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African women on front line against hunger

NAIROBI, Kenya, Jul 20 – Sixty one women scientists will benefit from the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) fellowship support by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The fellowship which is conducted by the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program is designed to boost the continental female talent pool in an effort to overcome hunger and poverty in a two-year programme. According the AWARD project management, the fellows are chosen from Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and they will receive opportunities to strengthen their leadership and science capacities.

“The participants are bringing with them scientific and development expertise that has great potential to tackle the food crisis and climate change while improving the daily lives of small-scale farmers,” said AWARD Director Vicki Wilde. This is the second year AWARD has identified and honoured outstanding African women scientists to receive career-development resources aimed at strengthening their expertise as pro-poor researchers while also positioning them as leaders. They come from 48 different institutions of education and research in the region.

At the moment, 80 percent of Africa’s farmers are women and 60 to 80 percent of Africa’s food is produced by women. “Yet,” according to Ms Wilde, “only five percent of agricultural extension and 10 percent of rural credit reaches women. Part of the reason this longstanding situation hasn’t changed is because women comprise only 25 percent of the agricultural research and development (R&D) talent pool and very few hold positions of leadership.”

As Ms Wilde explained, “this means there are not enough African women in a position to influence the priorities for agricultural R&D. Much more needs to be done to ensure rural women’s voices and needs are brought into laboratories and field projects.”

“The first year we set some high standards but had no idea what was possible,” said Dr Stella Williams, Professor of Agricultural Economics at Obafemi-Awolowo University in Nigeria who serves as Chair of the AWARD Steering Committee. “Now, benchmarked against some original goals, we realise that AWARD is not only meeting a great need, it has produced results – in terms of supporting women but also in terms of contributing to the well-being of rural communities.”

Dr Jolly Kabirizi of Uganda, one of AWARD’s earliest fellows, credits her support from AWARD with new directions in her career. When she recently received a Women and Young Professionals Science Competitions prize for her work with women farmers and fodder crops, she said, "AWARD gave me the courage to show the world that it pays off to work in areas not everybody finds attractive. Yet, indigenous vegetables and working with women farmers on alternatives to commercial fodder additives are topics with wide reaching impacts for food security, quality of nutrition and improvement of livelihoods.”

Professor Mary Abukutsa Onyango of Kenya, also an early fellowship winner who now serves as an AWARD mentor, received first prize in the same competition for her work on increasing nutrition and income through improved production technologies. “High food prices are disproportionately affecting poor rural households, and increased droughts, water scarcity, and other effects of climate change are making it even more difficult for small farmers, most of whom are women, to prosper,” said Haven Ley, program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “The AWARD program is empowering African women to address these challenges and help African farmers build better lives for themselves and their families,” she added.

The first act of the fellowship will be assigning each recipient a mentor – a more senior professional carefully chosen to match the fellow’s area of expertise and personal goals. In addition, each fellow will attend workshops on science writing, proposal writing and leadership. Fellows also are sponsored to attend science conferences to present their research and to network with others in their field. The most experienced fellows also have the option of competing for the opportunity to spend 3 to 9 months learning advanced techniques at world-class facilities worldwide, including the CGIAR Centers and a number of African universities. 

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“By improving their networks and having our fellows serve as role models to their communities, we are increasing the impact of these career-enhancing fellowships. Even though women have completed their educations and have entered the workforce, they often drop out because of obstacles they reach on the career ladder and few reach positions of leadership,” explained Dr. Agnes Mwang’ombe, Principal of the College for Agriculture and Veterinary Sciences, University of Nairobi and Vice Chair of the AWARD Steering Committee. “AWARD can help fix this ‘leaky pipeline’ and support women scientists as they support the farmers of their countries,” she concluded.

AWARD Fellowships grew out of a pilot program of the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program that was launched by the Rockefeller Foundation. AWARD is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and United States Agency for International Development.  It is the only program of its kind.

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