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7 Women Revolutionizing Agriculture in Africa

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By: Leah Ngari

Did you know that women contribute about 40% of labor in the agriculture sector in Africa? Women are involved in every facet of the agriculture production chain, as independent producers, unremunerated family workers, wage laborers, and processing and packaging operators

Female share of agriculture labor by country

Female share of agriculture labor by country. Source: Palacios-Lopez, Christiaensen, Kilic (2017)

Continue reading to learn about seven AWARD fellows revolutionizing agriculture in Africa. 

  • Dr. Mavis Owureku-Asare

This Ghanaian AWARD Fellow is on a mission to enable local food processing to create a market for local farm produce. Tomatoes are a staple in Ghana, with its famous Jollof rice and other stews using tomatoes as a major ingredient. And yet, tomato farmers in the country experience major post-harvest loss and get very low prices for their locally produced tomatoes. Post-harvest losses are so great that Ghana even imports tomato paste while all locally produced tomatoes go bad.

Dr. Owureku-Asare saw this challenge as an opportunity. A major factor in post-harvest tomato losses is the expense associated with tomato processing along with tomatoes’ short shelf-life, so Mavis came up with alternative methods. Drawing from both indiginous and conventional processing technologies, she designed solar-powered dehydrators that could dry the tomatoes. This helps tomato farmers retain more value from their tomatoes, since they are no longer forced to race against the clock and sell their tomatoes at rock-bottom prices before they rot. Since dried tomatoes can be used as a substitute for tomato paste in many recipes, Dr. Owureku-Asare hopes that her invention will allow Ghanaians to use more local tomatoes in their food preparation and reduce the need to import tomato products from abroad. 

  • Dr. Binta Iliyasu

Dr. Binta Iliyasu, a Nigerian born scientist, aims to end the ‘sleeping sickness’ (also known as Trypanosomiasis) – a cattle disease that affects both animals and humans in Sub Saharan Africa. She is part of the team working towards a vaccine against this disease, a move that would save the lives of many and reduce hunger by enabling the affected to have access to milk and meat that cattle provide.

“I aspire to be a role model who will inspire the participation of women,” says the mother of five. Indeed, her achievements so far make her an inspiration to women across the continent.

  • Prof. Jane Ambuko

Like many other young Africans today, Prof. Jane Ambuko used to think that working in agriculture meant laboring all day in a small parcel of land. After excelling in science and math through primary and secondary school in Kenya, Ambuko was set to become the first girl in her family to attend an undergraduate institution when she received the devastating news that her kidneys were failing. Her father nevertheless encouraged her to go to university nonetheless despite her ongoing dialysis treatment. At the University of Nairobi, Ambuko met the faculty dean, Professor Daniel Mukunya, who not only inspired her to study agriculture but also convinced the university’s medical team to perform her kidney transplant for free. 

Ambuko’s dedication and intelligence earned her a fellowship to the prestigious Tsukuba University in Japan, where she earned a PhD. Returning to Kenya as Dr. Ambuka, Jane began directing her energy to the problem of post harvest losses, working with local farmers to improve produce handling and transportation. Most recently, Jane created Coolbot, a device that can turn any insulated room fitted with an AC unit into a cool room, which makes cold storage more accessible to more farmers and thus increases shelf life of produce and reduces post-harvest waste. Ambuko’s solutions have already empowered numerous farmers to retain more value from their crops, and we are excited to see what the future has in store for this exceptional scientist!

  • Dr. Bridget Bwalya

Growing up, Dr. Bridget Bwalya’s parents worked in Zambia’s copper mines and grew maize and sweet potatoes for subsistence. As a child, Dr. Bwalya could not understand why her parents insisted on maintaining their farm despite its lack of profitability, refusing to accept the answer that “we farm because we grow food to eat.” During her studies in Uganda and Norway, Dr. Bwalya observed and listened to many different farmers to understand the challenges they faced and the solutions they had come up with.

Dr. Bwalya believes that farmers know what is best for them, and so scientists should not approach farmers with ready-made solutions. Instead, there should be more collaboration between farmers and scientists in identifying best practices. She also believes that scientists and policy-makers should not pursue an “all-or-nothing” approach, instead allowing farmers to select and adapt the technologies and farming habits that they can integrate and adapt into their work. Dr. Bwalya’s approach has improved several already existing projects where farmers had already been introduced to modern farming techniques but had not adopted them. 

Now, Dr. Bwalya has acquired an eight-hectare farm in Zambia’s Copperbelt, where she will work with 120 local farmers to conduct her research.  

  • Dr. Florence Habwe

There are many highly nutritious indigenous vegetables in Africa that are, unfortunately, ignored in favor of the overly processed, less nutritious, fatty foods. As a result, the methods of use and preservation for many of these vegetables has slowly been forgotten, dying away with the older generation of traditional African farmers who consumed these vegetables. 

Dr. Florence Habwe seeks to remind us of these forgotten foods through her research and her book, the Nutrient Content of Formulated African Indigenous Vegetable Recipes

Her research aims to bring back these food items to improve people’s health and diversify food consumption. Her research also helps farmers by creating a market for their crops. Indeed, as more people learn about these foods, their nutritious value and how to prepare them, local and international demand for these crops will increase, benefiting farmers and consumers alike. Dr. Habwe had received the prestigious Young Scientist National Award (Life Sciences) from the African Union in recognition of her work. 

  • Dr. Christine Mukantwali

Rwandan pineapples are known for being particularly sweet and juicy, and Christine Mukantwali is part of the reason why you could have high quality processed pineapple products made in Rwanda on your shelves. Christine started her research journey evaluating the processes and products of pineapples and makes recommendations to improve the processing.

Christine has also conducted research on small enterprises in fruit processing to find out their constraints and come up with ways to overcome these constraints. With successful solutions, small scale farmers could get access to the export market, improving their lives immensely. She now works as the City Region Food System (CRFS) Programme under FAO Rwanda and serves as the President of the Rwanda Nutritionists’ Society, where she works on increasing food security in her native Rwanda.

  • Dr. Annet Abenakyo Mulema

The one non-scientist on this list, Dr. Annet Abenakyo Mulema holds a PhD in Sociology from Iowa State University following a first and second degree in agriculture-related fields. 

Annet has dedicated her research towards bringing to light gender inequalities in agriculture. In her current work at the International Livestock Research Institute, Dr. Mulema has focussed on Ethiopia’s livestock production, which has left out the women for a long time. 

Her research paves way for possible interventions to empower women in livestock production by increasing research and investment in grassroots and policy-focused projects. For Annet, you cannot solve a problem if you don’t know that it exists..

Conclusion

Women make up half the population in Africa. As the continent works towards eliminating hunger and poverty, recognizing women’s contribution to agricultural research and policy-making and giving female scientists and researchers access to opportunities and resources is vital to the development of agriculture on the continent. 

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