Jan 20, 2012
Delivering Change through Empowered Women Scientists

By Vicki Wilde, Director
African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD)

Filomena dos Anjos is passionate about poultry. For the past 15 years, this senior lecturer and veterinarian at Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique has worked with poultry farmers—who are primarily women—to control Newcastle disease through vaccination campaigns. In Mozambique, more than 70 percent of the rural families keep chickens, which have great socio-economic importance, contributing to household food security and income. However, the production level is low due to disease, deficient nutrition, and general mismanagement. Feed is the most important factor in commercial poultry farming since it represents some 70-80 percent of total costs both in egg and poultry yields.

Dos Anjos is helping farmers find innovative ways to overcome the scarcity and high cost of feed. She is researching the use of more cost-effective feed ingredients, such as pigeon peas and cowpeas, to increase efficiency and profitability of poultry production systems to benefit farmers.

The critical role of women in agriculture—both researchers like dos Anjos and the female smallholders she serves—seems obvious.  However, a disturbing disconnect exists. While the majority of those who produce, process and market Africa’s food are women, only one in four agricultural researchers is female, according to a 2008 benchmarking study conducted by African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Even fewer—one in seven—hold leadership positions in African agricultural research institutions.

This gender imbalance is compounded by a growing leadership gap. According to a study by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Africa’s current leadership in agriculture and development is small in number, mostly male, and on the verge of retirement, with few experienced professionals equipped to succeed them.  What solutions will they be able offer to the estimated 239 million hungry people in sub-Saharan Africa?

Africa needs visionary, innovative leaders to implement food security strategies, including the GCARD Road Map, which will be discussed at GCARD 2012. This leadership will be most effective if women are highly represented, especially by those technically competent and strategically positioned to generate and promote the innovations needed by rural women, and other smallholder farmers.

AWARD is preparing women scientists to help fill the leadership gap. Why? Because we believe that effective solutions for African agriculture will come through empowered women scientists—researchers like Filomena dos Anjos, one of 250 AWARD Fellows to date. Our goal is to strengthen the top 10 percent of women agricultural scientists in 11 sub-Saharan African countries to lead more effective gender-sensitive innovations in agricultural development.

AWARD Fellows benefit from a two-year career development program focused on mentoring, science skills, and leadership capacity development. Academic achievement and technical skills are not always enough to ensure career advancement for women agricultural scientists. They also need “soft skills”, such as people management, communication, and negotiation—competencies not always honed in a laboratory. The fellowships are awarded on the basis of intellectual merit, leadership capacity, and the potential of the scientist’s research to improve the daily lives of smallholder farmers, especially women.

The demand for AWARD is clear: more than 2,000 women have applied for the 250 fellowships available since the program began in 2008, and over 1,000 applicants are competing for 70 places in the next round of fellowships, which will be announced in December 2012.

AWARD has debunked the myth that qualified African women agricultural scientists are not out there. Talented researchers are there, and so is the need for capacity strengthening. New joint funding from the Gates Foundation (US$14 million) and USAID (up to US$5 million) will allow AWARD to launch a second five-year phase to equip hundreds more women agricultural scientists in 11 sub-Saharan African countries with leadership and technical skills. We are proud to partner with these innovative supporters who regard women—both farmers and researchers—as non-negotiable components of their strategies for agricultural R&D in Africa.

As Dr. Roy Steiner, deputy director of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, eloquently commented at the grant announcement made during the recent World Food Prize event, “I’m delighted to be partnering with USAID to support AWARD. . .Women are strong, powerful, committed. You know they will change the societies and institutions they are working in. Women are powerful when given the resources they need.

Preliminary data collected from the first 180 AWARD alumnae revealed that:

  • 137 different agricultural technologies and products are being developed by these women in their respective research institutions
  • at least 57 percent refocused their research to be more gender responsive or more relevant to the needs of women farmers
  • one in two increased their average annual publication rate in peer-reviewed journals
  • 52 percent were promoted, indicative of their growing influence

Developing partnerships for innovation and impact on small-holder livelihoods is integral to AWARD’s approach. Our fellows represent more than 167 institutions, with which we work closely. In our second phase, we plan to help build a strategic alliance of African ARD leaders who will promote the contributions and prioritize the needs of women throughout the agricultural value chain.

We also want to engage effectively with corporate research partners, building on past success. To date, 45 AWARD Fellows have completed advanced science training in 27 institutions in 14 countries. This includes corporate partners Novus InternationalDow AgroSciencesthe Donald Danforth Plant Sciences CenterDupont Pioneer, as well as many members of the CGIAR Consortium and research institutions in Montpellier, France funded through the Agropolis Fondation.

Novus International sponsored Filomena dos Anjos to conduct poultry feed research in their state-of-the-art labs in St. Charles, Missouri. She worked with scientists on an experiment that slowly increased the percentage of cowpeas and pigeon peas into a chicken’s soybean diet. Dos Anjos sees the research that she conducted at Novus as a possible life-changer for farmers in Africa. “If these peas work well, then I can imagine a whole market change,” she said. “Right now, farmers grow peas only for personal consumption. We’re not producing a quantity that can provide for the feed industry. I want to improve the quality of life for families in Mozambique, and this is one of the ways to do it.

Although it is too soon for dos Anjos to know the full impact of her research attachment on her career, she strongly believes that the benefits and rewards from this experience will be felt at many levels. “It is crucial that I transfer the technology and skills learned at Novus to Eduardo Mondlane University,” she said. “It will help to create an environment for conducting quality research and teaching. This will in turn have direct impact on the poultry industry and the general well-being of the Mozambican people.

Impacts on small-holders’ livelihoods will be an important focus at GCARD 2012. As global agricultural leaders and delegates discuss the road map toward more responsive, relevant agricultural research for development, let’s remember that the face of food security in Africa is female. Let’s ensure that she has a place at the table and that her voice is heard.

AWARD Director Vicki Wilde chaired a Parallel Session panel on Learning and Empowerment of Women and Youth at GCARD 2012 on October 30.



African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Hosted by World Agroforestry Centre, United Nations Avenue, Gigiri. P.O Box 30677-00100 Nairobi, Kenya.

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