Special issue on catalyzing and measuring women’s leadership and empowerment in African agricultural research and development


While women are a vital force in Africa’s agriculture, agricultural research and higher education are disproportionately led by men. Only one in four agricultural researchers are women and even fewer – one in seven – of the leadership positions in African agricultural research institutions are held by women[i]. This special issue focuses on a range of approaches to build the scientific and leadership capacities of women scientists, the outcomes of these interventions, and methodologies for measuring women’s empowerment at this professional level.

The volume builds on the work of  African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD), which invests in African women scientists and institutions to deliver innovative, sustainable, and gender-responsive agricultural research and development solutions to tackle the biggest challenges facing African smallholder farmers. Since 2008, AWARD’s tailored career-development fellowships have equipped top women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate agricultural gains by strengthening their science and leadership skills. More than 1000 African women scientists (465 fellows, 398 mentors and 297 mentees) at over 300 institutions have participated in the program since its inception.

This issue is part one of a two part series on catalyzing and measuring women’s leadership and empowerment in African agricultural research and development. The papers in this issue can be broadly categorised under three themes:

There has been a lot of progress in increasing the number of female scientists but a lot still needs to be done: Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) has been tracking sex-disaggregated data on agricultural researchers in developing countries. Beintema, in her paper on “An assessment of the gender gap in African agricultural research capacities” uses the latest survey data to provide an updated measurement of women’s participation in agricultural research and development. Beintema first highlights various demographic details of sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural research capacity, disaggregated by gender and across countries and time. These demographic details focus on female researchers in terms of overall share of researchers across time and countries, qualification levels, age, and position levels.  Secondly, the author assesses the participation of women in African agricultural research within a broader global perspective.  Beintema notes that recent trends indicate a growth in Africa’s female researcher shares, and it is expected that the number of women participating in agricultural research will continue to grow. Despite this growth in numbers, female researchers are often less qualified and younger than their male colleagues, and the proportion of women in management positions remains low.

Contributing not only to change, but also to how change is measured: Right from its inception, AWARD was explicit in its goal to develop, test, and document effective and innovative models for measuring the progress and impact of its complex career-development program. Mentz’s paper on The benefits of both worlds: Towards an integrated mixed-methods approach for evaluating women’s empowermentexplores the value of employing mixed methods both for the purposes of increasing the credibility of results, and for improving understanding of the ways in which the fellowship facilitates and enables change to happen. Mentz describes the development and implementation of, a multi-phase, parallel convergent mixed-methods design applied by AWARD in implementing monitoring, evaluation and learning to understand not only the empowerment of the AWARD fellows, but to identify in which ways (and to what degree) the fellowship contributes to empowerment. The article looks at practical considerations for evaluators and program leaders who intend to use integrated mixed-methods approaches for monitoring evaluation and learning.

The whole of AWARD is much more than just the sum of its parts; in other words, AWARD contributes to women’s empowerment because of the variety of its interventions that combine to uniquely build different skills and capacities within individuals. The components of the AWARD program interact in multiple ways, with many reinforcing loops that greatly augment total effect. This complementarity increases the chance of success, the depth of the empowerment fellows experience, and the potential for sustainability of the agency gained. Through analyses AWARD has found that, depending on the needs of its diverse fellows, one activity can contribute to several domains or expressions of power while, on the other hand, several activities can help address a deficit in one domain or expression of power. The three complementary components of AWARD which encapsulate its various activities are aimed at: fostering mentoring partnerships, building science skills, and developing leadership capacity.

In their paper on Designing effective leadership capacity development programs for women agricultural researchers in Africa, Bomett and Wanglachi argue that the diversity of women scientists in Africa, and the low representation of women leaders in agriculture research and development, calls for the design of effective yet tailored capacity-building programs to ensure that these women scientists benefit fully. Recognizing this, AWARD designed leadership courses tailored to the specific needs of women in science, in order to inspire and equip them to fully develop their potential as leaders in agriculture research and development. The authors explore the extent to which the desired outcomes of leadership development in the program were achieved, and how and to what degree (if at all) AWARD contributed to these outcomes.

Building science skills is another pillar of the AWARD fellowship, and comprises a portfolio of courses and services designed to build fellows’ science capacity by affording them opportunities to gain insight into smallholder priorities as relating to women; improve their skills in presenting science and proposal writing; acquire technical skills and knowledge; and access highly relevant scientific networks and resources. In their paper “Building science skills to improve the contributions of women to agricultural research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa” Mukhebi, de Villiers, Okoth , Wilde and Nkwake discuss the rationale and theory of change for AWARD’s science program, as well as the extent to which fellows going through the program demonstrated science-related outcomes. These outcomes include capabilities to conduct research (including gender responsive research), and fundraise for research projects. Using mixed-methods the authors evaluate the extent to which the science component of the program has been implemented successfully and whether it has led to the development of crucial skills needed by female participants to advance their science careers.

In “Strengthening mentoring partnerships for African women scientists in the agricultural research and development system in sub-Saharan Africa” Mukhebi, Otunga, Mentz, and Wangalachi explore the mentoring component of the two-year AWARD fellowship. Echoing the sentiments expressed in the article on leadership, they note that strengthening Africa’s agricultural research capacity needs not just more women participating in absolute terms; but in senior, decision-making roles. An important component of enabling increased high-level participation is mentoring – a proven and powerful driver for career development and, particularly, for retaining women in science. The authors use data obtained from three cohorts of AWARD fellows and mentors to understand the effectiveness of the mentoring partnership, and the factors influencing mentoring outcomes. The authors ultimately address the question of whether mentoring can contribute to closing the skills gap among African women scientists in agriculture research and development.

This special issue is edited by Apollo M Nkwake, Wanjiru-Kamau Rutenberg, and Melody Mentz all of AWARD, with the support of Jemimah Njuki, Editor in Chief of the Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security.

[i] Beintema, N. M. and Marcantonio. F. D. (2010) Female Participation in African Agricultural Research and Higher Education: New Insights Synthesis of the ASTI–Award Benchmarking Survey on Gender-Disaggregated Capacity Indicators. IFPRI Discussion Paper 00957, March 2010


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