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Women Scientists Advancing Agriculture Research Across Africa

Women Scientists Advancing Agriculture Research Across Africa

Source: USAID

On this year’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science, learn about the contributions and challenges these researchers face

Every year, International Day of Women and Girls in Science reminds us that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened.

In honor of the commemoration on Feb. 11, USAID presents four stories of women across Africa who are making great strides in fighting hunger on the continent through their contributions in science, technology, research, and agriculture.

Mercy Kamau presents findings from her research on smallholder farmers’ willingness to pay for agro-weather advisories. / Photo Credit: Musa Kurian

Kenyan Researcher Studies Smallholder Farmers

When Mercy Kamau started her master’s program in 1989, she was expecting her first child. On the first day of class, her professor informed the class that while sick leave was available, the school would not make a long-term exception “for the condition Mercy has found herself in.

Mercy ended up back in class two weeks after giving birth and finished her degree on time. She went on to complete her doctorate at Wageningen University as a mother of three young children, with support from her family and friends.

Today, she is a Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Measurement, Learning and Evaluation Unit at Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development at Egerton University in Kenya and also the principal investigator for a Feed the Future activity driving local ownership and innovation to increase access to weather services.

The Kenya Climate Smart (KCSAP) project, supported by the World Bank and the Government of Kenya, enhances smallholder farmers’ access to actionable agro-weather advisories for greater productivity and resilience. Mercy and her team surveyed more than 3,000 farming households in different regions across the country on KCSAP agro-advisory usage to determine the price which farmers would be willing to pay for the service, which is currently free. The research study is generating valuable information about the value farmers attach to the climate information service, and whether privatizing it is feasible or socially beneficial.

The researcher observes there are a number of women studying and working in the agricultural economics field, but there is a notable lack of representation of such women in leadership and policy-making positions. “There seems to be a middle-level ceiling for agricultural economists in Kenya,” she said.

Mercy stresses that it is important to get more women to undertake rigorous impact evaluations of public policies and programs: “Such women need to be at the table where discussions on the country’s national and regional development priorities are held, including where the country puts its money. There are research and development questions that are better framed through women’s lenses or perspectives, and no one is going to do that if the women are not present.”

Esther Achola, uses her research to fight groundnut rosette disease (GRD), which is particularly devastating for peanuts because it causes discoloration, stunting and distortion to plants, and can lead to total crop loss. / Photo Credit: Courtesy of Esther Achola, Feed the Future Peanut Innovation Lab

Ugandan Scientist’s Studies Help Bring Farmers a More Resilient Peanut

Peanuts, known as groundnuts in Africa, have always played an integral role in Ugandan culture and cuisine. As a doctoral candidate at Makerere University in Kampala, Ugandan researcher Esther Achola is helping develop peanut varieties that are resistant to groundnut rosette disease (GRD), which has long devastated peanut crops in the country.

Achola is fighting GRD by looking at the genome, the complete set of genetic material, of peanut varieties to understand how some strains are better able to resist the disease than others.

Many farmers are growing older varieties of peanut that are susceptible to GRD. With increasing demands on their land, more intensive cropping rotations, and in some cases a less certain growing season due to climate change, farmers need new varieties that are adapted to the current environment, which includes GRD resistance. Scientists using genomics and plant breeding can meet these challenges by developing new and improved peanut varieties more quickly than in the past.

“If we’re able to have [disease] resistance, then the farmer has a higher yield and this will increase the farmer’s income,” Achola said. “We can also focus on nutrition for the consumer.”

Achola’s groundbreaking research has brought her recognition in her field. Last year, she won first place in the 2022 Joe Sugg Graduate Student Competition from the American Peanut Research and Education Society. Achola was the first international student to win the award. Inspired by the farmers in her family and mentors, Achola said next year she plans to finish her doctorate in plant breeding and biotechnology.

Helen Weldemichael, CEO and founder of SafeDish in Ethiopia, was named the winner of the 2022 EatSafe Innovation Challenge. / Photo Credit: EatSafe, Technical University of Denmark

Ethiopian Inventor Promotes Safe, Nutritious Foods

When Helen Weldemichael joined Wolkite University in the southern part of Ethiopia as a lecturer, she deepened her knowledge about enset, the flowering plant that is a staple food for about 20 million Ethiopians.

Ethiopians in this region use the entire enset plant for food. Women who process the plant often use their bare feet and hands to cultivate the plant, which can contribute to foodborne disease. Helen set out to make it faster and safer to process enset by creating an enset processing machine and fermentation pot. It includes a starter culture that speeds up the fermentation process, and her process, which uses peat, is more hygienic because it reduces potential contamination by organisms found in the ground where enset is typically fermented.

After learning about the USAID-funded Feed the Future EatSafe Innovation Challenge online, Helen was inspired to submit her invention. Her enset processing machine and fermentation pot, created by her company SafeDish, was named the winner of the 2022 Challenge. After the competition, Helen applied for and earned a patent for her processing equipment for the fermentation of enset. And back in 2021, she was recognized by the Ethiopia Ministry of Higher Education for Outstanding Performance in Research and Technology.

Now an associate professor, she hopes to inspire other women in the STEM field as inventors and entrepreneurs. With her $10,000 winnings, Weldemichael planned to scale her business by seeking investors, sell other food products across Africa and trademark her innovation in Ethiopia and other African countries.

“In most African countries, there’s not a lot of awareness about the impact of the food safety issue,” she said. “We need to bring more awareness of food safety from the farm level to the urban areas.”

AWARD Fellow Amy Bodiane in her lab working on some plant genetic research. / Photo Credit: AWARD

AWARD Fellowships Raise the Profile of Women Agricultural Researchers

African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) was founded in 2007 as part of the CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research), the global food security research partnership for which USAID recently announced $100 million in continued investments over the next two years. AWARD advances research that drives equitable agrifood systems, and “addresses the lack of women participating in agricultural research, especially at the higher levels,” according to Meredith Soule, former inclusive development division chief for the USAID Bureau for Resilience, Environment, and Food Security (REFS).

“AWARD focused on what is called ‘closing the leaky pipeline’ of losing women in [agricultural] research as they were not promoted within their institutions as men were,” she explained. “AWARD fellowships focused on providing women the skills they needed to succeed, including a mentor, leadership training and training in other skills such as negotiating and science writing. Women were also able to benefit from science placements in labs where they could hone their skills, some of which were in the U.S.”

More than 1,800 agricultural research and development professionals have been AWARD fellows, mentors or mentees.

“At a time when there’s an increased global focus on agrifood systems, we are keen to amplify the need to pay attention to gender issues,” said Dorine Odongo, senior communications manager for AWARD. “We know that women play a critical role across African agrifood systems, and we must ensure that food systems transform in ways that are just and equitable.”

“The under-representation of women in [agriculture research for development] leadership persists, exacerbated by a range of gender-based barriers. That is why we will continue working to plug the leaky pipeline,” she continued. “The issue of the gender gap in science is not just an African issue, it is a global phenomenon.”

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