely recognized or private."

Even when she managed to secure her first job as an agricultural developer, Janeth faced people who doubted her knowledge and abilities. She did not receive a sustainable salary and was paid less than her male colleagues, despite doing the same work.


"I provided consulting, sold products, went out to the field to visit clients, but my salary was lower. Additionally, I had to endure sexism because most of the farmers were men, and they never treated me like an engineer. They would only address my male colleague as an 'engineer.' To me, they would call me, 'queen, princess, darling...'"

Despite this, Janeth had people who encouraged her to aspire for more, and she ended up accepting a job as an agricultural developer in a new city.


"I went from Cotacachi, a small town in the province of Imbabura, to Quito, the largest city in Ecuador. I didn't know anyone, I didn't even have an apartment to live in. Just the desire to excel, to be valued as a professional woman."

Once in the capital of Ecuador, Janeth realizes the importance of recognizing and highlighting that female agronomists can handle large projects and manage a company.


"There is much to be done, and that's why I feel motivated and encouraged. I always see the possibility of recognizing the work of women in agricultural engineering, veterinary science, and in all sciences related to agriculture."



Education as a tool of empowerment that opens pathways and limitless possibilities


While Janeth was facing post-graduation challenges, amid that uncertainty, she began volunteering in an indigenous community in Cotacachi, helping children with their schoolwork. This experience was eye-opening for Janeth, showing her firsthand the inequalities and challenges that girls and boys face in these communities.


"One day, I saw that two girls who were very eager to learn did not come to school. When I asked their brother why his sisters didn't come to school, he shared that their father is an alcoholic and the sister has to stay to cook. That's when I felt anger and frustration because many girls in indigenous communities do experience that. It's always the boy who has more opportunities to go study. It was so tough, and on top of that, seeing those children during the pandemic without anyone to guide them, without anyone to help them with their homework."

During this period, there were protests in Ecuador followed by a national strike led by groups of indigenous communities and other social organizations: "The strike clearly showed people's racism towards indigenous groups."


The experiences lived and the socio-political context led Janeth to co-found the Kichwa Institute of Science, Technology, and Humanities (KISTH) Foundation, where she works on social projects that integrate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) with respect for ancestral knowledge. The KISTH Foundation is seeking gender equality and the reduction of inequalities through education while increasing the visibility of young people from indigenous communities as agents of change.


Within the KISTH Foundation, there are several initiatives, some of which include:

  1. RunaSpace: They participated in NASA's Deep Space Challenge, where they developed a micro-vegetable planting project using Andean seeds for the survival of astronauts on Mars.

  2. Warmi STEM: This initiative focuses on empowering Quichua women in STEM careers.

  3. Language Team: They created the first Quichua periodic table.

  4. Academic Fairs: These fairs expose indigenous youth to national and international scholarship opportunities for pursuing higher education. They also conduct workshops on career guidance, resume writing, and writing a motivation letter.

  5. Connectivity Project: This project provides services and resources to communities, such as internet access. Additionally, they offer workshops to young people on the appropriate use of the internet to benefit their education.

  6. International Collaborations: The foundation collaborates with universities and other entities internationally.

As a long-term goal, KISTH aims to become the first Kichwa institute to teach hard sciences.


"In Ecuador, there are few indigenous youth who pursue higher education either due to lack of visibility or obstacles in overcoming economic barriers."

When Janeth began living and working in Quito, she was chosen as vice president of the Foundation. At the same time, Janeth was growing both within the Foundation and her professional career. Additionally, Janeth's role as an agricultural specialist in the banking sector, her formal job, has offered her another enriching perspective.


"Through my participation in the 'Future Leaders' program, I discovered that the role of banking goes beyond simple credit transactions; it is also about getting to know the reality of farmers up close, understanding their work cycles, and supporting their growth."

This duality of roles has allowed Janeth to merge her passion for volunteering with her professional career.


"We believe the impact has been positive. In some of the workshops or courses we have conducted, there is always a child who says, 'Now I know what I want to be when I grow up.' That is the most beautiful satisfaction one can receive."

Continuous development in leadership


For Janeth, university was fundamental in academic formation, but high school, especially in the Social Sciences field, provided key tools for social development, such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and philosophy. Community engagement during university, particularly through projects like urban gardens in a nursing home, allowed her to see the positive impact and the importance of contributing to society. This influenced her to continue contributing after university. Janeth was a scholarship recipient of the Pablo VI Foundation (Fundación Pablo VI), where she participated in a leadership program in Madrid, Spain. There, Janeth learned something crucial.


"We were told: 'Everyone who has pursued sciences must put it at the service of the community.' We were taught a leadership that must be humanistic, ethical, cosmopolitan; a leadership that must go beyond being egocentric, a leadership that has nothing to do with the self, but with the growth of others."

Many of the skills that Janeth has developed over time have come from stepping out of her comfort zone.


Why is agriculture, especially through ancestral knowledge, important?


According to Janeth, indigenous peoples have their 'Sumak Kawsay', which is living well in harmony with nature. Some principles they employ include avoiding the loss of biodiversity, not using agrochemicals to prevent killing beneficial insects, and avoiding human intoxication.


"We must respect nature and work in harmony. Women are known as the guardians of the seed. We believe that organic agriculture is the foundation for keeping the soil alive. So, we always incorporate organic matter. Therefore, we always work in harmony without destroying, because our goal is not large-scale destruction, but rather harmonious work, combining water, soil, air, seed, and having a crop that nourishes us, that is healthy. That is what is important within agriculture based on ancestral knowledge."

Beyond work, what do you enjoy doing?


Janeth enjoys spending time with her family and sitting in nature.


"...preferably where there is a river. I like being able to lie down in the grass and feel that I connect and am one with the earth, that's my moment of peace."

Janeth enjoys reading, especially books about inspiring experiences.


You can follow Janeth on Instagram @janethbonilla4 and learn more about KISTH at https://kisth.org/

 

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