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A US$13 million pan-African initiative to increase the role of women scientists in agriculture was launched this week (5 December) in Kenya.

The Nairobi-based African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) intends to increase the number of women scientists on the continent. It also seeks to provide role models and address the institutional biases that have limited women in agricultural research.

The scheme is funded by a four-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and organised by the Gender & Diversity Program of the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

AWARD will initially support 360 female researchers in countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.

"Training and mentoring young scientists has a multiplier effect that spills over to future generations. The best and fastest way to send a message across the world is to wrap it into a human being," said Jenipher Bisikwa, a lecturer at the Faculty of Agriculture in Makerere University, Uganda.

Bisikwa herself benefited from an initial pilot programme started in 2005 and funded by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation. The support enabled her to research increased productivity in maize, beans, groundnuts and cassava.

Charity Mutegi, a doctoral student at the University of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa, also participated in the programme and praised its mentoring.

She researched aflatoxins — toxic fungi that attack crops — in western Kenya and now works with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Vicki Wilde, head of the CGIAR Gender & Diversity Program said food insecurity in Africa can only be addressed by ensuring that women have an active role not just on the farm but in the laboratories.

"Women bear much of the responsibility for cultivating crops in Africa, and they face challenging and changing conditions," said Rajiv Shah, director of agricultural development for the Gates Foundation, in a press release. "African women scientists can help bring practical, sustainable improvements to the farm sector so that smallholder farmers — most of whom are women — can build better lives for themselves and their families."