Storytelling event highlights agricultural research achievements in Africa
A recent engaging storytelling event hosted by African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), saw four accomplished African women researchers working on agriculture and food security share their personal journeys in agricultural research and discuss how which they are working to transform agriculture on the continent. The event held virtually garnered an impressive turnout, with 123 attendees participating from across Africa, Asia and Europe. Dorothy Mukhebi, Acting Director of AWARD, explained that the event aims to highlight African food systems research and celebrate some of the outstanding researchers from Burkina Faso, Kenya, Malawi and Senegal.
Since 2008, AWARD has invested in building a cadre of capable, confident and influential African scientists to lead critical advances and innovations in the agricultural research and development sector.
AWARD’s motivation is to accelerate the careers of African researchers and their capacities, in order to lead the agricultural research and development agenda on the continent. AWARD’s unique career development programs foster mentoring partnerships, build scientific skills, enhance leadership capacity, and catalyze networks and research collaborations. To date, 641 scholars from 25 countries have participated in various scholarships offered by the organization.
Putting farmers at the center
Describing what sparked their interest in science and agricultural transformation, the four AWARD researchers shared how, from an early age, the desire to make a difference was sparked. “My background inspired me to become an agronomist to find solutions to improve the living conditions of rural families, especially for small producers like my parents,” said Dr. Éveline Compaoré, expert in innovation systems and 2018 PRIZE Scholar from Burkina Faso.
As one of 10 children, Eveline has deep respect and admiration for her mother, who worked hard to support her family but struggled with low yields and income. “There was no justice for what she was doing as a rural farmer; she couldn’t afford to buy what she needed,” continues Éveline.
Inspired to help other farmers – especially women – overcome the kind of challenges her own family faced, Éveline now spends much of her time working alongside local communities. In doing so, she learns about their daily farming practices and works alongside them to help them improve their businesses and incomes. “When you use an inclusive approach in your research, the community is involved in the process. Now our project is working to involve everyone and give all voices a chance to be heard! she enthuses.
Plant pathologist Miriam Karwitha from Kenya also comes from a farming family and is passionate about collaborating and engaging farmers to develop their own solutions. “Rural women farmers – and men – are very knowledgeable. By working with them, we learn from them, and they are very open to ideas, they embrace change,” she said.
Improving farmers’ access to certified, uncontaminated and disease-free seed for better crop yields, and highlighting the importance of achieving this, has significantly influenced Miriam’s career path. Growing up on her family’s coffee farm, she saw her parents struggle with common diseases such as coffee rust – and the desire to help other farmers find disease control solutions motivated her. to study science, with an emphasis on crop disease, at university.
Today, Miriam says, part of her job is to help smallholders form community seed organizations, which enables them to identify local farmers who produce certified seed. In turn, this allows them to buy affordable and ‘safe’ seeds at a lower price than agro-dealers. “When farmers use these technologies, we see the change in their income, the change in their yields and we feel very happy because we have touched the lives of these farmers,” she shared.
In Kenya’s Laikipia County, where Miriam trained bean farmers in the adoption of climate-smart varieties and good agronomic practices, she noted that farmers recorded a five-fold increase (and more) in production.
Doing ground with soil science
“During my masters studies, I realized that soil plays an important role in people’s diets,” says Austin Phiri, a soil scientist and 2019 Malawi One Planate Laureate nominee. Working with sorghum farmers who are battling frequent droughts and high temperatures, Austin offers training in techniques such as intercropping and the application of fertilizer and manure to improve crop production.
Austin shares an anecdote of one particular farmer and his wife: “Mr. Muari used to get six bags of grain sorghum per acre, but now he can get 12 bags. His wife was also able to improve her family’s nutrition by harvesting green beans that would otherwise go unused. Any surplus is sold at the market to earn additional income to support the household.
Fatou Ndoye, a Senegalese microbiologist, also highlighted the importance of soil for food security. Reflecting on the problem that first attracted her to agriculture, she explained, “In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70% of the rural population is engaged in agriculture. And yet, it does not feed the population… What has become of our agriculture? It is now known that the cultivation of a single crop, with an excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, has completely destroyed our soils, which have become very poor.
Aiming to find a solution to this problem, Fatou’s work focuses on improving the productivity of key crops in Senegal, including groundnuts, cotton and fonio, using sustainable and safe inputs. “By reducing chemical fertilizers and replacing them with organic fertilizers, the yields of these crops were equal or better. This exciting result was an opportunity to train and educate rural farmers about these production techniques and improve their living conditions,” she enthused.
Fatou also promotes the production of neglected and underutilized plant species (such as pigeon pea, which is nutritious and can improve soil fertility) to a group of rural women farmers to support food security for their families. and the local community. In doing so, she was impressed by their courage, determination and willingness to try something different. “These courageous women learned to cultivate this plant in the nursery and then in the field, and were made aware of the prospects for its development.
A hopeful future for agricultural production on the continent
Noting some of her accomplishments, Fatou smiles, “I have studied plants that have value for contributing to food and income security in Senegal, and developing agriculture in the country. I’m very proud of that!”
Éveline ended the event with a poignant message for the young researchers present in the audience. “A dedication to young women who want to enter higher education – I did this despite my background. We can do it and we have to make the change – others can’t do it for us. She claimed that while balancing family demands with a competitive scientific career is difficult, it is not impossible – as she has proven!