A group of leading African women scientists on Wednesday urged African leaders and the U.S. policy-makers to put women at the center of efforts to address chronic hunger and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
Expressing concern over the lack of women in decision-making roles in agricultural development issues in Africa, the women scientists said activating women in research roles critical to achieving food security and development goals.
During a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to research facilities outside Nairobi, the group, comprising both veteran and up-and-coming Kenyan women scientists, argued that, only if women can exert more influence over priorities, policies and programs, will sub-Saharan Africa be able to ward off future food crises and cope effectively with more frequent drought and other impacts of climate change.
"The outstanding achievements of the women of the AWARD program serve as a model and inspiration to women farmers all over Africa," said Vilsack in his response to AWARD fellows.
"As part of (U.S.) President (Barak) Obama's international initiative to help millions become food secure, a focus on women farmers will be an important and integral part of this effort."
Women account for as much as 80 percent of Africa's food production. But their access to land, to vital services, such as credit, and to improved technologies is extremely limited.
They receive only 5 percent of agricultural extension training and 10 percent of rural credit. Furthermore, few agricultural projects are being designed to address women's specific needs. Only a quarter of its researchers and development experts are women, and only 14 percent of the management positions in agricultural research and development are female.
"Science is crucial to building a pathway out of poverty," said Sheila Ommeh, a Kenyan scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).
"Yet, few young Africans are pursuing careers in agricultural research and science. We need support in expanding that number."
The women said measures like the U.S. Global Food Security Act of 2009 are a step in the right direction.
But the impact of this initiative will be limited unless it is reinforced by more targeted efforts to provide Africa's women farmers with the technical and financial resources they must have to respond to new economic opportunities.
"Investing in women is the smart solution to Africa's hunger," said Kenyan horticulture professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango.
"It will help ensure that U.S. development resources yield maximum returns in reducing food insecurity and poverty." The women called on Clinton and Vilsack to help convey it to African policy makers.
The scientists form part of a program called African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Coordinated by the Gender & Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), AWARD provides 60 fellowships yearly to boost the female talent pool supporting Africa's farmers, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
"Agriculture is recognized as an engine for economic growth in Africa. What is less well recognized is that women run this engine. From before dawn to after dusk, they keep all its parts moving," said Vicki Wilde, the director of the Gender & Diversity Program of the CGIAR.
"We cannot defeat hunger and poverty in Africa unless women have a strong voice."
Despite the limitations faced by Africa's female farmers, recent cases demonstrate how well-crafted policies and programs can achieve major impact by targeting women, based on knowledge of their important role in agricultural production, according to the World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development.
A CGIAR program aimed at widening the impact of improved bean varieties reached more than 35 million rural people in seven countries of eastern and southern Africa by targeting women, who primarily grow the crop.
Bean experts relied on informal channels to which female farmers have ready access, like community and church groups, for distributing small, affordable packets of bean seed.
Offering 30 to 50 percent higher yields, the highly nutritious and marketable new beans are helping women bolster household food security and raise their incomes.
The scientists also stressed that in order for such initiatives to multiply and succeed, it is vital that African women gain more influence over priorities, policies and programs.
An encouraging sign are recent findings showing the gender gap in Africa's agricultural science narrowing.
Between 2000 and 2008, the proportion of female professional staff in Africa's agricultural research and higher education grew from 18 to 24 percent, according to a recent study carried out by AWARD and the CGIAR-supported International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
"Even women scientists who have completed their education and entered the work force may still drop out because of obstacles they encounter on the career ladder, so few reach positions of leadership," said Wilde.
"AWARD better enables these women to stay on track by supporting them in their efforts to help farmers in their countries."
Now in its second year, AWARD has provided fellowships to 121 women scientists from 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
AWARD's focus on strengthening women's leadership capacity is consistent with more than 15 years of rigorous gender analysis dealing with rural households.