Friday, March 8, 2013

African women in rice science: A bright spot of hope

Her name means “hope” and she is certainly living up to her name. Ms Espérance Zossou is a young PhD scholar from Benin at the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), who is the recipient of several science awards, including that of the “Most Promising Young Scientist,” which she received at the Africa Rice Congress in 2010. Her goal is to advance in her field of research and place her knowledge at the service of her country.

But to reach the position she has today, Espérance had to face many barriers as she grew up in a society where boys are traditionally given more importance than girls, “My parents were looked down upon by our community because they had only daughters,” she recounted.

“However, they brought us up to believe that we were equal to boys in all fields, particularly in education, as they are both academicians.” Today, not only her parents, but her entire community is proud of her achievements.

Espérance’s MSc study on “Technological, institutional and organizational innovations triggered by a farmer-to-farmer rice parboiling video in Central Benin” was pivotal in showing the importance of rice training videos in enhancing rural learning, linkages and institutions.

This helped her to win a scholarship through the Coopération Technique Belge (CTB) in Benin to pursue her doctoral study on the “Role of communication tools (video and rural radio) in local rice processing and impact on rural livelihoods and markets.”

AfricaRice is proud to have supported women scholars like Espérance. In the last few years, the Center has supported Dr Khady Dramé and Dr Yonnelle Moukoumbi, who were both laureates of the Oréal-UNESCO Women in Science Award.

The Center is actively involved in the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) program. It is also coordinating the Global Rice Science Scholarships (GRiSS) in Africa through which young Africans, including women, are offered the opportunity to be experts in a scientific discipline and to have a broader understanding of the issues that affect rice science for development.

AfricaRice’s new strategic plan projects that by 2020, research capacity in Africa will have increased through PhD and MSc fellowships (at least 30 per year, of which at least one-third will be awarded to female candidates, a percentage that was already achieved by AfricaRice in 2010) and training in specific areas through internships and group training.

 “These capacity-building efforts will help create a new generation of rice research and extension professionals in Africa, at least 30% of them women,” said Dr Marco Wopereis, AfricaRice Deputy Director General.

Highlighting the urgency of such efforts, he referred to a 2008 survey conducted among AfricaRice’s then 22 African member countries, which showed that only 250–275 researchers (including only 15 women) were involved to some extent in rice research.

“As we celebrate today the achievements of women on the occasion of the International Women's Day, we hope that there will be many more researchers like Espérance in Africa to help us find answers to the pressing issues of food security, peaceful development and poverty reduction in the continent,” said Dr Rita Agboh-Noameshie, AfricaRice scientist, who leads the Gender in Rice Research and Development Task Force.

The Gender Task Force is implementing a gender-mainstreaming capacity-building program for national gender focal points and relevant rice stakeholders, to reinforce their capacity to effectively address gender concerns in rice R&D activities.

“Although women undertake much of the work in traditional rainfed, mangrove, and upland rice in Africa, there are very few women rice scientists. Therefore, there is a big risk of missing the broader perspectives necessary to develop appropriate technologies and have tangible impact,” said Dr Agboh-Noameshie.

The Gender Task Force will create more opportunities for promising young women scientists to pursue their careers in rice science,” she added.