Investing in women’s leadership skills

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Interview with Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg

Dr Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), discusses the importance of gender responsiveness and building women’s confidence across the agricultural sector.

At AWARD, you support women’s inclusion in African agribusiness. Are there any standout examples that have been through the programme which you feel are helping to bridge the gender gap?

We are really proud of all of the businesses that have stepped up to incorporate a gender lens into their business growth plans through our initiative on Gender in Agribusiness Investments for Africa. Cowtribe from Ghana, for example, is working on expanding access to veterinary services to rural areas. After participating in the AWARD AgTech Innovation Challenge, they started thinking about the importance of working with smaller mammals and chickens, understanding that more women work with and invest in smaller animals. Cowtribe then identified the provision of veterinary services for those animals as a gender-responsive way to grow their business.

Fresh Direct, a Nigerian business that grows vegetables in urban spaces, has won a tremendous amount of global recognition recently. Recognising that gaining access to land is often a major challenge for women, it has been fascinating to see how the company has addressed the issue by encouraging women to grow food in shipping containers.

CTA’s Pitch AgriHack competition is another initiative that provides young entrepreneurs, such as Cowtribe, with business mentoring and financial support. What role can this kind of support play in bringing more women into Africa’s agriculture sector?

Pitch AgriHack is a critically important part of Africa’s agripreneurship ecosystem. In addition, we need to work hard to ensure that women not only enter into agribusinesses, but that they have what it takes to remain in the ecosystem and continue developing there. We may have women entering the sector and launching their own businesses, but there is still more work to be done to build a healthier ecosystem where women can receive the support they need to grow their businesses.

My sense is that women have the ambition, the energy and the will to get their businesses up and running – but further down the road, our support systems are not conducive to sustainability. By support, I mean guidance from those with experience in a particular field, and this is crucial to the development of a sustainable business model. But support also comes in the form of access to capital, which is an equally important aspect that needs to be tackled.

You have just celebrated 10 years since AWARD was first established; what progress do you feel has been made over the last decade?

We are most proud of the fact that the AWARD Fellowships are bending the careers of African women scientists in an upward trajectory. By the end of 2019 over 1,300 scientists from 40 countries will have directly benefited from the AWARD Fellowships (as fellows, mentors and fellow mentees). Among the proven benefits of the AWARD Fellowship, especially for the women scientists in whom we invest, are increased inner strength, confidence, motivation, self-knowledge and career vision. Fellows have also confirmed significant improvements in their leadership and science research skills, as well as increased professional recognition and visibility.

Beyond the Fellowships, an additional 1,500 scientists and research leaders have benefited from AWARD’s partnerships with 46 research institutions from around the world, who have invested their own resources to pay for their staff to participate in AWARD training events.

AWARD has helped to bring gender and agricultural research to the forefront of discussions with influential actors – from the African Union, to the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM). We have worked with these African institutions to strengthen their commitment to gender responsiveness in agricultural research. As a result of AWARD’s work, organisations that work to fund agricultural research – from private philanthropic organisations, to bilateral donor agencies – have also heightened their awareness of the importance of funding gender-sensitive agricultural research on the continent.

A number of organisations are now focusing on empowering women in African agricultural research. What more needs to be done in this area?

I think we need to move beyond a recognition of the challenges facing women’s underrepresentation in research, and into real action on the ground and in our institutions. AWARD cannot singlehandedly push this agenda and it is important that all the different stakeholders in the sector take their own actions and their own commitments, in terms of better integrating gender responsiveness into their own work.

It is also important for all actors in this space to work together. For example, one of the projects that my team and I are working on is the Global Forum for Women in Scientific Research (GoFoWiSeR), which seeks to leverage the last 10 years of AWARD’s experience and expertise to catalyse and convene a broader conversation about improving the numbers and experiences of women in the research sector. Through this project, we aim to take the lessons we have learned about women working in agricultural research, and scale this out to different areas of scientific research. GoFoWiSeR is a good example of how we are trying to move the conversation around women’s participation, from localised spaces, to a more global platform.

Do you feel that men have a role to play in promoting women’s leadership, or does this need to come from women having a stronger voice?

It is really not an either/or question. When you look across the sector right now, men are over-represented in leadership and decision-making positions, so there is no way to advance women’s representation in agricultural research without engaging men to become active participants in driving that shift towards balance. Men absolutely have a huge role to play; but of course, the other side of the coin involves women having the confidence and skills to step into positions of leadership. This building of women’s skills and confidence remains at the heart of the AWARD Fellowships.

At AWARD, we have been working very closely with Dr Mandefro Nigussie, who is the director general of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR) – and who, for me, has emerged as a clear male champion in promoting women’s leadership at EIAR. Dr Mandefro has supported AWARD’s Gender Responsive Agricultural Research and Development initiative, which helps agricultural research institutions to better incorporate gender into how they work. I also want to commend the leadership of organisations like RUFORUM and FARA, who have partnered effectively with AWARD to develop our work in gender inclusivity.

What are the key lessons you’ve learned over the last 10 years that you would like to build on going forward?

I think probably the first and most important lesson is that investing in the development of leadership skills for women scientists is absolutely necessary – but this is not sufficient to drive the kind of systemic transformation that is needed to achieve a balance in gender representation in agricultural research. Going forward, we need to support institutions to become the kinds of places where men and women not only survive, but are able to innovate and thrive.