With sharp minds, inquisitive souls, and iron wills, they are an 11-strong group of top-level women scientists in agricultural research with their eyes set on influencing national and regional policy to improve livelihoods in Mozambique and across Africa. Through their work, they are helping to change the face of a continent where women are seldom heard, but are always called on to give and to nurture. They are Mozambique’s scientists in the AWARD program for African Women in Agricultural Research and Development, funded by USAID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Dr. Anabela Manhica proudly exhibits a laptop received from the AWARD program. Photo Credit: USAID/Mozambique

Esperanca Chamba, who specializes in natural resources management, is one of 11 women scientists in Mozambique who were selected from among hundreds of applicants from 10 sub-Saharan countries as fellows of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) project. AWARD was established in 2008 by the Gender & Diversity Program of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, following a three-year pilot program in East Africa. It is a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in sub-Saharan Africa. The US$15 million, five-year project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, with plans to extend to a second phase starting in 2013.

Chamba’s example of a foiled attempt in experimental nutrition finely captures the context of women and agricultural research and development in Africa. “Most of the work in the fields is in women’s hands,” says rural extension officer Claudia Nhatembe, during a break from the sweet potato fields on the rich soils of IIAM’s Umbeluzi Agricultural Station, some 30 km outside the capital, Maputo. “It’s hard work–plowing, sowing and harvesting. For men, it’s mostly handling the plantation’s irrigation systems.”

In Africa, women like Nhatembe carry most of the burden of running the household, raising children, tending to their husbands, fetching water, collecting firewood, cooking and cleaning, and plowing and sowing. They are the pillars of society, yet are commonly ignored. “We give rural women a voice, because through our work, they will also have a voice,” says Carla Menezes, a researcher and Head of Nutrition at IIAM, who is studying alternative feeding options for small ruminants to lower production costs of animal breeding in rural households.

“Scientists are on the cutting edge of solving Africa’s food crisis. But we need to urgently address the gender gap in our scientific community,” says Akinwumi Adesina, Vice President of Policy and Partnerships of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. “We need more women pursuing careers in agricultural science because women are the face of African farming.”

Research shows that the number of women enrolling in agricultural sciences is steadily increasing, but women researchers tend to drop out as they move up the career ladder. Termed the “leaky pipeline”, this phenomenon is generally attributed to traditional, male-dominated organizational dynamics, in additional to cultural barriers to women’s education and advancement. AWARD seeks to reverse that trend.

“We need good collaboration to make sure that women are equal partners with men farmers all the way through the process,” U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said recently in Nairobi. “The AWARD program is a great example. It supports women scientists working to improve farming here in Africa and to fight hunger and poverty. And we need women represented in our laboratories, as well as in our fields.”

Recent studies indicate that the majority of those who produce, process, and market Africa’s food are women, but only one in four agricultural researchers is female. A study by AWARD and the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators on “Women’s Participation in Agricultural Research and Higher Education”, which looked at key trends in sub-Saharan Africa, found that the overall proportion of female professional agricultural and higher education staff increased from 18 percent in 2000/01 to 24 percent in 2007/08. On a national basis, female staffing levels were particularly low in Ethiopia, Togo, Niger and Burkina Faso, whereas in Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa levels were high. However, the benchmarking survey—which was conducted in 125 agricultural research and higher education agencies in 15 sub-Saharan countries—showed that only 14 percent of the management positions were held by women.

“Only with the full involvement and leadership of women in agriculture will Africa succeed in its quest for food security and prosperity,” says Vicki Wilde, Director of AWARD and the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program. “There is no time to lose.”

Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony in southeastern Africa, is a member of the Commonwealth and the only non-English speaking country represented in AWARD. With a population of 20 million, it was ranked 22nd out of 134 countries in the Gender Gap Index for 2010. Although the country scores poorly in terms of educational attainment (123rd), it boasts a good female-to-male ratio in terms of economic participation and opportunity. Analysts say there is an increasing trend in women’s contribution to economic growth, although there is a lowering contribution in sectors like agriculture, where there are more women but incomes are lowest.

“We know the people who matter most aren’t the financiers or the agriculture ministers or the assistance workers and partners. They are the women farmers who are the untapped solution to this problem,” says USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. “We’re working to ensure that women get equal access to services and support, such as financial services that preferentially target women and extension services delivered by female workers. To make this happen, we are investing in women producer networks and expanding fellowship programs, such as the AWARD program.”

The 11 Mozambican fellows cover a broad range of agricultural sciences, from forestry management to agro-economics and veterinary medicine, including animal production, reproduction, and nutrition. “I am inquisitive by nature. I feel enraptured by the process of looking at a problem, imagining solutions, and seeking the adequate answer,” says Paula Pimentel, a senior researcher at IIAM, who is currently studying gender relations in goat-breeding families in the remote district of Chicualacuala, about 500 km from Maputo.

What drives all these women is a focus on pro-poor, community-oriented research objectives, and an awareness of the need to combine traditional knowledge with modern methods as a fundamental contribution to scientific advancements. “Learning from local techniques should always be the starting point,” says Anabela Manhiça, Senior Researcher and Head of the Technology Transfer Department at IIAM. “Rural producers have abundant knowledge. It’s always best to learn what they are doing, how they are doing it, and then add the new technology. It doesn’t work when you try to introduce something completely new.”

“These outstanding Mozambicans debunk the myth in some science circles that qualified African women researchers ‘aren’t out there’—that they don’t exist in significant numbers,” says Wilde. “Qualified women scientists are out there. These women prove it.”