Africa / BecA / Biodiversity / Capacity Strengthening / Event / Genetics / ILRI / Indigenous Breeds / Kenya / Opinion piece / Poultry / Women

Changing the face of agriculture in Africa–one (emerging woman) leader at a time

Nairobi visit by WB VP Rachel Kyte: Sheila Ommeh presents

CGIAR AWARD Fellow Sheila Ommeh, working at ILRI-BecA, gives a presentation on the importance of conserving and better using Africa’s native chicken breeds for World Bank vice president Rachel Kyte on 2 Feb 2012 at the World Agroforestry Centre (photo credit: ILRI/Susan MacMillan).

The Huffington Post this week carries a blog by Sir Gordon Conway, professor of international development at Imperial College London, who says that African governments and those that work with them need to make women a much higher priority. As an example of how much difference African women can make, he cites recent statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the work of Sheila Ommeh, an AWARD Fellow and chicken geneticist working at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa Hub (BecA Hub) of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya.

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. . . .

‘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.” . . .

Read the whole blog post at the Huffington Post: Who feeds the world? (Girls), 2 Mar 2012.

Read about Ommeh’s presentation in Feb 2012 to World Bank vice president Rachel Kyte: World Bank vice president Rachel Kyte in Nairobi town hall on ‘big picture agriculture’, 2 Feb 2012.

About Sheila Ommeh
Thirty-four-year-old Ommeh grew up on the slopes of Mount Elgon in western Kenya where indigenous chicken is a popular staple food for the rural community and where local breeds are reared mostly women and children. Newcastle and other viral diseases and the looming threat of bird flu threaten livelihoods of these small-scale poultry producers, and can lead to increased hunger and poverty. The focus of Ommeh’s recent PhD was a search for candidate chicken genes controlling for resistance, tolerance or susceptibility to chicken viral diseases such as bird flu and Newcastle disease, which to date have no cure or vaccine. Her long-term aim is to help build a genetically improved chicken breed that will be resistant to disease and easily adopted by the rural community.

In August 2008, Ommeh was among 60 African women scientists selected from more than 900 candidates in nine countries to receive an “African Women in Agricultural Research & Development” (AWARD) Fellowship for 2008–2010. AWARD is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and managed by the Gender and Diversity (G&D) program of the CGIAR.

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