“I ask all of the women in the room to please stand up. You are all ‘excellencies’ here; you are feeding the world.” This was how Dr. Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, Chief Executive Officer and Head of Mission for the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN) opened her keynote address at the Third Global Conference on Agricultural Research and Development (GCARD3).
Indeed, if you look at the statistics, women are feeding the world, especially in Africa and Asia where half or more of the agricultural work force comprises of women. Women account for a majority of the producers, processors, and marketers of food in Africa, yet only a fourth of agricultural researchers are women . The picture of an African woman attending to her crops is fairly easy to conjure up. The picture of an African woman in a lab coat is surely less common in our collective mindset. This is something that should change.
Referring to a South African saying, Dr Sibanda said, “Nothing for us, without us”. This struck me as the most succinct summary I have heard to describe the necessity of women’s representation. If agricultural research and development practices are going to have an impact on African women, then African women need to be a part of those practices and they need to be in decision-making positions. While this appears obvious, the reality is that it isn’t.
The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) is a mentorship program that has aimed to make this a reality since 2008. The vision of AWARD is that: “Critical advances and innovations in agricultural development for Africa are led and enriched by the contributions of capable, confident, and influential African women”. The program’s mission is: “To build an effective and transferable career-development program for women in agricultural research and development in sub-Saharan Africa”.
I spoke to Dr. Siboniso Moyo, the Director General’s representative in Ethiopia for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), about her time as a mentor for AWARD. She was a part of the first mentorship group in 2008.
She described the excitement of when the group first met. At this time, food security was a very huge issue, Dr. Moyo said. “If there is a food shortage, women here are the first to be impacted. They make sure their children and husbands are fed first, and so they are the last to eat whatever might be left.” The women in the group experienced the issues that they were addressing at a very personal level.
Those who were being mentored felt truly privileged to be a part of the group. There was an amazement at the first meeting when everyone shared their different experiences, followed by the realisation they were all facing similar challenges and barriers. The mentors knew then that this would be a great opportunity to learn and grow together, and there was a celebratory feeling in the room, Dr. Moyo said. Since then, the program has really helped those women to progress in their fields, and they have gone on to be noticed in their communities. Now Dr Moyo sees more women motivated to try and go further in these fields.
Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director of AWARD, spoke at the conference on the need for more women in agricultural research and the necessity in Africa to support the capacity development of women. Because with the challenges that Africa faces, it is ridiculous to be “playing with only half of your team”. She spoke of the powers that women will need in order to achieve more in their fields, and made this very poignant observation: “Capacity building is critical. We are all sitting here today because at one point, someone invested in our capacity”.
Being a sponsored youth delegate at the conference, while undergoing a year-long fellowship myself, this statement really spoke to me. Nobody starts off as a head researcher, an organizational director, or a CEO. Most of us must start off with internships, sponsorships, mentorships, and the like. If women, especially African women, do not have access to these types of programs to enable them to build their capacities, then truly society is failing them. Beyond that, society is failing itself.
During the conference Jim Cano, youth delegate and a keynote speaker, quoted Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the UN: “Empowered, they can be key agents for development and peace. If, however, they are left on society’s margins, all of us will be impoverished”. While he was referring to youth, I think these words can speak just as strongly in regards to women.
AWARD is a program empowering African women to be key agents for development, and by doing so, AWARD is enriching Africa.
With special thanks to Dr. Siboniso Moyo (ILRI)
Blogpost by Natalie Orentlicher, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – norentlicher(at)gmail.com
Photo courtesy ILRI/David White
This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.