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  • on 28.08.2014
  • at 04:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Women for Expo – Jane Karuku (AGRA): Africa’s own Green Revolution cannot happen without women 0

“We need to unleash Africa’s agricultural potential in a way that capitalizes on the extraordinarily large pool of talented women across the continent”, says Jane Karuku, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organization aiming to help smallholder farmers boost their productivity and lift themselves out of poverty.

AGRA targets breadbasket regions across the continent in order to achieve food security and fuel Africa’s very own Green Revolution. Ms. Karuku advocates a scientific approach, with important investments in African agricultural research, and supports the whole agricultural value chain – from seeds to education and innovation. In this interview released by Afronline as part of a project with Expo 2015*, Ms. Karuku claims the upcoming Universal Exhibition in Milan “has a very important role to play in increasing the visibility of women in agriculture”.  

What are the main objectives of AGRA?  Do you have a specific strategy dedicated to women in agricultural sector?

AGRA was created with one overriding purpose: to catalyze a uniquely African green revolution – one that makes the most of Africa’s natural bounty and the talents of its people. The revolution we are working towards must be compatible with Africa’s diverse agro-ecological zones, recognize the threats posed by climate change, and protect the environment as it sustainably increases the productivity and profitability of millions of smallholder farmers.

Our long-term vision is  a food-secure and prosperous future for all Africans, and we work with many partners across the continent to help smallholder farmers (70% of whom are women, by the way) overcome the challenges they face every day. Our organizational objectives include reducing food and nutritional insecurity by 50% in at least 20 countries by 2020; doubling the incomes of 20 million smallholder families; and setting at least 30 countries on a pathway towards a sustainable Green Revolution that fits local needs and realities.

Given that women constitute the majority of smallholders, a lot of our work is designed to help them specifically. Our strategy is focused on raising the profile of women farmers and making sure their needs are mainstreamed into wider planning and in conducting agricultural research and development activities. This has several implications for us. First, we need to make sure our own programs reflect gender integration and are implemented in gender-equitable ways. Second, we must build our grantees’ capacity to integrate and assess gender effectiveness in AGRA-sponsored programs. Third, we invest in building knowledge and awareness about gender issues among agricultural development practitioners. And fourth, we have to implement internal policies and systems that support an equitable working environment.

AGRA places a lot of emphasis on scientific innovation and on the production and distribution of high yielding seed varieties in Africa. In what ways can the development of improved seed varieties and other agricultural innovations directly impact the everyday life of a woman in African rural areas? Have you witnessed on-the-ground benefits, and also limits?

AGRA focuses on the development and distribution of improved seed and related innovations, but we do many other things I should mention here. We take a complete value chain approach to our work, which stretches from farmers’ fields all the way to the tables of those who purchase, prepare and eat the food African farmers produce. So yes, we start at the beginning of that value chain with investments to increase farmers’ access to affordable high-quality seed – but we are also strongly focused on Africa’s soil health crisis and the need to reverse decades of degradation on its farmlands. AGRA also places a lot of effort towards opening new market opportunities for small-scale producers and agribusinesses. We work with governments to identify regulatory bottlenecks and develop fresh policy options based on individual countries’ reform agendas. We invest in strengthening existing farmer groups – many of which are led by women – and support the development of new ones. We create and test new approaches to increase the availability of affordable credit for smallholders as well as small- to medium-scale agribusinesses, which are also often owned and operated by women.

All of these efforts contribute to increasing the productivity and profitability of smallholder farmers, women and men alike. This in turn improves household food security and nutrition, increases incomes, and reduces poverty. When I travel to the field with our grantees, I see how the lives of people we help are being transformed by our investments. Our challenge now is to scale up and move from changing the lives of tens of thousands of farmers to tens of millions. This is happening at an accelerating rate thanks to the numerous grassroots organizations we support.

Where do African women currently stand in the fields of agricultural research and scientific innovation?    

Not where they should be standing – at least not yet. There are hundreds of highly qualified and very talented women scientists involved in agricultural research and development, and hundreds more currently being trained and pursuing advanced MSc and PhD degrees. But we need to encourage them to participate in the development of gender-sensitive technologies and approaches to improving African agriculture. This will take time and investment by many organizations, and not just AGRA. I have no doubt the bright young women we need are out there. Maybe just as importantly, we also invest in building the business acumen of women involved in various activities along the agricultural value chain – from organizers and leaders of farmer organizations to private agro dealers, seed supply companies, and small-scale value-adding food processing enterprises.

Which networks, organizations and institutions (on a national, regional or continental level) does AGRA work with in order to strengthen women’s agricultural productivity, efficiency and effectiveness at all points across the value chain?

One of our key partners is the AWARD program – African Women in Agricultural Research and Development – which aims to expand and strengthen the capacity of African women scientists. AGRA and AWARD strongly agree that Africa’s Green Revolution will come all the more quickly if we stop wasting human talent and bring women’s experience to the fields and the laboratories where agricultural innovations and technologies are being developed. We need to speed up women’s career advancements in Africa now.

We also work in Eastern and Southern Africa with WASSA – ‘Women in Agribusiness in Sub-Saharan Africa Alliance’ – a women’s agribusiness network established in 2008 that works across the entire agricultural value chain. They focus on creating wealth and on supporting economic independence for women and youths through a strong network of partnerships within the agricultural sector. Our role is to provide WASSA and its growing membership with training and capacity building.

AGRA was created in order to drastically improve African agriculture, and to do so as rapidly as possible. Thus the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The Rockefeller Foundation joined forces in 2006 to get the organization started, remaining stalwart supporters of our work to this day. Finally, agriculture is a critical force underpinning general economic growth and development in Africa, and we work with many public and private partners to improve the long-term productivity and profitability of this sector.

The theme chosen for Expo Milano 2015 is ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life’. In what way can this Universal Exposition promote the role of African women, science and technology in the future of agricultural development and sustainability?

I think that Expo Milano 2015 has a very important role to play in increasing the visibility of women in agriculture – whether on the farm or in research and development. With about 60% of the world’s remaining arable land (yet untouched), Africa holds tremendous potential for feeding itself and the world. We need to unleash this potential in a way that capitalizes on the extraordinarily large pool of talented women across the continent. We need to create opportunities that attract them to agricultural research and agribusinesses, and we need to make them more productive on farms. All this is happening now, but it needs to happen faster and more broadly. Expo Milano 2015 can help draw attention to this challenge and the opportunities that come with it.

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

The smell of freshly watered earth after a downpour is  especially wonderful  in rural Africa. You smell the clean air and soil, and you can almost see the earth nourishing the seeds planted there; seeds that will yield crops and feed families in the coming season.

Is there a dish that has a particularly important meaning to you and why? Can you share the recipe? 

I would have to say that I like all the traditional dishes prepared in Kenya, which are very wholesome and tasty. If I was to pick one though it would have to be ‘irio’ – a dish made by boiling and pounding peeled potatoes, garden peas and spinach or pumpkin leaves. To make it extra tasty, one can fry onions in a little sunflower oil and add in the pounded mixture, stirring the whole time.

* This interview was published in the framework of “Women for Expo”, a project promoted by Expo Milano 2015.

By Sofia Christensen –

Photo credit: AGRA

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