Young women fired up for science careers in Africa

Future of food
Discussing the future of food Copyright: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Speed read

  • Young women scientists from Africa are eager to be global leaders in science
  • But they face challenges such as male dominance and societal barriers
  • More women becoming scientists could help Africa address developmental challenges

Send to a friend

The details you provide on this page will not be used to send unsolicited email, and will not be sold to a 3rd party. See privacy policy.

Early-career women scientists are eager to study science to help solve Africa’s challenges, writes Ochieng’ Ogodo.

[HEIDELBERG] Born to a polygamous family in Ondo State, western Nigeria, Abimbola Helen Afolayan, 39, is one of the current young African female scholars determined to stamp their authority in scientific fields.
A doctoral student and a lecturer at the Federal University of Technology, Akure in Nigeria, Afolayan says it is not an easy path but she is determined to become one of Africa’s leading female computer scientists.

“Opening more doors for women to become scientists is a win-win situation.”

Aderonke Busayo Sakpere, University of Ibadan

Africa is one of the regions with acute under-representation of women in science globally. The UNESCO Institute of Statistics on women in science show that in 2015 women comprised only 31.3 per cent of researchers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Investing in women’s education

Afolayan, who was one of the young mathematicians and computer scientists that attended the 7th Heidelberg Laurate Forum last month (23-27 September) in Germany, calls for serious investments in women scientists. The forum is an annual week-long networking conference for young researchers in mathematics and computer to spend time with laureates.
Coming from a poor family background, it took a serious resolve and her father’s unflinching support to achieve what she has done academically.
“At one time my father had to sell our black and white television set to pay my fees,” she tells SciDev.Net. “That is how serious things could sometimes turn to in my academic journey.”

The poverty ignited her fire for success. “I did not like my early childhood, and that has been one of the unrelenting factors propelling my budding science career. I want to improve my lot and that of other women,” she explains. “When I was doing my master’s in computer science, there were many inadequacies such as the lack of enough computers for academic work. I hardly touched a computer during my high school days.”
Afolayan would like to develop applications that can help Nigeria solve complex problems. For instance, as a doctoral student, she developed a system that can help policymakers evaluate and award contractual bids.
“This is a huge problem in Nigeria where contracts for the development of public utilities such as roads constructions are still largely done manually and mired with biases and underhand deals,” she says.

Gender disparity in academic leaderships

One of the barriers confronting young female scientists is gender disparity.

Afolayan adds, “Most decision committees in Nigerian academic institutions are headed by men and dominated by male representations. It is hard to get women in influential positions such as being a vice-chancellor of a university.
“The environment makes most women disinclined when it comes to science disciplines.”
She tells SciDev.Net her main motivation for studying science, “I want to be a key player in developing science-based solutions that will improve lives and generate inclusive economic growth for the benefit of the continent.”

Pressure against studying science

Maryse Manuella Moutamal, 25, from Cameroon studying shape optimisation at the Africa Institute of Mathematical Science in South Africa, was driven into taking mathematics by curiosity.

“I developed interest in mathematics while in high school and it was out of the curiosity to find out why it was mostly a men’s affair. I decided to challenge myself and be with them,” she explains.
It was a hard pick for her as most of her family members were against it and encouraged her to opt for a course in humanities. They dissuaded her, saying mathematics was not for women. Her family favoured the Spanish language.  
“It was a hard decision. When the pressure is coming from the family it is very complicated,” she says.
But she stuck to her guns, believing that scientific disciplines will help her be part of the solutions to the many developmental challenges facing the continent.
“There is a need to change the way girls are socialised into thinking that women cannot study sciences,” she explains. “I do not look at it as a competition between men and women but the fixing of a missing crucial cog in the wheel needed to drive development of Africa. It is critical that universities produce more women science graduates equipped with crucial skills.”
She believes that mathematics is one of the greatest tools that Africa needs to tackle developmental challenges. “You need mathematics to map out the problems and calculate the magnitude of the challenges and interventionists needed to address issues.”

No turning back

For Aderonke Busayo Sakpere, 35, a lecturer at the Department of Computer Science, at the University of Ibadan, in Nigeria, there is no looking back.
“Science is and will always remain helpful in developing Africa. Opening more doors for women to become scientists is a win-win situation. It is about collaborations, inspiration and mentorship,” she says.
She would like to be part of the African science brigade that people will look back and say: “They made a mark”.
“We have to be in charge of our own issues and science is a tool for doing that,” she tells SciDev.Net.
Sakpere says that during her doctoral studies, she was the only female among the students of her supervisor, and that was intimidating.

“There is a need to change the way girls are socialised into thinking that women cannot study sciences.”

Maryse Manuella Moutamal, Africa Institute of Mathematical Science

For the young and aspiring female scientists, she says, they need to break the barriers and pursue their dream.
“In some parts of Africa women are not allowed to talk, make choices and it is time to rise up and do whatever one believes in academically,” she explains. “Women have a future in science in Africa. The number may not be big at present but there are several trailblazers who overcame the challenges and made iconic strides in the academic corridors.”
Cebisile Mthabela, 27, from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, is eager to be part of technology and innovation experts in Africa.
“Given that not most women take sciences, it is a huge step for me to pursue science,” says.  
Mthabela, a master’s student in robotics, adds that African women pursuing science generally face hostile environment. For instance, she has experienced lectures or group discussions where a woman’s idea was often received lukewarmly or rejected but if a male student comes with the same idea it attracts recognition and acceptance.
She is currently exploring robotics for work situations such as underground mining and firefighting that are hard to operate in by humans.
“Robots can determine whether the mines are safe and people may not be trapped. They will go underground before humans can do so and that will be a major step in ensuring mining is safe,” Mthabela says.

Mary Akinade Oluwabunmi, 24, a master’s student at the Pan African University Institute for Basic Sciences, Technology and Innovation, Kenya, tells SciDev.Net that mathematic speaks more to her and she is determined to become a leading global mathematician.
“When I was about to enter the university, mathematics ranked top for me and here I am committed to pursue it with the aim of becoming a global figure in it,” she tells SciDev.Net. “It is career path I am so keen on.”
Mathematics can be challenging but it is not hard, she explains and advises people to desist from saying that sciences are hard because doing so discourages people, especially African girls.  
During her undergraduate studies, Oluwabunmi says, there were only 15 female students in her class of 80.
“Male and female alike can study science,” she says. “It depends on your initiative, resolve and an enabling environment. We do not want a scenario where women get conditioned into thinking they can only study arts and men technical courses.”
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.