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From a village girl to a leading scientist - Dr Segenet Kelemu

Written by Henry Owino
African woman Agricultural Scientist and AGRA Programs Vice President, Dr Segenet Kelemu. African woman Agricultural Scientist and AGRA Programs Vice President, Dr Segenet Kelemu. Pictures: Henry Owino

She has defied many odds to become  a leading scientist in Africa. Having grown up in a remote village in Ethiopia, she has had to contend with doing odd jobs assigned to women. She had to weed, pick coffee berries, collect firewood, fetch water and the work was endless and going to school was just an afterthought.

Dr Segenet Kelemu recalls that most young girls were married off but she was lucky because her parents could not find a suitor. “I was in the unmarriageable, undesirable category. I was too rebellious and defiant for any parent to want me as their daughter-in-law. I could easily imagine that this was perhaps distressful to my parents at the time, but I knew all along that I was lucky. I now understand that some of my behaviour earned me a ticket to freedom,’’ says Kelemu.

She notes that there are many people who have contributed to her education and professional journey and that she has lived to their expectations and become outstanding in her studies.

There are also many factors that influenced Kelemu’s life. Education was free in Ethiopia and her parents bought her the necessary stationery. Above all, her own determination and hard work helped Kelemu attain her goals.

{jb_quoteleft}“The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ really applies to me. It takes a village to make someone successful,” observes Kelemu.{/jb_quoteleft}


Kelemu studied agriculture when  her parents really wanted her to be a medical doctor. Today, she has experienced the challenges and successes associated with agricultural research in developing and developed countries from a variety of perspectives.

Over the past two decades, Kelemu’s own research and that of teams under her leadership have helped address agricultural constraints in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America.

She acknowledges that these research efforts generated a series of discoveries that have contributed to the global scientific community’s ability to address some key agricultural constraints.

“I am grateful to my staff, my graduate students, and the various key research partners for the successes that have helped my career along the way. Give credit to people where credit is due. You gain a lot by including people who have contributed; you lose everything by being exclusive and not giving credit to others,” she observes.


“The best I can do is to be the best I can through hard work and to try to change a few ignorant minds around me that still perceive women as failures and those that cannot fathom black people as successful scientists, effective managers, directors or anything else if given the opportunity,” notes Kelemu.

She is now more than two decades old in team leadership, management and research experience which have spanned academia, national agricultural systems and two CGIAR institutes. This includes leading the Crop and Agro-ecosystem Health Management Program at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and  serving as director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub at the International Livestock research Institute (ILRI).

“I navigated both of these roles through times of uncertainty and complex transitions, helping these institutions to flourish and gain international acclaim in the agricultural development and scientific communities,’’ Kelemu discloses.

The agriculturalist notes that these efforts were guided by design and implementation of concerted research,  resource mobilization, partnership, communication strategies and delivery of products. All underpinned by cultivating inspired and cohesive teams to collectively achieve their goals.


“What worked for me and for  my staff was my strong personal conviction that an empowered staff is the indispensable foundation for any success. I believe in empowering people by increasing each individual’s belief in their potential, integrating and inspiring people to work together with mutual respect,” she notes.

Kelemu admits that cultivating such a culture of empowerment and respect within an institution is critical to achieving impact for the disadvantaged people beyond its gates. To every manager, supervisor (man or woman), her message is this: “Your power as a boss can only come from the support of your staff and not just from having a great relationship with the ‘big boss’,” she says.

“If your staff members have the confidence in your leadership and your  judgement, if they trust you and support you even when they do not like the decision you make, if they speak highly of you, then you are in business,” she advises.

It does not mean that you become a wishy-washy boss who says “yes” to everything employees want you to do in order to get their support. No, that does not work. You push them to be the very best and encourage them to push their limits and to generate a lot more than they have ever imagined possible.

But in doing so, you have to push yourself even harder. You have to be transparent, fair, and honest. You have  to earn their respect. You have to let them tell you that you are wrong when you are wrong. Be their colleague. You have to give it all and create that enabling environment for them to do their very best.

“My staff members have worked their tails off and generated everything I have been credited with. They make me look better and smarter than I am. I can honestly say that my staff at Colombia gave me the job as Director of the BecA Hub. My staff at BecA gave me my new job as the Vice President of Programs at AGRA. These are some of the ingredients of my success,” she explains.


Over the past few years, I have had  the great honour of working with the AWARD team. The programme is effective and it is really making a difference. It is very important to have a programme that is especially focused on African women scientists and thank goodness someone had the courage and vision to do it. It has become a prominent and respected programme in a very short time.

Kelemu is now the Vice President of Programs at AGRA. She is very grateful that Award partnered with BecA and placed AWARD Fellows with them for advanced science training long before they made their name and became prominent.

“AWARD loaned its name to us. Now, BecA and AWARD are great partners and they have entered into co-funding mechanisms supporting Award Fellows who are placed at BecA,” she clarifies.

AWARD also announced 70 winners of its 2013 AWARD Fellowships in the ceremony held in Nairobi, Kenya. The outstanding women scientists were selected from among an impressive cadre of 1,094 applicants from 11 African countries.

The winners will benefit from AWARD’s two-year career-development programme that is focused on building their science and leadership skills. The fellowships are granted on the basis of each scientist’s intellectual merit, leadership capacity, and the potential of her work to improve the livelihoods of African smallholder farmers, most of whom are women.



This article was originally published in the Reject Online Issue 79


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