Empowering African Female Scientists To Reach Their Full Potential

Empowering African Female Scientists To Reach Their Full Potential

Founded in 2008, Kenya-based African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) started off as a career-development program dedicated to widening the pipeline of African female scientists leading agricultural research and development. Today, AWARD has expanded its vision, working toward inclusive, agriculture-driven prosperity for Africa by strengthening the production and dissemination of more gender-responsive agricultural research and innovation. AWARD advances its vision through fellowships for high potential agricultural scientists, and by supporting African research institutes to deliver agricultural innovations that better respond to the needs and priorities of a diversity of women and men across Africa’s agricultural value chains. Inspired by the important work AWARD is doing to empower African women in agriculture, SHE SAID spoke to AWARD director Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg (pictured above). This article was adapted based on her experiences in the field.

As a career-development program for rising female agricultural scientists, the organizations’ flagship initiative, the AWARD Fellowship, aims to equip women in sub-Saharan Africa with leadership and scientific skills to lead agricultural innovations and improve food security. Food security remains an important issue not just in Africa but indeed globally, with poverty, low productivity rates, rising  population growth and shocks such as climate change and pandemics like the COVID-19 impeding efforts to eradicate hunger. Given that women play a massively important role in agriculture, especially in food production, including them in agricultural research is imperative and urgent. However, empirical evidence reveals that women remain strongly under-represented in research. While African women do the heavy lifting associated with African agricultural production, they remain largely excluded from the development of agricultural leadership principles, priority setting, resource allocation and decision making structures. 

A mix of factors cause this discrepancy. Firstly, there are cultural barriers, which are not unique to the African continent. Cultural norms keep women out of science and poverty across the continent further reduces  access to opportunities. Even within agricultural production, it is often men who take key farm management decisions. Disproportionate illiteracy rates among women as compared to men further hinder many from reaching leadership positions within agriculture. Beyond cultural barriers, there are also institutional factors hindering women from accessing leadership positions in African agricultural research. Currently, existing agricultural organizations and research institutions are much more receptive and provide more support to male scientists. Recognising the importance of women’s skills and experience in the agricultural sector, AWARD is working to develop the capacity and increase the visibility of women and to influence agricultural policies and priority setting best equipped to overcome obstacles to food security in the region.

Since its inception, the AWARD Fellowship has been offered to 534 female scientists from 25 African countries who have participated in the intensive two-year career development program that enhances their leadership skills, strengthens their scientific capacity and expands their networks while fostering research partnerships and collaboration. Participation in the AWARD Fellowship has equipped these women scientists with the confidence and ability to lead research teams, develop innovations and participate in crucial decision making as research leaders in the African agricultural research landscape. Today, many of the AWARD Fellows are University Presidents, Vice Chancellors, Center Directors, University Professors and Deans, among many other influential positions. 

AWARD further acknowledges that investing in building the capacity of female researchers is fundamental but not sufficient. Systemic issues that hinder women from reaching their full potential and meaningfully contributing to agricultural research and development need to be addressed. Therefore, AWARD is also supporting agricultural research and development institutions, with the right skills and tools to embrace gender responsiveness and to leverage the talents of gender-diverse research teams and by strengthening gender prioritization in research, design, implementation and dissemination of innovation. We are further equipping male researchers with the knowledge and skills to employ a gender lens in their leadership and research. Our leadership and gender training courses target leaders of institutions, both male and female research managers, and other key decision makers to build capacity for gender responsive policies and practices.  That way, the burden is not left to women to fix the leaky pipeline that the world continues to experience.

Climate change further exacerbates existing food security challenges as one of the biggest threats to sustainable agricultural production. AWARD recognizes the impact of climate change on African agriculture and the need to step up efforts to address the global menace. AWARD’s contribution is currently focused on building local talent capable of developing home-grown solutions for smallholders to adapt to a changing climate. Through its One Planet Fellowship initiative, a coalition of the One Planet Summit, AWARD and its partners are investing in up to 630 African and European agricultural researchers to help advance and scale up gender-responsive climate adaptation solutions for Africa’s small farmers. AWARD is keen on not only importing solutions for its agricultural production, but also aims to build local capacity to develop context-specific solutions by taking an active role in helping reduce agricultural inequities. 

Agriculture can be a powerful and transformative tool in reducing poverty and increasing growth but only if it is inclusive and responsive to the needs and priorities of the diverse actors in agricultural value chains. AWARD believes that gender-responsive agriculture and research is an important enabler for inclusive development. AWARD wants to help achieve inclusive agricultural-driven growth and development by building a pool of researchers, both male and female, that is capable, confident and influential to lead research that addresses the needs of African smallholders.  



Svenja Kirsch is a Masters in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate at Harvard University and previously studied International Relations at Jacobs University and Sciences Po Paris. She specializes on business and government policy and focuses particularly on corporate government affairs, CSR, female economic empowerment and sustainability. Before joining GRI, she worked in academic reviewing, political campaigning, think tank research and corporate sustainability management.


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