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Gender equality in African agriculture: An innovation imperative

April 2018

By Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, Director, African Women in Agricultural Research (AWARD), Nairobi, Kenya

President Barack Obama once highlighted the importance of leveraging the talents of Africa’s women using the analogy of a football match. He pointed out that any team that decides to only put half its players on the field is destined to lose the match.

Africa is playing a life-and-death match when it comes to food security, especially in the context of climate change and population growth. The need for the talents of a full team is more urgent than ever.

“We need to leverage the talents of all innovators, including those of women,” says AWARD’s Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg (photo: robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo).

Women in African agriculture

Women play a central and critical role in African agriculture. Around 62 percent of them are involved in farming. Women do the bulk of the work to produce, process and market food. They are on the frontline of agriculture. Yet when it comes to shaping research agendas, setting priorities, decision-making and leadership in agricultural research and development, women are heavily underrepresented.They account for just 22 percent of agricultural scientists, with just one in seven women occupying leadership positions in agricultural research.

This means we are playing with only half a team. We need to broaden our focus so that we leverage the talents of women and men. We can no longer afford to wilfully leave women on the side lines. We can no longer ignore their innovation potential. We need to embrace their amazing talents, their ability to solve problems and to innovate.

“Women do the bulk of the work to produce, process and market food. They are on the frontline of agriculture in Africa,” notes Wanjiru Kamau- Rutenberg (photo: Peter Alexander / Alamy Stock Photo).

Women have so much to bring to the table. Their insights and perspectives can help researchers come up with effective solutions to address the unique challenges facing Africa’s farmers, many of which are compounded by climate change. 

Unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential

2008 AWARD Fellow Filomena Dos Anjos from Mozambique examines
indigenous chickens. Her research centers on improving the quality
and health of indigenous poultry (photo: Courtesy of AWARD).

Africa needs to build a robust and efficient agricultural research and innovation ecosystem. Our ability to make African agriculture more productive, profitable and sustainable depends on it.

In a context of climate change, rapid urbanization and rampant malnutrition, we need to ensure that African “agripreneurs,” especially farmers, have access to the type of innovations they need to overcome the unique challenges they face.  If we are to feed ourselves and build thriving economies, it is imperative that we increase the pace of agricultural innovation. We can no longer afford to outsource our agricultural research needs. We need to leverage the talents of all innovators, including those of women. Only then will we deliver workable solutions that are relevant to the needs of Africa’s farmers. We cannot afford to play with half a team!

Innovation has a critical role to play at every step of the agriculture value chain. Take indigenous vegetables, of which there are many in Africa. Many of them are being overharvested in the wild. There is a serious role for agricultural research to expand our knowledge in this area. How do we ensure they are farmed sustainably? How can we help farmers develop thriving businesses around indigenous plants and vegetables? And how can we help consumers understand the nutritional value of these crops? There is a role for innovation at every step. 

Toward inclusive agriculture-driven prosperity

Recognizing the need to draw on 100 percent of available talent, over the past decade African Women in Agricultural Research Development (AWARD) has been working to promote inclusive agriculture-driven prosperity for Africa. Our aim is to build an agricultural sector that responds to the needs and priorities of women and men across agriculture value chains. Our training programs are helping to build a critical mass of capable, confident and influential women scientists to lead critical advances in agricultural research and innovation.

Innovation has a critical role to play at every step of the agricultural value chain.

Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberger

Through our flagship AWARD Fellowship initiative, for example, we have strengthened the science, leadership and mentoring skills of 1,158 scientists from over 300 research institutions in 16 African countries. The women who take part in these programs are tackling some of the most intractable problems facing farmers. 

They include Filomena Dos Anjos, a 2008 AWARD Fellow and a leading animal health scientist from Mozambique. Ms. Dos Anjos is breaking new ground in the health and husbandry of indigenous chicken which are an important source of protein and income in her country. She works with women and young farmers to promote the use of a thermo-tolerant vaccine against the deadly Newcastle Disease, and on brooding and feeding technologies to improve productivity. Her work is helping to strengthen the food security and incomes of these chicken farmers.

In her doctoral research, Phyllis Muturi, a 2013 AWARD Fellow from Kenya, is focusing on high-yielding drought-tolerant varieties of sorghum, a prized crop and food source in Kenya’s drylands. “I see significant improvement and conservation of sorghum in Kenya, with research yielding new sorghum varieties that perform far better than their predecessors in terms of grain yield and stem borer attack resistance,” she says.

And Yenesew Mengiste Yihun, a 2015 AWARD Fellow and agricultural engineer from Ethiopia, is working with smallholders to improve water management practices. “Research is important to alleviate problems for rural farmers,” says Dr. Yihun. “If we produce more, the country will be self-sustained and food secure.” Dr. Yihun provides smallholder farmers with practical solutions to manage their resources more efficiently. “I respect their indigenous knowledge and show them how they can use irrigation to make their efforts more successful,” she says. 

Women play a critical role in African agriculture. Around 62 percent
of them are involved in farming yet they are heavily underrepresented
when it comes to shape agricultural research and development
agendas (photo: Courtesy of AWARD).

As a recent review of the gender gap in African agricultural research capacity  in the Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security (April 27, 2017) confirms, training female scientists in the areas of mentoring, leadership and scientific research has a transformative effect not just on each scientist’s own career, but on the performance of their institution.

Intellectual property as a driver of agricultural innovation

At AWARD we recognize that intellectual property (IP) has a key role to play in ensuring that agricultural research translates into practical solutions that get into the hands of farmers and other actors along agriculture value chains. IP unlocks the transformative potential of agricultural research by making it available to and attractive for private sector players to develop and commercialize technological innovations for widespread distribution and uptake by farmers and others. 

The potential of IP to drive the transformation of African agriculture has been recognized at the highest levels of government. In 2016, theAfrican Union Heads of State and Government endorsed the Dakar Declaration on Intellectual Property for Africa. The Declaration recognizes “the importance and relevance of intellectual property for innovation and creativity in the knowledge-based economy.” It further emphasizes “the role of IP in advancing innovation for sustainable agricultural technologies, for the use and transfer of environmentally sound technologies, and to help guarantee food security… and combat the negative effect of climate change…” And it calls upon the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), as the global forum for IP services, policy, information and cooperation, “to lead the development of a balanced and effective international IP system that enables innovation and creativity for the benefit of all.”

In this context, we need to redouble efforts to ensure that Africa’s female scientists have a place at the table and play an active role in shaping the continent’s agricultural landscape.

A gender gap in innovation

Research by WIPO indicates that while globally the number of women using the international patent system has increased over time, it will be decades before we see women patenting their innovations at the same rate as their male counterparts. These data show that in 2015, just one-third of international patent applications filed featured the name of a women inventor. We already know that women are less likely to be named as authors in scientific publications. Now, there is evidence of a yawning gender gap in the use of WIPO’s Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which facilitates the process of obtaining patent protection in more than 150 countries.

While more research is needed to establish the extent of the IP gender gap in Africa, the low proportion of women in science and technology across the continent, and generally low levels of patenting activity, suggest that the research done by women in Africa is not finding its way into the hands of those who most need it, the farmers, the majority of whom are women.

Christine Onyango (second from left) Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture at Kenyatta University teaches her students about milk processing (photo: Courtesy of AWARD).

Existing gender gaps in agricultural research and the use of IP have potentially dire consequences for Africa’s agriculture and food security. The continent is facing intense challenges. We need to support innovation to find effective solutions. Yet we are saddled with a system that fails to make efficient use of the talents of at least half the population. We have a system that impedes the participation of women in scientific research and fails to support female scientists in the practical application of their research at the farm gate and across agriculture value chains. Much of their research simply gathers dust on a shelf when it could actively support agricultural and agribusiness development across the continent.

We need to act now

Gender is attracting a great deal of attention, and that is a good thing. But we still need to find ways to ensure that more women are able to have an equal voice in developing innovative technologies and creative solutions to address the daunting challenges we face. WIPO data suggest that at current rates, we will not see gender parity in the use of the international patent system until 2070. We cannot wait that long!

Our problems are far too pressing. Our survival and future prosperity hinges on making the best use of all the talent we have and leveraging it to produce the technologies we need to boost efficiency, productivity and profitability across agriculture value chains.  

That is why in 2017, in a further attempt to move the dial on gender in African agriculture, AWARD partnered with WIPO in holding a regional conference on Innovation and Intellectual Property as Engines for Competitive Agribusiness: Empowering Women Researchers and Entrepreneurs in Africa. The conference brought together over 200 African women agricultural scientists and agribusiness owners. It was an invaluable opportunity for them to learn more about the IP system: how IP information can support their research and how IP rights can be used to ensure that their high-quality research translates into marketable solutions that are widely available at the farm gate. Our participation in this important event, which was organized with the support of the Governments of France, Morocco and Japan, is part of our ongoing commitment to ensuring that the full potential of Africa’s talent base is realized.

By utilizing women’s talents to the full, we will be better placed to leverage science, technology and innovation to solve the chronic and pressing problems facing the continent, particularly with respect to food security and climate change.

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