%AM, %21 %348 %2013 %10:%May

African women scientists hold key to food security

Written by Henry Owino

Women who are smallholder farmers in Africa have been rated as key to addressing the food security situation in the continent.

According to the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), an organisation that empowers African women scientists through agricultural development initiatives across the continent, if women smallholder farmers are empowered, Africa could soon feed itself.

AWARD is a professional development programme that focuses on research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa.

Encouraging small-scale farmers especially women is one way of closing the gender gap in the agricultural sector. In other professions, women have tried to minimize the gender parity and today, in almost all careers, women have been actively involved.

In a recent research carried out by AWARD, about 12-17 per cent of Africans are malnourished. It, therefore, recommends that when women are highly represented in Agriculture, there could be plenty of food for families and surplus for sale, hence assurance of food security in the continent.

According to Vicki Wilde, AWARD’s Founder and Director, women are the backbone of African agriculture. She said majority of those who produce, process and market Africa’s food are women, but only one in four agricultural researchers is female.

Wilde said the AWARD programme was launched in 2008 and has been providing two-year career-development fellowships that focus on fostering, mentoring partnerships, building scientific skills and developing leadership capacity.


She reiterated that AWARD is addressing gender parity gap in agricultural activities by building the capacity of African women scientists who are conducting pro-poor agricultural research.

“Award is today specifically known for its career-development program that equips top women scientists across sub-Saharan Africa. This is done by accelerating agricultural gains, by strengthening women’s research and leadership skills, through tailored fellowships,” explained Wilde.

She noted that the organization helps women scientists engage in innovations with high potential to contribute to the prosperity and well-being of African smallholder farmers. It has met with women of different walks of lives and supports each one of them regardless of their background. In addition, she stated, it has helped women in Africa realise their talent and cultivated them to their full potential.

Wilde asserts that the organisation is stepping up towards improving outcomes for Africa’s smallholder farmers by strengthening women voices on the farm, laboratories, in markets and in policy forums.

“In various ways, AWARD contributes to poverty alleviation and food security at the highest possible levels,” Wilde noted.


The outstanding women scientists who received the awards were selected from among an impressive cadre of 1,094 applicants from 11 African countries.

The fellowships are granted on the basis of each scientist’s intellectual merit, leadership capacity, and the potential to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers most of whom are women.

Dr Bolanle Otegbayo from Nigeria is one of the Award fellowship beneficiaries. She holds PhD in Food Technology from the University of Ibadan and currently lectures at Bowen University in Nigeria. Her research focuses on determining food quality and industrial potential of Nigerian yams to contribute to the expansion and diversification of their use.

She says Nigeria contributes to about 68 per cent of the world’s annual total yam production at about 50 million tonnes. With her research team, Otegbayo has been able to characterise in detail 45 varieties of yam from five common species.

She says this is the first characterization of a large variety of yams, which would serve as baseline data for future research and for selecting yam genotypes for specific uses.

Since the research has not been able to determine the molecular composition of starch in the yam, Otegbayo, however, carried out further analyses of the yam samples. The results led to better understanding of the functional properties important for determining the industrial potential of starch in the yams.

“In Nigeria, a man would not get a wife if they are not masculine. Yams helps in building a strong body structure and Nigerian women admire men with big arms which is a sign of protection in times of danger,’’ Otegbayo said smiling.

Dr Lusike Wasilwa from Kenya is also beneficiary of the AWARD Fellowship programs. She is an Assistant Director, Horticulture and Industrial Crops Division at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). This position came to her while she was an Award Fellow during the pilot programme.


Wasilwa’s work has focused on empowering women and reducing child malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa. Her goal is to include research and promotion of underuse fruits with medical properties.

Today, her research at KARI involves collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture, International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) and the Kenya Gatsby Trust as well as Farm Africa, a United Kingdom based non-profit organisation working with resource poor African farmers to help them produce more food for their families.

AWARD Fellowship has also benefited Dr Segenet Kelemu who has received a number of awards, including outstanding Senior Scientist Award, for her numerous contributions to the centre and its mission.

These research efforts generated a series of discoveries that have contributed to the ability of the global scientific community to address some key agricultural constraints. Today, Kelemu who is the current Vice President of Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) programmes, has helped to foster the next generation’s scientific community in Eastern and Central Africa, and beyond.




This article was originally published in the Reject Online Issue 82

Sign up

AWC maintains a constant flow of well-researched feature stories and publications

Read → Feature articles | Commentary Service | Newspapers | Reports | Books

Fill in your email address to get highlights from our publications


  • 1