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[NAIROBI] Kenya is calling on its women scientists to take advantage of extra research funding to help solve the country's development challenges, as part of its long-term goal to attain mid-income status by 2030.

The National Council for Science and Technology is doubling funding for research grants for women to US$1 million in 2012, earmarked for proposals for researcher projects in agriculture, health, energy and technology.  

According to Shaukat Abdulrazak, the council's secretary, 30 proposals will be funded next year, each eligible for up to US$90,000 for two years from January 2012.

Proposals must involve a collaboration of two or more research institutions, both private and public, and must cut across a number of disciplines. For instance, a herbal remedy project could involve medicine, chemistry and botany.

The purpose of the programme, now in its third year, is also to support women's participation in research.

"This programme to enhance women participation in science, technology and innovation was started in the 2009/10 financial year and 46 research projects are now being supported," said Abdulrazak.

Some US$800,000 has so far been spent on the first phases of the project, he added, and it has stimulated interest among the research community and gained the support of government, as it is 'mainstreaming' gender in science policy in Kenya.

Among the projects underway is the development of antimicrobial products such as soaps and body washes using Plectranthus barbatus extracts (from a plant commonly known as Indian coleus), used for treatment of throat skin and mouth infections, and led by Esther Matu of the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Nancy Muya, assistant director in Kenya's Ministry of Industrialization, said the move was encouraging because most such projects are largely funded by international agencies that are out of the reach of many women scientists, who may lack good contacts.

The gender approach, she said, has the potential to address some of the most pressing problems faced by society, especially by vulnerable groups.

Hannington Odame, executive director of the Centre for African Bio-Entrepreneurship in Nairobi, said the input from the various disciplines and bodies in the programme will improve the end products.

"To move knowledge from creation to use requires a lot of know-how in different forms; there is a need to involve different disciplines, actors and resources, all of which complement each other," he said.