Jul 1, 2021
Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg on Why Africa Needs a Bold New Vision for Agriculture

#Repost: First published on AMAKA STUDIO


The outgoing Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development, speaks on why agricultural research is a game-changer and the key to ensuring Africa’s food security and safeguarding the future.

For Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, the need for more African women scientists and researchers has never been more urgent than now. Women account for 22% of agricultural scientists and one in seven women occupy leadership positions in agricultural research on the continent. This is why as she takes a bow from AWARD, whose goal is to achieve agriculture-driven prosperity for Africa, Kamau-Rutenberg says it’s imperative women are brought back to the center of agricultural production – starting at the research, leadership, and decision-making stage.

The outgoing director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development sat down with AMAKA to talk about why agricultural research is a game-changer and the key to ensuring Africa’s food security and safeguarding the future and how African women remain at the heart of agricultural production.

When you started your tenure as director in 2014, what was your vision for AWARD, and how have you been able to achieve it?

My vision for AWARD when I joined was to build a strong organisation. I was intentional about building a strong African organisation that partnered well with other African organisations and was the pride of African researchers, both men, and women. I was also keen to build a financially robust organisation. I really wanted to make sure that under my tenure, AWARD grew financially and was able to maintain its financial strength. Finally, I was committed to bridging the Francophone and Anglophone gap. It’s a gap that shows the lack of understanding about each other that we have across the continent, and it’s one that I think hinders us. We worked hard to try and raise funding to address this specific issue. I’m really proud that we were able to accomplish all these things. I’m leaving AWARD in a financially robust position. We’ve got the latest grant, our biggest program that’s a $20 million project working across Francophone and Anglophone Africa; bringing early-career European scientists to be mentored by African scientists. It’s unique and innovative and challenges the status quo. Personally, I’m really proud of what I have accomplished and as I step away, it’s with the feeling that it’s been seven years of good work, and I got done what I came to get done. In terms of the future of AWARD, I think the next director will probably need to look at how to consolidate AWARD’s gains. I think the foundation is there, and now is the time to set up an organisation that will last for the next hundred years. 

African women have been at the heart of agricultural production from time immemorial.

Photo courtesy of AWARD

What’s the critical role that women play in Africa’s agricultural sector and the continent’s food security for the now and the future? 

African women have been at the heart of agricultural production from time immemorial. We have been at the center of agricultural trade in agribusiness. Our great-grandmothers traded and were long-distance traders. They carried produce to neighboring communities and brought back produce from those places. So, agriculture and agribusiness are not new to the African continent. I do think that the colonial moment represented a disturbing moment of interruption for African women and our momentum in the sector. And I’m dismayed that we now look at agriculture and we have these conversations that we’re trying to bring women back into agriculture and improve the place of African women in agriculture. It’s like what happened? Why did we let that interruption happen? I think there’s a fair bit of anti-colonial work that needs to happen within the agriculture sector. The imperative for the future is to bring women right back to the center of agricultural production, trade consumption and processing, and across agricultural value chains. An area that I really think is critical in agricultural research. We know that agricultural value chains start at the research stage and that research scientists make decisions that have a massive gendered impact on the rest of the agricultural value chain. It’s important to do two things with agricultural research – one is to make sure that all scientists are aware of the gendered implications of their work, and are able to work in institutions that prioritise gender-responsive research. The necessary budgetary allocations and commitment, and the tools also need to be available to enable them to do their job. The other key thing we must do is make sure that when scientists are sitting around a table allocating resources and determining research priorities, there are women as equal voices around that table. Right now, we’re facing a situation where women are woefully underrepresented in decision-making when it comes to agricultural research on the continent and we are leaving some of the best brains this continent has to offer off the table. We’re locking them out of the room and pretending we can fly a bird with just one wing and we need to fix that.

What is the primary role of AWARD, where the ecosystem of women in agriculture is concerned and why does the continent need a gender-centered response in the area of agricultural research and innovation?

AWARD’s flagship goal is working to fix the leaky pipeline of women in agricultural research leadership on the continent. Making sure that the scientists that get to sit at the table, decide what the priorities are, and allocate resources includes women. AWARD is supporting African research organisations and institutions to really walk the talk when it comes to gender-responsive research. That means making sure women are growing in their research careers as research leaders, but also that all the scientists at these institutions have the skills needed, the willingness, and the support to prioritise gender as an important consideration when it comes to agricultural research. The third element is engaging with a broader enabling environment, whether it is partnering with FARA (Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa,) so that we can engage the African Union and continental bodies to bring the gender agenda to the table for broader enabling and betterment. So that when people talk about gender in research, it’s not a surprise or a unicorn concept. 

We want women in the labs. We want women at those conference tables. We want women chairing those meetings not just because they are women but because they are good scientists.

What are some of the most pertinent resources women scientists and researchers need to do the work they do? 

We need to make sure women have opportunities to sharpen and strengthen their scientific research skills. We want women in the labs. We want women at those conference tables. We want women chairing those meetings not just because they are women but because they are good scientists. As a continent, we haven’t done as well in investing in scientific training for our girls and that’s impacting the pipeline of researchers that we have available. Hence, we need to build those scientific skills for those women who are committed to a career in scientific research, and agricultural research in particular. The second element is mentoring. We realise that a lot of our scientists across the continent are nearing or are at retirement age. And we do have an intergenerational gap when it comes to the sciences. We’ve got the older scientists and a younger generation, and it’s so important to use mentoring as a tool to unlock the wisdom of the older generation for the benefit of the new and next generation of research. Peer mentoring is also important. Hence, we need to make sure women scientists enter into networks with each other, where they’re able to support and learn from one another, and be in the community. The third is leadership skills. While leadership is a talent and some people are born with it, no one is a good leader because they were born with a gift. There is a need to hone and work on that gift because leadership is a craft. AWARD is intentional about equipping women scientists with the skills they need to be good leaders, including soft skills, which also make a difference.

What’s the role of scientific research and innovation in agriculture?

Agricultural value chains start with research. Often, we think agriculture starts with production and what happens on the farm. That’s actually not true. Before a seed is ever put into the ground, researchers worked on it, especially when you think about climate change. I want to clarify that I’m not talking about GMO. I’m talking about even the conventional breeding of seeds. Our ancestors were crop breeders. They took the best seeds and crossed them with others, and created varieties that were adapted to different situations. African scientists continue to do that. Now in the face of climate change, we need to make sure that our farmers, especially our smallholder farmers who stand to lose the most from climate change, have access to the best input, and the best weather information. Is it going to rain or not? Should we plant now or next week? It’s actually the work of our scientists and researchers to be able to tell us. They should be able to tell us when an army warm or a locust infestation is coming. How do we handle this invasion? What crops do we plant and what’s the best way to protect our crops and food security? These are all questions that agricultural researchers answer. Once we start recognising that agricultural research is actually the very beginning, and not the end of agricultural value chains, then we start paying attention to what’s happening in that area. Are they equipped to respond to the needs of our farmers, or are they just equipped to publish papers that never get off the shelf? And a gender lens is actually a really useful tool in helping researchers start to orient themselves or strengthen their orientation towards which farmers they are innovating for.

Agricultural research is the most important scientific research that happens on the continent. It literally is a matter of life and death.

When people question why Africa needs gender and women agricultural experts, what is your argument for the crucial work AWARD is doing, and how does AWARD as a platform help position women in the agriculture sector, be it in the science lab, research arena or on the farm field? 

I think Covid-19 has been a really good wake-up call for Africa about the need to invest in our own scientists. Because when things get thick, no one’s coming to save us. Look at us with the vaccine, we were waiting for the rest of the world to send us the vaccine. And now we want to do the same when it comes to the food we put in our bodies. At a minimum, you need to have your own scientists to help you sort your own food. I would say agricultural research is the most important scientific research that happens on the continent. It literally is a matter of life and death. Compare African agricultural production on average to Israeli food production, we are joking. And climate change is coming, it’s coming at us fast. We should be able to grow food in ever more salty water. We need to grow food in ever drier climates. We need to grow food that can withstand flooding when it comes. We need to be able to handle locusts and swarms of whatever comes because the pestilences are getting more intense. And we’ve seen that people do research to suit their own needs. We are the only ones who want to do research to publish, and not to solve our own issues. It’s also imperative for African governments to fund African research because so long as our African researchers keep being dependent on European and North American or even Asian funding research, they will keep answering the questions that emerge from there.

In what ways do current government policies and actions across the continent hinder the ways African researchers are able to innovate within the agricultural sector and make significant gains like their global counterparts? 

Our governments need to hold themselves accountable for the commitments they’ve already made with the Malabo Declaration and the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Plan (CAAPD). Our governments have made promises and commitments towards funding scientific research and the agricultural sector. They’re not meeting those commitments. So, the first thing is to meet those commitments. And to make sure that research funding is distributed in gender-equitable ways.

How do cultural and traditional norms, and the way we are socialised in society continue to affect women within the agricultural sector and impede progress? How can this be addressed to ensure the rich agriculture-driven prosperity that AWARD envisions for women scientists and researchers across the continent is achieved?

When it comes to agricultural research, it’s still that double burden where you can be in the lab all day running your research team, and when you get home, you have to drop everything and shift into that role. Neither our families nor our institutions seem to be able to give women a break so that they can bring their best selves to both roles. And that’s really what’s needed. It’s a question of how do we support our women so that they’re able to bring their best selves to both roles? What are the things that men need to be doing in their homes in terms of taking on responsibilities and being true partners? On the other side of that is what are those things institutions need to do? Interestingly, I think the pandemic has taught us that the accommodations and adaptations women have been asking for in the workplace are doable. Look at us, we’re working from home. Things we used to make two-day or week-long conferences; we’ve been doing on Zoom. These are things that also make it possible for women to be able to balance their care work, instead of traveling halfway around the world to present a paper at a conference when you can actually do it digitally. It makes it possible to have time where you are just as productive working from your home, and you’re also able to meet some of your caregiving obligations. So, hopefully, it’s part of the building back better the UN has been talking about.

Photo courtesy of AWARD

We as Africans need to take our own science seriously, reset our conditions, and fund research that benefits us. We as Africans are capable.

We hear so much about the impact of climate change on Africa and how it is rapidly changing things. The locust invasion in East Africa is an example of this. Why must we start looking at agricultural research as a gamechanger and key to securing Africa’s agricultural future and ensuring its food security?

Ultimately the questions around agriculture and how seriously we and our governments take the threats posed by climate change is also going to come down to politics. Unfortunately, climate change is not going to be a national issue. So, to what extent are regional bodies able to come together and collaborate? While there are some great initiatives like The Great Green Wall, I also think it’s about how strong organisations like the African Union are in terms of coordinating governments to come up with a collective solution. This is why we as Africans need to take our own science seriously, reset our conditions, and fund research that benefits us. We as Africans are capable. We have shown that we can handle difficult things.

What will inclusive agriculture-driven prosperity for Africa look like when it happens? and how does it reposition the continent? 

When we stop being dependent, Africa will stop being a net importer of food, and we will be the world’s breadbasket. We will be the hotbed of innovation. And honestly, we have the demographic advantage in terms of the young population that we have. And if we can invest in the youth, they are going to be driving market trends globally. In the next 20 years, Africa will be the world’s biggest market. Now, will we be a lot of people with no money to buy anything, or will we actually have some money in our pocket to shape global trends? We are also a leapfrogging continent when it comes to technology. What we’ve done with mobile technology, we can do with agriculture. We don’t need to make other people’s mistakes with agriculture, especially when it comes to climate change. And if we’re not careful as a continent, we risk an agricultural system that contributes to climate change, rather than one that’s adapted and helps to roll back the problems.

How do we make agriculture attractive to young people and young women in particular, so they have more options like everyone else? 

I would say let’s not focus on agricultural production alone. Let’s also focus on young women in agricultural research and in agribusiness. How do we start this process? Education matters. How do we make sure science is not taught in a way that kicks women out? It’s not that it’s not attractive. It’s that young women are winnowed out of science at an early age. Our society has decided very arbitrarily I might add, that women should not pursue science. We then intentionally build systems that made sure they will not, and makes it impossible for them to bring their best selves and their God-given talents to scientific research. We need to undo those processes as a continent. And this is where I say let us as Africans not repeat the mistakes that others made 300 years ago, and are trying to fix. We actually have the possibility of leapfrogging. I would like to remind people that the modern practice of scientific research is only about 50/60 years old in our countries. It’s as new as our independent countries. That means we as Africans have an opportunity to rearticulate and reformulate who can do research and what a scientist looks like. Let’s not take on other people’s burdens the way that other societies for hundreds of years bought into the idea that scientists look like men. For example, we know that our women were traders. So, why are we starting to behave like women in agribusiness is a new thing? Where did we lose the plot? And that’s the anti-colonial work, which is really about decolonising scientific research on the continent, by erasing those mindsets that only people who look a particular way can possibly do this. It’s radical work. And science can be radical work.

As you step away from AWARD, what do women in the sector have to do for themselves in order to secure their place and space?

Women need to step up with courage and bravery and be intentional about supporting each other. I think those are two things we as women need to be doing. As for the future, let us as Africans take our research seriously, and our researchers seriously. Let’s not wait for others to come to save us with their research. For example, if you look at climate data, we are actually relying on other people’s mathematical models of climate and weather pattern change. Very little data is being collected on the continent. So, our data is not entering those mathematical models. You’re told it’ll be drier but it starts raining more, and the whole thing is just confusing. We don’t understand what’s going to happen because we have too few of our own scientists doing that research. Due to the fact that the data that’s going into the modeling is not being collected here; it’s being collected elsewhere and projected with a whole set of assumptions that may or may not be relevant for our context.

When you look ahead, what gives you hope for the future? 

I’m encouraged by the progress that I see because when you look at the data AWARD has been collecting, we are seeing increases in the number of women entering and growing in their research careers. Though I see that progress is happening faster on the continent than in other parts of the world, we still have a long way to go. If the commitments that African governments have made are to be indicative, then our governments do have what it takes to take climate change seriously and to take the imperative of investing in agricultural research seriously. The African response to Covid-19 has also given me hope because we do live in societies where, for example, I look at the west and people are refusing to wear masks because of individual freedom. We, and our Ubuntu, have real potential to save us. Our collectiveness and our ability to act collectively within our societies have kept us safe from Covid-19 in really important ways. That gives me hope for whatever other challenges are going to come our way.


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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