Home » AWARD Transforming Agriculture in Africa, One Woman at a Time
The people of Sub-Saharan Africa are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of extreme poverty, food insecurity, environmental degradation, inadequate rainfall, polluted surface water, and climate change. Forty percent of the population lacks access to safe drinking water, and water-borne illness is the leading cause of death in children under five.
"The issue in every town is basically water," says Sarah Ayeri Ogalleh, an environmental scientist who works on water management and forest preservation with small farmers along the River Njoro in Kenya. "Everything gets down to water."
Sarah is one of 180 fellows of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program, which functions as an incubator for African women in the agricultural and environmental sciences. Established in 2008, AWARD is a project of the Gender and Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR). It is funded by a partnership of USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is the highest-performing gender-in-agriculture project in their respective portfolios. The program develops both the scientific and leadership skills of African women, from the doctorate down to the bachelors level, where the dropout rate is greatest. "These are high-potential, highly-productive women whose talents and energy might be lost," says Haven Ley, the program officer for AWARD at the Gates Foundation. "We're funding one of our theories. If you get sufficient numbers of accomplished, determined women working in the rather barren, institutional landscape of agricultural development, the institutions will ultimately respond to their needs and the needs of women farmers."
For Sarah Ogalleh, who grew up in Kenya, the greatest need was to preserve the trees, which had been a source of solace to her grandmother. "She was a small farmer with no education," Sarah remembers, "but under the trees, she would sing to me: 'Sarah will be a professional. The men cannot solve the problems of the village, but Sarah will do it.'"
Sarah earned a master's degree in environmental sciences from Egerton University in Kenya. Her current research is on how small farmers in the Njoro watershed are adapting to climate change. "The season for rains had become short, and farmers were planting near the river because they wanted to get out of hunger. But this was a maladaptation; the tree clearing led to environmental degradation." The farmers tried to regrow some of the trees, but the seedlings died every time there was a drought. Sarah provided them with certified seeds, hose pipes, a large water tank, and supported their water resource users associations to help manage the river sustainably. The river communities are now selling high-quality seedlings to commercial growers, agricultural research institutions, and other small farmers.
Sarah also started a tree planting project in the primary schools. "We give each child two seedlings – the first tree belongs to him/her and is named after the child; the next tree is named after the school. Every child is responsible for keeping their trees alive."
The Nairobi-based director of AWARD, Vicki Wilde, designed the program to overcome one of the key obstacles to women's success in science – the exclusion from professional networks, which impedes their ability to receive grants, have their research published, and define the problems that need to be studied. Every AWARD fellow is paired with a leading scientist (almost half of which are men) who serves as her mentor, guiding her research plan and professional development. "There are also a lot of issues around children and family," said Meredith Soule, the USAID Manager who oversees AWARD and sits on its Steering Committee. Vicki Wilde, the director of AWARD, elaborated. "We invite nursing mothers to bring their babies and toddlers along to AWARD's training courses, and we provide childcare."
One AWARD fellow who is making a dramatic difference in her community is Jean Mtethiwa, an irrigation and water management specialist from Malawi. Water was so scarce in her village that fights would break out among the women queuing for water in the early morning. "The water committee would call them in for discipline," said Jean. "If a woman continued to start fights, she would be expelled from the water point." Jean earned her degree at the University of Malawi, and worked as an irrigation and land conservation officer in the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development before becoming an AWARD fellow. She is currently head of the 50-member Training and Program Department at the Natural Resources Council of Malawi, where she trains graduate students who work directly with farmers on natural resource and environmental management.
Another fellow, Carolyn Tyhra Kumasi, is on a research attachment in Ethiopia. Tyhra spent her childhood in northern Ghana, and knows what it is like to live with food insecurity, environmental degradation, and polluted surface water. "I was about 10 when I began to ask myself, is there any way to prevent people from having to drink contaminated water?"
At Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University for Science and Technology (KNUST), Tyhra's research focused on the Barekese reservoir, which supplies water to two million people. "The water in the reservoir was polluted. I monitored the reservoir and all feeder streams, and found that it was coming from the communities—the communities were polluting their own water sources."
The problem could be partially solved, Tyhra found, through total community-led sanitation (TCLS). But the deeper issue was that people had lost their land during the dam construction and had not been compensated, "so some of them had decided to deliberately pollute the feeder streams and the reservoir." Upon discovering this,Tyhra made several recommendations to the government. One was to create a conservation park by the reservoir and give communities a share in tourism revenues. Another was to assess the welfare of nearby communities after dams have been constructed. She also recommended that the reservoir be regularly cleaned, and its operation be governed by a management strategy.
Clearly, the value of the AWARD program extends far beyond the stories of Sarah, Jean, Tyhra, and the program's many other grant recipients. "We are in a very interesting position of building the best information that's ever been put together," said Vicki Wilde. "The story of these women is the story of agricultural transformation in Africa."
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Last updated: September 26, 2013