African women fight underrepresentation in climate research

Women comprise 50% of farmers in Africa but have little access to climate change information. Two initiatives aim to help small-scale farmers adapt.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
A woman tills her plot in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Nov. 21, 2011. As climate change threatens harvests, scientists are sharing expertise to help African farmers adapt to global warming.

As a child, Kenyan meteorologist Saumu Shaka helped out on her parents' small farm growing maize and pigeon pea and learned how the weather can hold food producers hostage.

"Looking back, the yield has declined over the years," said Ms. Shaka, who works with the Kenya Meteorological Department.

A decade ago, her parents would get 25 sacks of maize from their six hectares in Taita Taveta County, southeast of Nairobi.

Today that number dwindled to five bags at most, because of erratic rainfall that can spur crop-destroying pests.

As climate change fuels extreme weather and threatens harvests, Africa needs more scientific expertise to help small-scale farmers adapt, especially women who tend to be hit worst, said Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg, director of Nairobi-based group African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), women represent nearly half of farmers in Africa and produce up to 80% of basic food crops.

They are also largely responsible for preparing, storing, and processing food.

But in many cases, the FAO says, they have limited rights, mobility, and access to resources, information, and decision-making power, making them more vulnerable and less able to adapt to climate change impacts than men are.

"This means women’s continued underrepresentation in climate change research is no longer acceptable," said Ms. Kamau-Rutenberg, noting that few have opportunities in science education.

AWARD is leading the One Planet Fellowship, a new initiative that will train 630 African and European scientists to use a gender lens to help African smallholders adapt to climate shifts, unusually offering Africans the opportunity to serve as mentors.

Underinvestment in African scientific research capacity means "we still don’t even know the specific ways climate change will manifest ... in Africa," said Ms. Kamau-Rutenberg.

In September, the three-year career development program welcomed its first cohort of 45 fellows from Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Zambia, Malawi, Benin, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Togo, Mali, Ethiopia, and Burkina Faso – over half of them female.

The aim is to "set an example and dispel the myth that there are no African women scientists ready to step into leadership," Ms. Kamau-Rutenberg added.

AWARD collaborates on the initiative, worth nearly $20 million, with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, France’s BNP Paribas Foundation, Agropolis Fondation, the European Union, and Canada's International Development Research Centre.

Firsthand experience

As one of the inaugural fellows, Ms. Shaka is seeking homegrown solutions to the challenges faced by farmers like her parents, who are battling to grow enough food on a warming planet.

Her research focuses on cost-effective "climate-smart" agribusiness techniques to help young people boost jobs and food security, which she will promote on social media platforms.

African scientists "have firsthand experience and solutions that are practical and applicable to their societal set-ups within their individual countries," she said.

Moreover, women scientists are better able to understand the specific challenges in designing community-tailored solutions to help fellow women, said the senior meteorologist.

Droughts and floods, for example, impose a health burden on women, who have to walk long distances in search of water and stay alert to the risk of waterborne diseases, she said.

Pamela Afokpe, an AWARD fellow from Benin, said "in-continent" experts could relate to the needs of African farmers more easily.

Ms. Afokpe, a vegetable breeder with East-West Seed International, is working to get more farmers growing indigenous leafy vegetables in West and Central Africa by helping them access high-yielding varieties resistant to pests and diseases.

Up to now, a limited number of African experts have contributed to the landmark scientific assessments published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which synthesizes research and guides policymakers.

Out of 91 lead authors of the 2018 IPCC special report on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, only eight were from Africa, as were just a tenth of the 783 contributing authors.

South Africa’s Debra Roberts, co-chair of a working group for the IPCC ongoing sixth scientific assessment report and the first female co-chair from Africa, said the panel's work showed tackling climate change required all of society to respond.

"Women have different lived experiences and views on the problems and solutions," she said.

"We need to hear those voices if we are to be able to identify context-relevant solutions from the scientific literature. There is no one-size-fits-all," she added.

Over the IPCC's three decades of operation, there have only been three female co-chairs, two of them on the current report, she noted. “We have a long way to go still,” Ms. Roberts told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

Energy priorities

Women also need to be involved in the practical design of climate solutions, such as expanding off-grid solar power and clean cooking, which can reduce drudgery and minimize health issues linked to pollution, said agricultural experts.

As forest loss and climate change make resources scarcer, women have to go longer distances to gather fuel-wood, which puts additional pressure on their time, health, and personal security, said Katrin Glatzel, a research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Dakar, Senegal.

In Mali, a public-private partnership has provided 1.6 million people with more efficient stoves, reducing pollution by half compared to a traditional three-stone fire, she said.

Ms. Glatzel said it was important to include and empower female scientists and farmers in the switch to cleaner, modern energy, so that their concerns could be addressed.

A 2019 survey by charity Practical Action in rural Togo found women prioritized energy for pumping drinking water and processing crops, while men favored mobile-phone charging and heating water for washing, she said.

In northern Benin, meanwhile, a solar-powered drip irrigation system means a cooperative of 45 women now fetches water once or twice a week rather than daily, she added.

Bringing women on board with technological innovation for rural energy services is key "to ensure that end products meet their needs and those of their families," she said.

This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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