African women scientists praise fellowship scheme

Sheila Ommeh is developing healthier, more productive chickens Copyright: Flickr/ILRI

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[LONDON] Disease-resistant chickens and pineapple juice that stays fresh for longer are two innovations to have emerged during the first phase of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) scheme.

The scheme was set up in 2008 and has provided 250 two-year fellowships to talented female African scientists, which involve extensive mentoring, professional development and training.

At a meeting in London, United Kingdom (8 March) to mark the scheme’s achievements, Kenyan geneticist Sheila Ommeh and Rwandan scientist Christine Mukantwali said the fellowships they received are helping them to make valuable contributions to their fields.

Ommeh is working with Kenyan women chicken farmers. Many keep indigenous chickens that produce little meat and few eggs, and which are highly susceptible to viruses, such as Newcastle and Gumboro diseases, which regularly wipe out entire flocks.

Ommeh has carried out in vitro studies looking at disease tolerance in indigenous chickens, and is hoping to use genomic selection and breeding to produce a ‘super chicken’ high in meat and egg production, drought tolerance and — importantly — disease resistance.

"We want to look for those indigenous chickens that are resilient to these diseases because although the diseases wipe out many chickens, not all of them die," she said.

Her research at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi has been supported by laboratory training provided through the AWARD scheme and she plans to submit her work for publication.

Mukantwali’s research focuses on the processing and storage of harvested fruit and vegetables. She told the London meeting that poor post-harvest processing can cost African farmers up to 80 per cent of their yield.

Her work with improving the shelf-life of banana wine in Rwanda caught the eye of the AWARD scheme organisers.

"We trained the farmers on proper manufacturing practices such as pasteurising and juice extraction," Mukantwali said, adding that it had doubled sales. "By selling more wine, producers can better feed their families."

The AWARD scheme has provided Mukantwali with training in writing proposals, which she hopes will generate funding for her current work to improve pineapple processing.

She has visited Rwandan processors and identified common problems such as failing to boil pineapple juice at the correct temperature. She is now undertaking a placement at Agropolis Foundation in France, as part of her PhD studies, to further explore pineapple processing and write training manuals to take back to Rwanda.

Vicki Wilde, director of the AWARD programme, said the second phase of the AWARD scheme is expected to be confirmed soon.

"By the end of this next phase, we will have [helped strengthen] the capacities of the top ten per cent of women agricultural researchers in these countries that are serving smallholders," she said.