14 October 2016

Africa: Holding Back Women in Science Puts Brakes on Development


African women are already highly active as producers and entrepreneurs. Despite the disadvantages they face, they form the core of the agricultural labour force, producing the majority of Africa’s food. Yet in the laboratories, that develop the tools and technologies to help these very famers, women have been overwhelmingly underrepresented. Until now.

Women scientists are slowly but surely making new waves in African agricultural research. They are uniquely placed to understand the issues female farmers face, such as lack of land, credit, fertilizers and new technologies. These obstacles mean that female farmers produce 26% less than male farmers in Ethiopia. In Ghana, they produce 17% less. And the list goes on.

The innovations pioneered by women, for women, could be game-changers for African agricultural productivity, and a range of development issues such as nutrition and education, that women traditionally oversee in a household. Holding these female scientists back, through lack of opportunity, amounts to putting the brakes on Africa’s development.

Modernization of the agricultural and food sectors in Africa is a priority for responding to the challenges and opportunities associated with increasing urbanization, growing international competition and changing consumer needs. Local scientific innovation will contribute to the emergence of sustainable, well-integrated agri-food systems that can withstand shocks such as recurring droughts that plague the continent. Women must be empowered to take part in this process - or we are fighting a battle with just half of our army.

A prime example of the innovations needed, is the orange flesh sweet potato, pioneered by Dr. Maria Andrade. She is the first African woman to be awarded the World Food Prize this week for an outstanding contribution to fighting hunger. The orange flesh sweet potato is bred to have a higher content of vitamin A, a vital nutrient that over a third of children under five are lacking in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to grave illnesses. It is also disease resistant and drought tolerant, making it a sustainable choice for smallholder farmers to grow, to earn their livelihood.

To furnish our universities with more female scientists like Dr. Andrade, who can develop innovations such as this, greater investments in girls’ education are needed. This means reaching more girls, at a younger age. Improving internet connectivity and telephony across the continent can make a big difference here, to ensure we are reaching and inspiring rural girls.

Female scientists also need the opportunity to receive mentorship. This is something I have taken on in my own former company. My scientific career has focused on creating a database of the indigenous plants in Mauritius and the South West Indian ocean islands that have medicinal qualities. These traits can also be a powerful tool for strengthening agricultural innovation systems, by providing unique traits like disease resistance to our food crops.

We now provide extracts of these plants as innovative ingredients to the food, cosmetic and pharma industries. The company now employs science graduates, many of whom are female. The private sector has an important role to play in providing that space for young science students to gain experience into the world of work, to inspire them to take it up as a profession.

Increasing funding to African scientists, and in particular women scientists, is also critical. This will require bold, executive leadership from governments and investment in long-term research and development projects.

Female scientists have a wealth of knowledge to help us narrow the gender gap in agricultural productivity, which will be vital for reducing poverty and spurring inclusive growth on the Continent. This inclusive growth means creating better livelihoods and a trickle down effect to families in general.

African women are a necessary part of all of these transformations. This World Food Day, we should recognise the important role African women play throughout the development process. But we also recognise that they face significant obstacles that prevent them from making their full contribution.

The price of these constraints is paid not just by women themselves, but by society as a whole.

H.E. Ameenah Gurib Fakim is the President of Mauritius and is speaking on empowerment of female scientists at the Borlaug Dialogue in Iowa this week.


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