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An AWARDing approach to science in Africa

Mubiru is passionate about using her research to help women (Karen Homer/AWARD)
Mubiru is passionate about using her research to help women
Karen Homer/AWARD

"If you really want to understand the challenges of women, it is better if you can get a woman to study their situation and circumstances," says Ugandan scientist Sarah Mubiru. As one of the 2008 Fellows of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) programme, Mubiru is passionate about her research and what she can do for her countrywomen. However, when she was awarded her PhD in 2008, Mubiru was the only woman in a group of ten graduates.

Women provide the backbone of agriculture in Africa yet, despite the recent growth in numbers of women professionals in agricultural sciences during the last decade, only a quarter of African scientists have been women, and less than one in seven holds a leadership position in agricultural research institutions. However, the critical role of women scientists in helping smallholder farmers, the majority of whom are women, is being recognised by AWARD, which provides fellowships to women researchers to strengthen their research and leadership skills.

Since AWARD was launched in 2008, over 1,600 female scientists from 450 institutions in ten African countries have applied for the programme. The fellowships are awarded on the basis of intellectual merit, leadership capacity, and the potential of the scientists' research to improve the daily lives of smallholder farmers, especially women.

Working on malnutrition in Malawi

Reducing waste by preventing fruit from perishing is the goal of 2008 AWARD Fellow Victoria Ndolo from Malawi. In a country where 46 per cent of children under five are stunted due to malnutrition, Ndolo's research at the University of Malawi, and her work with local women, are helping to provide employment to women, provide a market for fruit products and improve the nutrition of the women's families through improved processing and preservation techniques.

Ndolo's research is helping to provide employment to women (Karen Homer/AWARD)
Ndolo's research is helping to provide employment to women
Karen Homer/AWARD

Supported by the World Agroforesty Centre, Ndolo has worked on drying mangoes using a solar dryer to retain 60 per cent of vitamin C. "Anaemia is one of the top micronutrient deficiencies in Malawi," states Ndolo. "By conserving a good amount of vitamin C, this helps in iron absorption."

An estimated 60 per cent of perishable fruit harvested in Malawi rots or is sold at low prices during the peak season due to ineffective processing and preservation techniques, and a lack of storage facilities. However, applying her research in the classroom, Ndolo trains groups of rural women how to process and store local fruits, which can be fed to their children or sold at the local market.

Passing on leadership skills

Ndolo is one of 180 African women scientists currently in AWARD, the latest 60 'Fellows' being announced in July 2010. Each Fellow benefits from a two-year programme focused on mentoring partnerships, science skills, and leadership development. Mentors are selected from amongst Africa's leaders in agricultural science - both men and women, who volunteer their time to support the fellows. Each fellow is paired with a senior scientist, who mentors her during a two-year structured relationship. In return, mentors are offered the opportunity to participate in two of AWARD's activities, including courses in leadership and research proposal writing.

Mary Abukutsa-Onyango of the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya, was involved in the pilot programme in 2005 for what became AWARD. Linked with her colleague Professor Mabel Imbuga, JKUAT vice chancellor, Onyango was provided with leadership and negotiation skills. After a year of mentoring, Onyango was promoted and during her second year of fellowship, was awarded a full professorship at JKUAT.

"Investing in women is the smart solution to Africa's hunger," Onyango said during an address to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack during their 2009 visit to Kenya. Onyango is now committed to sharing her mentoring experience by supporting others and has already mentored two Kenyan scientists participating in AWARD.

Rewarding excellence in science

After a year of mentoring, Onyango was awarded a full professorship (Mike Goldwater/AWARD)
After a year of mentoring, Onyango was awarded a full professorship
Mike Goldwater/AWARD

Women from diverse scientific backgrounds and in all stages of their career have an opportunity to apply to AWARD. 2010 Fellows include a plant pathologist, a catfish breeder and a pigeon pea breeder. Some fellows are graduates, others include post-graduates and established scientists. For all, the fellowship allows them to shape their careers, to enhance their skills and to network with others. "As a result of this programme, I feel that I know who I am more than before," states Ndolo, whose vision is to develop and patent dried fruit and other products to benefit young children and others at risk from malnutrition, including those living with HIV/AIDS.

"AWARD has equipped me with skills in terms of writing, capacity building and networking with other scientists," says Mubiru. And, in putting her skills to use, most recently in July 2010, she topped the final field of nine to win first prize in the Young Professionals and Women in Science competition for her presentation and forward thinking research on the development of ENDIISA, a decision-support tool for improved feeding of dairy cattle in Uganda.

Date published: September 2010


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