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Fellowship Program Aims to Open Doors for African Women in Agricultural Research

An international agricultural research group recently announced a fellowship program to help African women who work in agricultural sciences to advance their careers. The program is based on two earlier pilot projects and aims to address the obstacles that African women face as they pursue post-graduate studies and subsequent academic and research careers. Cathy Majtenyi visited the program's head office in Nairobi and files this report for VOA.

In Africa, women do the bulk of the planting, harvesting, selling and other work in agriculture. Yet, on average, only one in five agricultural researchers in Africa are women. In Ethiopia and Malawi, it is only one in 10.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, or CGIAR, in Nairobi, Kenya wants to change that. It has launched a four-year, $13 million fellowship program that aims to help 360 women scientists in several African countries to overcome obstacles in their careers.

"Between 60 and 80 percent of women actually do the work in agriculture -- they do the farming -- and yet their voices are not necessarily being heard," says Helga Recke, who is senior adviser of CGIAR's Women in Science program.

Recke says women tend to attract money for research in areas necessary for development, areas not often popular among men -- food production, urban vegetable production and the use of indigenous vegetables.

She explains that the fellowship program has three core components -- mentoring by senior scientists, leadership training and participation in research internships and scientific conferences.

This is good news for Mabel Imbuga, deputy vice chancellor of academic affairs at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

She says she remembers a time when it was rare -- even unacceptable -- to see women in science classes and laboratories.

"A woman's place is in the kitchen to begin with. A woman has a certain cause that they should do, and the way your parents also bring you up -- if your parents bring you up in a certain way, then you, for example, go in for home science, you go in for teaching, you go in for those less challenging jobs," Imbuga recalls of former cultual norms.

Imbuga mentors women researchers in the pilot projects that form the base of the fellowship program.

Food scientist Charity Mutegi is one such researcher. She says, "I got an opportunity to go to India and spent some time in the lab learning the Eliza technique, which is what we usually use for aflatoxin testing. Since I plan to build my career in that area, that was an opportunity for me in a lifetime."

Mutegi's mentor is Richard Jones, an assistant director in the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Nairobi. He says, "I think female students need more continuous encouragement because I think they do suffer from setbacks whereas probably that is not the case with the male students."

Organizers of the fellowship program say that with more networking opportunities, confidence and skills development, African women researchers will continue to grow in numbers and impact.