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US-Sponsored Fellowship Program Benefits Women Scientists in Africa

They were chosen from among 800 candidates to receive a special agricultural fellowship for African women. And among this year winners -- a plant pathologist, a catfish breeder, a soybean specialist. They all hope to benefit from the two-year program sponsored by United States Agency for International Development and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Sixty women from a variety of agricultural science backgrounds were among receivers of this year's AWARD fellowship - the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development.

"All of our fellows are working on pro-poor research. From climate change to indigenous vegetables to plant breeding to post harvest processing. And they share one passion: to change the face of agriculture in Africa," said Vicki Wilde, AWARD's executive director.

Wilde says the two-year fellowship helps top African female scientists strengthen their research and leaderships skills to alleviate poverty across the continent. Since 2008, 180 women have been chosen from among 1,500 applicants. Ruth Amata, a senior research officer at the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is one of this year's winners. "I am a plant pathologist. I am working on diseases affecting passion fruit, cassava, sweet potato, tomato and millets," she said.

Amata says her goal is to improve food security despite Kenya's often harsh weather conditions.

"Two-thirds of Kenya is semi-arid. This means, you cannot just grow anything & anywhere. I am working on crops like cassava and sweet potato. These are crops that can tolerate harsh climatic conditions. Coming up with varieties that would tolerate viruses will contribute toward higher yields," she said.

Amata says she also hopes to learn from other African women scientists. Mabel Mahasi, a soybean specialist, was fellow in 2008.

"What AWARD has done for me is to train and empower me to get out there and do a lot of mentorship, especially with young girls who are trying to get into science. I am also trying to tell the girls, don't avoid to take agricultural courses because the destiny of this country depends on agriculture, which actually contributes to about 26 percent of our GDP," she said.

Mahasi says her first mentors were her parents. "I got interested because every time dad traveled, he brought a plant. For example we have a banana which still lives on at our farm that has long shelf life that was introduced to us from Uganda. We have yams that are from Eastern Kenya," she said.

Maryam Imbumi, a nutritionist from South Africa, was a fellow in 2009. She concentrates on malnutrition among children under five and women who breastfeed. "Protein energy malnutrition is one of the biggest problems in western Kenya. That goes together with iron deficiencies. Vitamin A deficiencies is also a big problem," she said.

Imbumi says it is important to solve the problem with a diverse approach. "I'll use all avenues. I'll use other traditional foods and vegetables because they grow easily. Farmers can grow them in their kitchen gardens. They don't need to pump chemicals into them... So it's easy to motivate them to grow them and they also know how to cook them," she added.

AWARD Executive Director Vicki Wilde says the fellowship program's short-term impact is clear. "We are already seeing sharpened up scientific skills//ranging from fuel briquettes made out of waste in the slums to poultry breeding that may fight avian flu. Innovations that are relevant to Africa but also to the world," she said.

Female farmers play a big role in African agriculture. The Kenyan research firm ASTI says women make up 60 to 80 percent of the agricultural force in Africa. The 180 women who have received fellowships have come from 10 African countries.