Article written

  • on 01.10.2014
  • at 05:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Women for Expo – Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg (AWARD): Growing Kenyan greens on an American balcony 0

‘Women scientists in Africa are a tremendous investment, but the return is absolutely spectacular’, says Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program. Speaking to, Ms. Kamau explains the importance of supporting African women scientists… and shows her dedication to Kenyan cuisine on the other side of the world.

AWARD is a career-development program that builds research and leadership skills for women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa. Through a series of tailored fellowships, AWARD aims to bring critical advances and innovations to Africa’s agricultural development, contributing to the prosperity and well-being of smallholder farmers across the continent. This interview was published in the framework of “Women for Expo”, a project promoted by Expo Milano 2015.

Why is it so important to bridge the gender divide in Agricultural Research and Development (ARD) for the future of agriculture and food security in Africa? Have you witnessed significant progress over the past 10 years?

If Africa is to feed 2.4 billion people by 2050, it must increase its food production by 260 per cent. To meet this very ambitious goal, we need to build a robust, resilient ARD ecosystem across the continent. Part of this can be achieved with gender diversity, which means cutting into the talent of both innovative men and women that can help us meet these ambitious goals. Over the past eight years with AWARD, I have witnessed the tremendous work they do to drive agricultural innovation. We support African women scientists who want to pursue their career, women who come up with innovations that are transforming the face of agriculture across the continent. These female scientists are increasingly stepping into leadership positions, and a significant portion of their research is dedicated to improving the lives of smallholder farmers.

Do you work with particular research centres or universities in Africa that actively promote the role of women in ARD?  

At AWARD, there are approximately 700 women scientists that have benefitted directly from our scholarships. These come from over 200 institutions spread across 11 African countries. We also work directly with universities who are strong in a particular subject area and make sure our fellows have access to their teaching facilities. For example, we have a partnership with the University of Stellenbosch where we regularly send women for advanced science training programs. In addition, AWARD has a memorandum of understanding with the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), a consortium of over 40 universities with which we work directly and by extension to build the capacity of our fellows.

What kind of difficulties or advantages do women scientists in Africa face on the workplace compared to men?

The challenges African women scientists face on the workplace are actually not too different from those suffered by their counterparts in Europe. Above all there is lifestyle, or what we call the ‘double shift’ women play at work and at home. Another global problem is the under-representation of women in decision-making, which means systems and structures in the workplace easily overlook their particular needs. Women all around the world have difficulty breaking though this glass ceiling. At AWARD we support African women scientists in doing so – first by building their academic ability, then by mentoring them and teaching a series of confidence-boosting skills such as leadership and negotiation. Workingwomen need a community of support in order to break through, and this type of action is required globally.

When it comes to food and agriculture, what can female scientists bring more than their male counterparts? Can you give examples of successful agricultural research and innovation led by women in AWARD?

Well that is an interesting question. I would say it is easier for female scientists to connect with women smallholder farmers and understand the challenges they face. At AWARD we have seen hundreds of success stories! For instance Flower Ezekiel Msuya, a senior researcher at the University of Dar Es Salaam who is helping women seaweed farmers process their harvest into value-added products such as soap, cosmetics and even jam. Or Dorcas Olubunmi Ibitoye, a research officer at Nigeria’s National Horticultural Research Institute, working to find efficient and affordable screening methods for identifying drought-resistant traits in cowpeas. Then there is Mary Obodai from Ghana’s CSIR-Food Research Institute. She has trained over 3000 women farmers in mushroom production. You see, a single woman can turn around and train a significant number of farmers. Women scientists are a tremendous investment, but the return is absolutely spectacular.

You studied in the United States, first at Whitman College in Washington then at the University of Minnesota. In what ways was your experience different from a woman pursuing similar studies in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa?

It was fundamentally different. Resource availability on the African continent is depressing, whereas studying in the States meant I had access to resources my sisters on the continent could only dream of. This is part of what drove me back to Africa, and why I was attracted to AWARD as a way of making an impact. Talent is equally distributed around the globe, but resources are not, and I fundamentally believe in AWARD’s mission to try and redistribute resources in the same way as talent.

On a personal level, do you have any particularly striking memories of rural Africa?

My grandmothers were both smallholder farmers in Kenya. I often think about the hardships they endured, and the innovative ways they responded to these challenges. My paternal grandmother was particularly athletic but suffered from severe arthritis towards the end of her life. She had the sharpest mind, a real firecracker of a woman, and had gathered a lot of information from years of gruelling, difficult and repetitive manual work that eventually broke her body. Still I have a deep respect for how passionate these women were about their farms. My grandmother would visit us in the city but never stayed late because she was afraid of leaving her cows and chickens unattended. Just the attachment, commitment and sense of duty were tremendous! For me, my grandmothers represent the importance of our work at AWARD. We exist to bring forth innovation so that women like them do not have to suffer as much. There is a lot of talk about agricultural mechanization in Africa, but most of this is directed to men. Focusing solely on tractors means overlooking the layers on complexity that keep women farmers from accessing capital to buy tractors in the first place. Benefitting men is good, but Africa cannot produce the food it needs by only investing in male farm rights. Women farmers need to be accounted for as well, and we need to talk about mechanization and technologies that end the drudgery they face on a daily basis.

Is there a traditional dish or ingredient that holds a specific meaning for you? Why? Can you share the recipe?

My personal favourite is sukuma wiki with ugali. I eat this at least twice a week if not more. The dish is nothing fancy but it is filling, nutritious and I grew up on it. Sukuma wiki means ‘to push the week’, implying food used by resource-poor families to stretch meals over seven days. It is simply collared greens or kale sautéed in tomato sauce. You eat it with ugali, to which the closest Western equivalent I can think of is polenta. It is interesting because a variation of this dish is consumed across Sub-Saharan Africa. Every country has its own variation: the greens range from pumpkin leaves to more indigenous plants, and ugali – which is usually made with maize flower in Kenya – can be prepared using sorghum or millet. When I lived in the US, I would fill my suitcases with maize flower from Kenya and grow my own greens so that I could have sukuma wiki and ugali all year round. Only my special guests got to try it! What I love about this dish is the simplicity. It keeps me grounded, reminding me that regardless of the fancy job you have, the beauty of everyday life lies in simple things.

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: AWARD

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