Cultivating More Female Plant Scientists

Cultivating More Female Plant Scientists

November 4, 2015
Farmer Livelihood 

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

Only 25 percent of agricultural scientists in Africa are women. Increasing this number is critical to Africa’s food security, says Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), a career development program for top female scientists. So far, more than 400 women in 11 countries across sub-Saharan Africa have earned AWARD Fellowships and a significant number of them are focused in the fields of plant biotechnology or crop protection. We caught up with Kamau-Rutenberg to ask about her work.

What is AWARD’s mission and why is it important to Africa?

We care that African smallholder farmers have access to absolutely the best scientific research available and in order for that to happen, we need to enhance the infrastructure for agricultural research on the continent. Gender balance within the agricultural research community is an important part of building up that infrastructure.

When we talk about African women in agriculture, we tend to have a very simplistic understanding of who they are. We tend to think about an impoverished woman as a smallholder farmer with a hungry baby strapped her back, but that’s just one part of the whole story. It’s really important that we start to see African women in all the different spaces that exist in agriculture, which includes research and development.

Are the dynamics for women scientists changing in Africa?

We are starting to see changes; but, of course, there is still work to do. One of the things I should count is how many women are the first to do x, y and z in their countries – the first woman to become dean of her university, the first woman to become deputy chancellor – it’s really tremendous.

AWARD has one of the biggest networks of African agricultural scientists who are committed to women’s empowerment from the lab to the farm. Every AWARD Fellow is selected because she has shown interest and evidence of commitment to doing her research toward the benefit of smallholder farmers. The fellowship is designed to help build her skills in doing that further.

Also, fellows are mentored by both men and women. About 46 percent of AWARD mentors are men, which makes our community particularly unique because we’ve got hundreds of men who care about building African research institutions where female scientists can thrive and drive innovation.

Aside from fellowships, how else is AWARD addressing the needs of women in agriculture?

We are also interested in looking at African institutions and how we can partner with them to help them 1) become spaces that are more receptive to women’s leadership and to make the best use of the talent that they have and 2) gain the technical skills of how to incorporate gender into their research processes. We need African scientists who are skilled in asking questions that will illuminate the gender impacts of their research products.

How does gender play a role in research processes?

For example, if you’re a plant breeder working on a new variety of beans, it’s way too late for you to ask about the gendered impacts of this variety once it’s on a farm. You need to be asking questions about the gendered impact of this variety at the very beginning of the research process. Questions like, are you going to breed for nutritional value? Are you going to consider cooking time? Are you going to account how much water it takes to cook? Because all of those questions have gender impacts down the line. You need to consider them and make informed decisions from the very beginning.

We’ve had varieties [in Africa] that have been touted as being absolutely amazing – which look amazing on paper and in the lab but then women must go fetch the extra firewood and extra water to cook it. Or it has high yields, but it’s not helping with the malnutrition problem. We’ve got some African countries that are doing fantastic on high yields, but with foods that are not nutritious so you’ve got horrible stunting challenges.

What’s an example of AWARD’s impact?

Pamela Paparu, a 2008 AWARD Fellow, is one of Africa’s leading plant breeders. She is working on beans in Uganda, Africa’s largest producer of beans. This crop happens to be a “woman’s plant”. It’s culturally perceived to be a plant that women tend to, so if you can solve some of the challenges and disease issues that Ugandan bean farmers face, then you are not only having a massive impact on nutrition, which tends to effect women and children, you also have a direct economic impact on the lives of women. Paparu’s story is on the AWARD website, as are many others.

Your background is in political science, not agriculture. What’s the connection for you?

My journey to AWARD is rooted in a commitment to gender equality on the African continent and a recognition that agriculture is so critical to its future. If we can’t solve this problem for agriculture, pretty much nothing else is going to make sense. We, as Africans, have to figure out how to feed Africa’s growing population. That’s not something we can outsource to others.

* Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, M.A., Ph.D., is director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Prior to AWARD, she was assistant professor of politics at the University of San Francisco and founded Akili Dada, a leadership incubator for high-achieving, young African women from underprivileged backgrounds with a commitment to social change.  She holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Minnesota.