Sheila Ommeh is passionate about poultry. A PhD fellow at the International Livestock Research Institute, based in Nairobi, Kenya, Sheila hopes to introduce a disease-resistant chicken using indigenous breeds that can be easily produced by women farmers.
Sheila has a home grown understanding of the importance of poultry farming to the rural poor. Her mother and grandmother raised chickens to support the family's children. But disease prevalence was high and the flock was wiped out on occasion. When the chickens died, money for food and school fees was in short supply. Sheila grew up determined to help find a solution.
The majority of those who produce, process, and market food in Africa are women. Furthermore, according to the FAO's 2010-11 State of Food and Agriculture report, women make up, on average, 50 percent of the agricultural labor force in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nevertheless, only one in four (25 percent) agricultural researchers in Africa is female. Even fewer, one in seven (14 percent), hold leadership positions in African agricultural research institutions.
So how can we ensure that Africa's agricultural science and research is really focused on the needs of those who feed the world?
African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) is a ground-breaking career-development program that helps female agricultural researchers to build their technical and leadership skills. The 250 women in AWARD come from 11 different countries, and share one common goal: to change the face of agriculture in Africa. As emerging leaders, they want to see women have more influence over research priorities, policies, and programs so they can make sure that rural smallholders -- most of whom are women -- are included. AWARD has strong results and a growing impact.
In 2008, Sheila won a fellowship from AWARD to help realize her ambitions. On March 7 -- on the eve of International Women's Day -- you can hear more of her story, alongside other speakers from AWARD, the International Institute for Environment and Development, Oxfam GB, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Agriculture for Impact is working with AWARD and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agriculture and Food for Development to convene the panel discussion on 'Effective Solutions for Agricultural Development through Empowered Women Scientists.'
The need for initiatives like AWARD is great. FAO identifies a significant gender gap in agriculture, and sees this as a costly lost opportunity to improve the quality and quantity of the world's food supply. According to the FAO, if women had the same access to productive resources as men, they could increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 percent. This could raise total agricultural output in developing countries by 2.5 to 4 percent. Production gains of this magnitude could reduce the number of hungry people in the world by 12 to 17 percent.
Compared with their male counterparts, female farmers in all parts of the world control less land and livestock, make far less use of improved seed varieties and purchased inputs such as fertilizers, are much less likely to use credit or insurance, have lower education levels, and are less likely to have access to extension services. The FAO shows that a very large body of research from many countries globally also confirms that putting more income in the hands of women yields beneficial results for child nutrition, health and education.
Momentum on taking action is building. The Global Conference on Women in Agriculture on March 13-15 will be the first conference of its kind. The organizers hope to highlight policies and reforms that empower women in developing countries to improve agricultural productivity and nutrition, and reduce hunger and poverty.
For Sheila, and other AWARD Fellows like her, the professional journey to change the face of African agriculture is well underway. But if we are to get the large scale transformational change we need to reach more women researchers, farmers, traders, and customers across Africa, then African governments and those that work with them will need to make women a much higher priority.