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Home / Smart Harvest

Meet the women who shape agricultural research, policy

Prof Mary Abukutsa, Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Research, Production and Extension at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. [Jenipher Wachie, Standard]

The gender gap when it comes to access of land, uptake of technology, fertiliser and markets has always been unfavourable for women not just in Kenya, but globally. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that if womenwere given the same access as men, yields on their farms would increase by about 30 per cent, and world hunger would reduce by close to 15 per cent. However, the reality of the disparity exists, and it is even greater among women in agricultural research. Smart Harvest sampled a few notable women in research to talk about their research, input and the lessons they have learnt.

“Mama Mboga” with a PhD: Mary Abukutsa on doing research in indigenous vegetables.

Prof Mary Abukutsa, Deputy Vice chancellor, Research and Extension Services at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) believes the struggles she went through growing up in rural Western Kenya shaped her career in agricultural research.

“My late mother struggled as a small scale farmer to put food on the table and through her efforts, we never went hungry. She practically involved me in farming from a very young age,” she says.

Then fate pushed her deeper into leaning towards agriculture. She developed allergy towards animal sources of food, making her mother seek alternatives for her. Most of the time, she would be served with indigenous vegetables gotten from the wild, stirring a curiosity to learn different types of vegetables.

Her father encouraged her to study agricultural sciences while her mother felt she was too bright to “waste her brains in Agriculture”. She wanted something more prestigious for her daughter.

Abukusta went for Agriculture and has never looked back.

“I believed and still believe that Agriculture is a key profession considering that Kenya is an agricultural economy,” she says.

She holds a PhD in horticultural crop physiology from the University of London and she has repositioned African indigenous vegetables from being considered a poor man’s crop to global super vegetables by releaseing nine varieties of African super vegetables in 2016 through Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service (KEPHIS).

The professor has also developed production and utilisation technologies of African indigenous vegetables and helped in determining nutritional content of the same. She also teaches, policy makers and stakeholders in Agriculture to change their mindsets on benefits of indigenous vegetables. Many farmers have taken up and planted vegetable varieties that she developed such as Abuku Nightshade, Abuku Vine and Abuku Mrenda.

She has more than 10 awards under her arms, and she believes there is more to do in the field of Agricultural research.

On how to balance family and research, Abukutsa says she has a mantra to always be disciplined and follow her vision statement which includes her family.

She says for more women to be involved in research, there should be mentorship programmes in all levels of education and increased funding opportunities for those who want to do research.

Not even poor health could stop my drive: Jane Ambuko on post-harvest management research:

The walls on Jane Ambuko’s office at the University of Nairobi are plastered with charts that stretch from end to end. They have winding narratives and photos that document success stories of where her research has been adopted, and some of the technological inventions she has conceptualised.

Her story, she says, is one of rising and falling. She had a series of health complications that ended in several surgeries and a kidney transplant, but never gave up the chase of researching for the advancement of Agriculture.

Her concentration is on reducing post-harvest loss, especially for small scale farmers.

“I was frustrated every time I heard stories of farmers who had worked hard and gotten plenty of produce but had to watch them go to waste because they did not know what to do with the excess,” she says.

She made a decision to focus on value addition. She spends hours poring over books, applying for grants and visiting farmers in different regions to test optimised technologies that she develops with other partners.

Last week, her team was in Karurumo in Embu where they have set up a small holder horticultural aggregation and processing center with the Rockerfeller Foundation.

“When you visit farmers, you realise they are ready to adapt new technologies that promise to reduce their losses and maximise their yields. As researchers, we should think of action driven research that directly benefit farmers,” she says.

Ambuko’s entry into agricultural research was defined by tears, doubt, and a constant desire to drop out of college.  When she cleared high school, she applied to study medicine or education in university. Agriculture was her last choice, and she was extremely disappointed when she was admitted to study a Bachelor of Science in Agriculture.

“I used to cry a lot. I would tell the dean that Agriculture was not for me. Things looked very complex and I was lagging behind in classes,” she says.

It is only in third year that developed interest. It dawned on her that Agriculture provided numerous opportunities.

“I started pushing myself more. I went for a kidney transplant in second year, and I was determined to fight on,” she says.

It has been more than two decades since she made a decision to wholly dedicate herself in research. She has a PhD in Agricultural Science, with a major in Post-harvest management.

She laughs when she talks about handling family and research.

“I am lucky that my husband is in the same field. We battle it out when writing proposals. I sit in my corner and write mine, and he sits in his. Then we wait for the best person to win. Sometimes I beat him, but it is healthy competition,” she says.

They do not have biological children, but she says finding the perfect balance as a woman in research can be difficult.

“I know several people whose marriages break because the woman is always in the laboratory doing research. Some men get impatient and leave,” she says.

Some of the Agricultural innovations she has piloted include CoolBot cold room, an electronic device that is fitted to a compatible air conditioner and it turns an insulated room into a walk-in cold room. This helps farmers keep their perishable produce longer.

She also helped in conceptualizing the Zero Energy Brick Cooler that is made from locally available materials such as bricks, sand and water tank that provide a cool temperature and high humidity to preserve quality of fruits and vegetables in areas where there is no electricity.

She believes there are possible solutions to problems farmers face, and they can only be confronted if government puts more money in research.

“We cannot talk about development in this country if we do not fund research that provide solutions,” she says.

I study fungi to improve yields: Sheila Okoth on research in mycotoxology

Sheila Okoth understands all there is about fungi. She spends hours hunched over a microscope to study the behaviour of thousands of fungi and what they do to living organisms.

“There are people who hear me say that I major in fungi, and they think I live a very boring life. They do not know how much there is to learn about these microorganism and their impact not just in Agriculture, but in human life,” she says.

Okoth is a researcher and first female mycology professor at the University of Nairobi. One of her area of concentration for now is aflatoxin. She has been following the controversy around maize with great interest, and anytime the word aflatoxin is mentioned, she gets even more concerned.

“Research has shown that aflatoxin can cause cancer or even death. That is why proper tests and further research should be done to ensure the country never gets contaminated grains,” she says.

Her passion for research started when she was a young girl studying at Ngiya Girls High school. Her strength was in sciences, at a time when it was a male dominated field. She went to the University of Nairobi where she studied Botany, Zoology and Education and later did her postgraduate degree in Mycology. 

Her research intensified when she got an internship with African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) to go to South Africa.

She got a grant and came back with a machine that measures aflatoxins in grains.

She now uses the machine to do test for millers, organisations such as World Food Programme, other researchers and students.

Her research in aflatoxin helped her discover why there were many cases of poisoning in Eastern Kenya.

“The species of fungi in Makueni is different, and they have more toxin,” she says.

She also points at the possibility of Uasin Gishu having a high number of people with throat cancer due to the popularity of the fermented maize alcohol that could be having aflatoxin.

“More tests should be done on the maize used to make the alcohol and how it is handled,” she says.

Her projects are now centered on providing farmers with seeds that are resistant to aflatoxins.

She admits that being a female researcher and an active mother can be a tricky balance to achieve.

“What works for me is learning to say a firm no. There are projects that I had to turn away from and choose to hang out with my children instead,” she says.

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