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Breaking the glass ceiling: Women agricultural scientists

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Breaking the glass ceiling: Women agricultural scientists

Photo: Africa Media Online/Karen Agenbag
A scientist analyses samples in a lab in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: Africa Media Online/Karen Agenbag

They are selected because they are—or could be—as good as agricultural scientists anywhere. They are groomed in leadership, and conduct research into problems facing their individual countries. They still face an enemy—the perception that African women agricultural scientists can’t lead in innovation. Even as these experts continue to struggle for opportunities to advance their careers, they know that they are capable of bursting age-old stereotypes.

Help is at hand. African Women in Agriculture Research and Development (AWARD), a Nairobi-based career development programme that supports women agriculturists across sub-Saharan Africa, is turning things around for these women. AWARD has become a useful tool to unlock abilities that many always knew existed in African women but few bothered to promote.

There is a reason for the increasing popularity of AWARD. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that over two thirds of all women in Africa are employed in the agricultural sector, producing nearly 90 percent of the food on the continent. In addition, AWARD’s own research on women in agriculture in 125 African agricultural institutions found that although women produce, process and market most of Africa’s food crops, only one in four agricultural researchers is female.

Given the urgent need to increase the number of skilled women in the agricultural sector, AWARD has been providing fellowships since 2008 to female agricultural scientists, so the expertise and knowledge they acquire will benefit other smallholder farmers. Women who get these fellowships learn new skills and go into educational institutions and research programmes. Once they complete their studies or training, they can confidently apply for top positions in government or in other organizations.

It is not just AWARD that has been involved in efforts to empower women. Donors and foundations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the France-based Agropolis Foundation have all been chipping in. Indeed, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID already provide substantial funding to AWARD. Up to 200 universities and research institutes worldwide are involved in training female researchers.


These women agricultural scientists receive appropriate training in areas such as crop and soil sciences, ecology, animal rearing, water and irrigation management and horticulture. Qualified women receive up to two years of fellowship and are then matched with mentors. Mentoring is one of the key aspects of the programme.

“You know, it’s not easy to get a mentor if you are not part of this programme,” says Elizabeth Bandason, insect scientist at Bunda College, University of Malawi. The best part is that you can realign your career goals after considering your mentor’s advice, she adds. As part of her fellowship, Ms. Bandason has attended a six-month placement at Dow AgroSciences in Indianapolis, US. With that training, last year she was able to develop tools to detect insecticide resistance.

Another female scientist making a huge impact is Martha Mueni Sila, Kenya’s principal agricultural officer. She says that training in leadership and management equips women with rare and important skills. “When my mentor shared her experiences and expertise with me, it helped to build my confidence and self-esteem, which I think are useful for a woman scientist in a male-dominated profession.”

“We all need someone that we can look up to, especially in a case where few women are in sciences,” says Dr. Themba Mzilahowa, a research scientist at the Malaria Alert Centre in Malawi. “Mentors are role models.” Dr. Mzilahowa, himself an AWARD mentor, told Africa Renewal in an interview that bringing women together from diverse backgrounds and teaching them how to break through societal barriers using science enhances their commitment to agriculture.

AWARD fellowships are given on the basis of each scientist’s intellectual merit and leadership capacity, and the potential of her work to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers. “The fellowship does not just fall upon one’s head, the competition to get the fellowship provides important principles to women scientists,” Mzilahowa explains. “It’s a catalyst for sound decision-making.”

Fighting the odds

Despite the impact of projects such as AWARD’s, African women still face many hurdles. It has been documented that some cultural practices make them, at times, less assertive than men. And family demands such as having and looking after children tend to limit women’s opportunities for higher education. “Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the culture and the society dominate the women…however, very recently, many governments have been giving encouragement to women and girls to get involved in the scientific fields,” according to Likyelesh Gugsa, a senior plant genetics expert at the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research.

Ms. Gugsa maintains that women face huge challenges daily and often lack the right kind of support. The employment environment can be hostile to women scientists, adds Ms. Gugsa. Sometimes they even refuse to accept top positions for fear of criticism and discrimination. This is one of the reasons a typical AWARD programme also includes training that empowers women to deal with all kinds of harassment as they progress in their careers.

After completing her AWARD programme, Ms. Gugsa spent eight months with the African Fellows Programme at UK-based Rothamsted International, a non-profit charity that promotes sustainable agriculture in developing countries. Thereafter, her proposal to the Alexander Von Humboldt Foundation won her a two-year award that ended in September 2013. She plans to establish a medium-size plant-breeding company in Ethiopia this year.

Reaping the rewards

While about 320 women from 11 sub-Saharan African countries have so far benefited from the AWARD fellowship, the question is, what happens to the millions of other women who are not likely to benefit from such projects? Looking at it from that angle downplays the impact that one well-trained and educated female scientist can have in a country, says Mueni Sila, who won the award in 2011 and was immediately entrusted with more responsibilities when she went back to her employer, the Kenyan government.

More opportunities have been chasing Ms. Sila. She has led a team to develop a cassava strategy to guide the cassava sub-sector in Kenya, and has also spearheaded a team that is compiling a cassava guideline to teach others how to produce the crop and add value at every step, from sowing, harvesting to consumption. She argues fervently that female scientists, professors and senior managers can offer different insights and perspectives that can help both female and male farmers.

Ms. Sila’s view is that if women are the cornerstones of agriculture in Africa, they must lead wealth creation and poverty alleviation efforts. As more and more women are trained, they will be in a better position to pass information to others. Training women will “boost knowledge sharing, which will translate into improved quality of agricultural science in Africa,” she says.

Marias Kaibeh Brooks, an agricultural extension officer for Welthungerhilfe, a German non-governmental organisation operating in Liberia, agrees with Ms. Sila. “I became more effective in decision-making processes in my organisation, community and family with the gradual increase in my communication skills,” says Ms. Brooks, who lists proposal writing among her newly acquired skills.

Ms. Brooks, herself a 2013 AWARD fellow, hopes to farm livestock one day. And she believes that there can be a domino effect: “If fellows are able to serve as mentors to other females, it would have a ripple effect on other women scientists, assisting in confidence building and skills development.” Investing in women scientists allows donors and individuals to tap into what she calls a “rare resource” that has been underutilised for too long.

Women like Ms. Gugsa and Ms. Brooks are in the forefront of the efforts to draw attention to women as key players in Africa’s agricultural transformation. But investment in women should happen across the board, not just in agriculture, argues Ms. Brooks. As Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last year, “When women do better, economies do better.” Ms. Gugsa agrees: “Investing in women isn’t just good ethics, it’s sound economics.” If so, the AWARD project looks like a good first step.

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