Rayali Banerjee was born in India and spent her childhood in Malaysia and Singapore before her family moved to Australia in 2003. Rayali became fascinated by farming and agriculture whilst travelling in rural India at the age of 13. She went on to study a double degree in Agricultural Sciences and Business at La Trobe University (Melbourne) and is now pursuing a career in Australian agriculture. She is currently working as a graduate Analyst in the Regional and Agribusiness Banking segment at Commonwealth Bank. In this blog post Rayali reflects on what she learnt during her travels through India, her experiences of studying Ag at University and working in the Ag sector, along with the challenges and highlights of coming from a non-farming background. She also leaves her readers with a call to action and encourages YOU to get in touch if you have further questions about pursuing a career in Ag.
My name is Rayali Banerjee and I have just completed a double degree in Agricultural Sciences and Business at La Trobe University, Bundoora. I was approached by the college of Science, Health and Engineering to share my story regarding my motivations for undertaking a degree in Agriculture (Ag), the challenges I faced not being from a farming background and the opportunities I chased that allowed me to kick-start a rewarding career in Ag.
My Background and Journey into Studying Agriculture
To give you a bit of a background about myself, I was born in India then moved to Malaysia with my family and lived in Kuala Lumpur for 2 years. My family then moved to Singapore and we lived there for 6 years before moving to Melbourne in 2003. Growing up in Singapore and Malaysia I had a childhood that was predominantly "urban" due to the fact that I was surrounded by concrete jungles and high-rise apartments. I certainly did not grow up on a farm, however I was drawn to nature and animals from a young age and remember dragging my parents along to playgrounds and interacting with wildlife at the local zoo or beach.
Although I didn't grow up on a farm, agriculture and its challenges have been a part of my life from a young age. I was thirteen when my family took me on a trip to visit my grandparents in Kolkata, India. I remember driving through the countryside on a hot summer’s day to visit some temples (places of worship) when my family stopped to visit a farming community on the way. The images of huts made from straw and clay, wooden beds and lack of infrastructure are still vivid in my memory.
As a curious thirteen year old, I questioned some of the farmers about their livelihoods. These farmers spoke to me about their sorrows and desperation they faced trying to save their crops from pests, disease and drought. They mentioned that they did not have access to basic Ag inputs, farm management knowledge and government funding to sustain their livelihoods and feed their families.
This phenomenon led me to ask many questions throughout my teenage years including: how is it that in Australia we always have access to fresh food? How did some of the poorest farmers in India support their families and work towards addressing the nation’s food insecurity issues? How is it that farmers who are unable to sustain their own livelihoods were the happiest and most giving people I had met? When it came to choosing a degree at the end of year 12, I knew I had to study something that allowed me to apply my curious and innovative mind-set and nurture my passion for supporting farmers, the environment and animals.
My mum found the double degree at La Trobe and after speaking with Peter Sale (previous Ag Science course coordinator) at the La Trobe open day, I was convinced that the double degree was the best option for me. An aspect of the degree which appealed to me was the 3-month work experience component which equips students with vital hands-on experiences. I remember that on my first day of University I was so excited to get to class that I forgot which buses and trains I needed to take to get there! Luckily, I left three hours before my class began and made it just in time.
Looking back, the first year of Uni was the hardest as I had big goals that I wanted to achieve but those goals seemed distant as I struggled to understand basic Ag concepts. When I spoke to my peers who had grown up on farms, they were always on top of the content and through many discussions it became evident that coming from a farm helped immensely. However, I did not let this stop me and although I did not know it at the time, I believe with the benefit of hindsight that coming from a non-farming background was actually the biggest advantage I had.
Agricultural Work Experience in Bangalore, India
Throughout first year, I was knocked back from several internships so I began to brain storm ways in which I could turn my adversities into opportunities. I thought about the reason I wanted to study Ag which is my passion for enhancing the livelihoods of farmers. To act on this passion, I liaised with the University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore, India who accepted me as a student intern and allowed me to have the experience of a lifetime. Upon arriving in Bangalore and working with farmers, I immediately noticed that not much had changed. Farmers still did not receive funding from the government and lacked basic farm management skills.
I worked with a senior agronomist who provided agronomy services to thousands of farmers and this meant he did not have time to advocate for farmers’ rights. This fuelled my motivation to make a difference in the lives of as many farmers as I could reach. I worked 14 hour days, seven days a week to put my plan into action. I compiled research and travelled to many parts of Bangalore to speak to local governments regarding funding, I conducted industry workshops to empower farmers to start selling their produce nationally and internationally and worked with agronomists to generate integrated pest management (IPM) programs.
It was such a thrill to see that my hard work started to pay off during and after my work in Bangalore; many farmers began to successfully implement and see reduction in pest populations; they also began to sell outside local markets and secure funding from their local government for basic Ag inputs such as pesticide sprayers and fertilizers. This experience was exhilarating, rewarding and fulfilling. As well as the direct Ag work, I also enjoyed being able to work with younger Bangalore students and help to teach them English in the classroom, as well as sharing stories with this younger generation about farming in both Australia and Bangalore. It was an amazing overseas internship opportunity and I learnt a lot.
The power of networking and persisting despite setbacks
Once I arrived back in Australia, I took the energy and inspiration that this project had given me and decided to do something meaningful with it. I knew I still had a long way to go to develop and nurture my leadership skills and experiences in the Ag industry and I wanted to gain more experience to implement this. I applied for an internship with a multinational (MNC) company (Syngenta) that I had been following for a few years. I took the knowledge I had and thoroughly prepared for the interview. I found out a few weeks later that I did not get through and although it was another setback, I immediately started brainstorming ways I could create an opportunity with this company.
I had been following a senior leader who worked for Syngenta on social media for a while and although he was based in Singapore at the time, he was attending a conference in Melbourne and I jumped with joy as I thought I had finally figured out a way to meet him. The next barrier to entry was that the conference entry was $2500 USD. However, I did not allow this to be a barrier and I picked up the phone and called the company who were organising the event. They were based in New York and Hong Kong and so that involved a lot of late nights, emails and persistence. I was finally given the opportunity to attend this conference where I would be amongst Australian and international leaders in agribusiness, members of the government and producers.
Throughout the day of the conference, I had the opportunity to listen to inspiring, funny and insightful panel speakers. I remember during the first break I was looking around at a room full of CEO’s and thinking “how do I approach someone so successful without anything to offer?” To overcome my thoughts and insecurities, I pictured the big goals I had in my mind and I took a leap of faith and approached the Managing Director of a successful Australian agribusiness. The conversation I had ended up being one of the most important to date.
During the next few breaks, I spoke to almost everyone who attended the conference and through my conversations with the attendees, I realised that my passion and my willingness to go above and beyond was my strongest asset. Attending this conference was a turning point for me as I met some of my most inspiring mentors here. During the conference, I wrote down every piece of information I was given and afterwards, I followed up with all the connections I made. Because of my persistence and willingness to step out of my comfort zone, I was given the opportunity to undertake an internship with a Melbourne based agribusiness and the MNC that had knocked me back just a few months prior.
During my time working with the Melbourne based business, goFARM,go I had some amazing hands-on experiences on farms and spent a lot of time with beekeepers, biosecurity officers, farmers and on the company farms that grew grains (wheat and barley). My work was wide and varied; I researched and investigated potential investment opportunities in the apiculture industry; I learnt about bee keeping and visited apiculture farms; developed an understanding of agricultural asset management, due diligence and return potentials for various high value cash crops; generated cash flow and predictive models relating to current and future investments; managed goFARM's relationship with leading apiculture professionals and provided recommendations and strategies for investment opportunities in apiculture to senior board members and stakeholders.
During my internship I always had access to senior management and worked in an environment where I was encouraged to make the project I was given my own. I was supported to travel, visit farms, network with stakeholders, attend conferences and undertake any opportunity which I deemed would be necessary for the success of the project. I also had the opportunity to present and make my own recommendations to the board. These experiences boosted my confidence, equipped me with essential corporate skills, allowed me to strengthen my networks and make a positive contribution in an industry I am passionate about. Having access to senior management was incredible as I learnt about each team member’s journey regarding where they began their career, challenges they faced and the successes they made from their hardships.
Travelling throughout developing countries in Asia
After this stint, I travelled around Asia with Syngenta and I was able to make a contribution towards Ag in developing countries. During these travels I met some incredible people and learned about new methods of farming. Together with community members and farmers that I met, we worked towards creating initiatives that would enhance the livelihoods of smallholder farmers; an essential part of these initiatives was the time I spent communicating with many smallholder farming communities.
This travel and work was busy and exciting - I immersed myself in corporate social responsibility projects, flew to a new city almost every day, networked with members of government and the global Syngenta team, learned how to breed rice for varying climatic and soil conditions and implemented apps and created business plans which support the efficacy of data collection in Ag systems. The words that come to mind when I reflect on these overseas experiences are inspiring, challenging and life-changing.
Pursuing my career in Australian Ag
After arriving back in Melbourne, I continued to network with everyone I had interacted with during my internships. Alongside this, the inspiring experiences I had with passionate people continue to fuel my own passion for Ag. This allows me to implement my life motto which is to wake up every day and pursue my passion in Ag. I continued to attend national and international conferences, grow my network and strengthen my understanding of Australian Ag by competing in various student based agricultural competitions and gained hands-on experience in farm management through working in dairy, cropping and beef properties as well as on a research farm. These empowering experiences added value to my personal brand and equipped me with essential soft skills. I was able to secure a job before I graduated with Commonwealth Bank in their Regional and Agribusiness Banking graduate program.
Words cannot describe the extent to which these experiences, leadership opportunities and my academic and professional mentors have inspired me to excel in my studies and supported me to kick-start my career in Ag. Once I had a clear picture and a pathway to my goals, I went from being a credit average student to a high distinction student. Because of the inspiration, motivation and life-changing experiences I have transformed into someone who is constantly seeking knowledge, creating ideas, innovating and curious about all things Aussie Ag. I have found that not being from a farm has been the biggest blessing as I am always questioning the norm and providing solutions to do things differently and more efficiently in farming systems.
Aspirations to make a difference and help others
From a young age, I have undertaken humanitarian work with charities, orphanages, animal welfare organisations and in various other areas. In my spare time, I teach English to Sudanese refugees, mentor young students, travel to developing countries once a year and run different initiatives to empower smallholder farming communities. My humanitarian-focused philosophy has been ingrained in my mind-set since I was very young. This, alongside my experiences in the Ag industry so far, has instilled my aspirations to make a difference in the lives of farmers, farming communities and provide the opportunities I have had to students studying agriculture and any related degrees.
I have founded two start-ups because of my personal philosophy. The first is focussed on providing sustainable and affordable electricity to rural communities in developing countries. The second is a national initiative which is all about connecting consumers and farmers and providing students with access to global internships, career boot camps, conferences and mentoring opportunities. I encourage my readers to get in touch with me if you would like to hear more, get involved, take up internship and conference opportunities and fast-track your career in Ag. Even if you are not studying Ag and want to know how to find your own path, or learn more about Agriculture, get in touch with me as I run a mentoring initiative part of which aims to educate young people about careers in Ag.
Advice to young women considering a career in Ag
Here are the most important lessons I have learned so far. I hope these lessons inspire you to begin your own journey into an area you love:
1. When choosing a degree, make sure you study a topic or many topics that you are curious about. If you have a vague idea about what you like studying, follow it and take every opportunity to unravel the layers to discover what your passion is. You could start by joining student associations, attending career fairs, networking events and undertaking internships. Don’t study a degree for the sake of it or because it’s what your friends and family want you to do. Do your research, talk to people in your chosen industry and find out about the career opportunities.
2. When you come across an interesting organisation, pick up the phone and give them a call. Most of you probably have unlimited calls to Australian numbers and you may have minutes allocated for international numbers too. Employers love initiative!
3. Make sure that you have a coffee with EVERYONE. You never know where it will take you, what you can learn from them, how you can make an impact in their life and what opportunities will come out of it.
4. It is quite normal to have a vision about life and how it should work out. However, if it doesn’t happen and we have setbacks, we often think of giving up. But life is a test and a trial and tests are not meant to be easy. If you are expecting ease from life and life gives you lemons, make lemonade and do not blame life for that. It is OKAY to fail, fall and have setbacks. When you fail, accept the failure, get back up and work even harder to achieve that goal, because you value the hard work it takes to set yourself on the path to success.
5. Break down your goals into yearly, monthly and daily goals. When I used to glance over an entire semesters worth of work, I would stress about the quantity of the content. I soon realised that we all have the potential to do more if we break things down. My daily goal was to read five chapters a day but break it down to complete one chapter an hour. After each hour, I would then take a break and do something I love such as tend to my garden, ride my bike or chat to my family. To achieve your goals, you must apply discipline and be consistent everyday. When you begin the semester, plan ahead and strategically write down what you wish to accomplish everyday. Hard work truly works. You will feel successful after the semester is over when you reflect on your accomplishments. Do not be afraid to jump in joy when you have succeeded in something you set your mind on but remember to keep moving forward.
6. Once you find yourself running forward and progressing along your path, don’t forget to look behind you and help someone else out. Don’t aspire to just make a living, aspire to make a contribution in all walks of life.
7. Soak up the perks of being a student especially when it comes to attending events, reaching out to your teachers and interacting with leaders and peers in your chosen industry. Do not forget that you are the future of the industry and employers, companies and leaders who are already established want you to flourish to ensure the future of that industry stays successful.
8. Happiness in life, career, studies and other aspects that you value lies in gratitude so take the time to reflect on how far you have come. Be grateful and make the most of each and every moment.
Get in Touch!
LinkedIn: Rayali Banerjee