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International Women’s Day 2021: Future Women Leaders

8 March, 2021
Young African women scientists reflect on their research journey
International Women’s Day Profiles

As the world marks the International Women’s Day, we reflect on the role of women in science, technology and innovation in Africa. While our spotlight is on four upcoming African women scientists conducting research primarily in agriculture, their narratives should inspire the continent and the world to do more to harness this mighty resource.


True promise of the ‘false’ banana



Q: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Saudi Arabia to Ethiopian immigrant parents. We moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when Iwas nine years old.

Q. What inspired you into science in general, and specifically the nematology field of research? 

A: In high school, I developed a strong passion for biology.  I was especially interested in aspects like plant physiology and genetics. I obtained a BSc in Horticulture, in 2008, from Jimma University, Ethiopia. Plant pathology was a significant area of my undergraduate studies, and it was how I came across nematodes; microscopic worm-like animals that are present in every environment across the globe. I was fascinated by these tiny, yet important creatures, and I wanted to learn more about them. But there was little information on the topic. In 2010, I successfully applied for a VLIR-UOS scholarship to pursue an MSc in Nematology at Gent University, Belgium.

Q. Tell us a bit more about nematodes.

A. Nematodes can be free living in soil and water, where they feed on microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, algae, other nematodes) and organic debris. They can also be parasitic, causing significant harm to people, animals and plants. My MSc research focused on a nematode species known scientifically as Caenorhabditis elegans, which has been used over the ages as a model organism to study several conditions in people and animals. Our study used this particular nematode to explore issues of ageing.

Q: What is your PhD research focus?

A. Thanks to a collaborative partnership between Gent University and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), I connected with nematology researchers working in Africa. And after a brief stint as a programme officer at the Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency, I was offered an opportunity to undertake a PhD registered at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, under the joint supervision of nematologists at IITA, and the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). My studies are supported by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD). My research aims to investigate the impact of plant parasitic nematodes on enset, and how the damage that these pests cause on this particular crop can be managed.

Q. How important is enset as a food crop?

A. While largely unknown outside Ethiopia, enset is an important staple food crop in the country, with approximately 20% of the population (about 20 million people) depending on it. Although wild enset can be found across Africa, it is has only been domesticated in Ethiopia. In the South and Southwestern region of Ethiopia where enset is primarily cultivated,  it  is a culturally and agriculturally symbolic crop, providing food security, cash income, animal feed, as well as preventing erosion and soil loss on the steep highlands. Enset is often referred to as a false banana. This is because while in the field it resembles a banana plant, it does not produce edible fruits. Instead, the pseudostem, leaf sheaths and underground corm are harvested and processed into carbohydrate-rich food products. One of the best known enset dish is kocho, a bread-like fermented food often used in place of Ethiopia’s famous injera.  The importance of enset was evident during the severe famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s, which left enset growing communities largely unaffected.

Q. What have been the achievements of your research?

A. Enset remains marginalised by researchers, with minimal scientific studies conducted on it. Even less is known about the plant parasitic nematodes that affect it, the damage they cause, or how to manage them. As such, our research has been groundbreaking in many ways. We have conducted the largest survey to date to establish which nematode species are present and which of them pose the greatest threat to enset.  For the first time, we evaluated the role of planting material in the spread of these pests and assessed common varieties for potential resistance against them.

Q. How does your research contribute to the sustainable development goals?

A. The SDG2: Zero Hunger, calls for ending hunger in the world by 2030. However, this goal does not seem to be on target, especially considering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is projected to substantially increase the number of hungry people. Therefore, it is important that we change the global food and agriculture system. Over-relying on a select group of staple crops is a risk the world can no longer afford. As such, neglected or underutilised crops, which include ancient species like enset need to be mainstreamed. Our study has set the scene for further research to improve the production of enset. We have also developed a range of protocols, devised new techniques and methods, and raised awareness for investigations and management of plant parasitic nematodes, which infect and adversely affect most, if not all, cultivated crops, causing damage worth billions of dollars annually.

A: Have there been any influences during your academic journey? Key mentors?

My premier influence was my mother. Having had no formal education herself, she was determined that her children, including myself, her only daughter, would advance as far as possible. My supervisor and mentor Dr Danny Coyne, Soil Health Scientist and expert in plant nematology at IITA, has shared his wisdom, guided and motivated me, reminding me of the end goal of our research: improving the lives of African smallholder farmers.


Agriculture 4.0



Q. Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A. I was born in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal. I grew up between the city and my home village, Diofior, about 150 kilometers away.

Q. What inspired you into science, and the specific discipline?

A. I interacted with science from a very early age because my father is a computer scientist. When I was young, he would to take me to his office where he allowed me to mess around – draw, write, print and play – on the computers. He also had access to the latest technology gadgets, which were at my disposal, as long as I wasn’t destroying them, of course! As a result, I choose to study computer science at university. My mathematics teacher in secondary school influenced my interest in mathematics and sciences because he taught us with patience and passion.

Q. How did your early path in science progress?

A. I obtained a BSc in computer engineering in 2013 at Université de Thiés, Senegal. I then proceeded to the University Cheikh Anta Diop, Dakar, Senegal, for an MSc in Distributed Information Systems, which I obtained in 2015. I worked on a distributed architecture of Voice over IP (VoIP), which are networks that do not rely heavily on centralised server nodes to facilitate communication. For my MSc thesis, I worked on real-time storage techniques for Wireless Sensor Networks (WSN). I consider my greatest achievement to be a two-year tenure as an engineer of telecommunications networks and services in the Department of Information Services, at Thies University, Senegal. Our mission was to set up a distributed authentication system for the University. It was a very challenging project that we managed brilliantly.

Q. What is the focus of your PhD research?

A. In 2018, I commenced PhD studies, through the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF), registered at the University Gaston Berger, Senegal. My research focus is on the Internet of Things (IoT), and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as applied to agriculture and farming. I am assessing energy efficiency within irrigation networks, and clean energy within solar-powered systems. The aim is to develop an automated irrigation system that will compute the right amount of water for overall crop growth, ensuring that only the required amounts of water are supplied to the plants. The goal is to propose a solution that will optimise and automate the irrigation paradigm in The Niayes. A geographical area in northwestern Senegal, The Niayes has an exceptionally favourable climate for farming, and represents a natural base of agricultural production in Senegal. However, the region is confronted with difficulties related to increasing salt intrusion, destruction of the strip of casuarina trees, caused by speculation and irregular sale of land.So far, I have been able to establish a mathematical model of reliability and accessibility based on energy efficiency. I also have an IoT testbed, and several projects are being built from it for novel publications, in the context of our research focus.

Q. How does your research contribute to the sustainable development goals?

A. My research has a cross cutting impact on several SDGs.  The need to regulate and optimise water resources, as well as the move to more sustainable farming systems is a shared concern in many developing countries, and across the globe. This research will contribute much needed knowledge towards this goal.

Q. What are the broader implications of your research?

A. The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated the importance of IoT beyond the traditional focus of industrial applications. More human-centric applications of IoT have emerged, for example in making visible the web of human connections as a critical part of the track and trace strategy to monitor and contain the spread of the pandemic. Although our research focuses on agriculture, we are also assessing IoT in a more generic format, with extensive potential for broad transfer of the applications that we will develop. Overall, this study provides strong evidence of the transformative potential of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in Africa, and the need for the continent to invest strongly in the necessary infrastructure, capacity and policies.


Spaces, time and temperature



Q. Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A. I was born in Kwara State, western Nigeria, and I grew up in Kano State, northern Nigeria.

 Q. What inspired you into science in general, and specifically the nematology field of research? 

A. Iwas fascinated by natureand the environment from an early age. As such, I always knew that I wanted to study science. The major turning point in my scientific path came during my undergraduate studies in Kogi State University, Anyigba town, Central Nigeria. I noticed that the town’s periphery was always cooler than the core within which the University is situated. This scenario sparked my curiosity and desire to understand variations in temperature in different spaces. Therefore, as part of my BSc studies in Geography and Planning, I conducted an analysis of the University as an urban heat island. I proceeded for an MSc at the Federal University of Technology Minna, Niger State, to study spatio-temporal variation of temperature in Kano State.

Q. What is the focus of your PhD research?

A. I commenced my PhD studies in 2020, supported by theRegional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF). I am registered in Bayero University Kano, Nigeria, an RSIF Host University. My research employs earth observation datasets and climate models to investigate drought as the result of spatio-temporal variations. My area of focus is northern Nigeria, a semi-arid region that is part of the Sahel. While this region is the major producer of cereals and grains in Nigeria, it is prone to constant drought, with significant implications for food security. I aim to develop a model integrating ground station meteorological data, earth observation data and climate models. I will undertake part of my studies through two-year sandwich program at the Natural Resources Institute (NRI), Greenwich University, United Kingdom, to analyse the climate models using high computational systems, and compute my results.

Q. How does your research contribute to the sustainable development goals?

A. This research contributes particularly to SDG 2: Zero Hunger. Drought is one of the major causes of food insecurity in Nigeria. My findings will boost existing knowledge on this phenomenon, and also contribute to the development of early warning systems to predict possible drought episodes. The results will be useful to agro-meteorologists, farmers, decisionmakers and indeed, many stakeholders in agricultural production. Beyond the study area, the knowledge could also be applicable to other semi-arid regions across the content.

Q. Who have been your key mentors?

A. First, is Prof. Salihu Danlami Musa, my supervisor during my undergraduate studies, and an environmental enthusiast who brought a captivating way of learning, through practical examples and analysis that are applicable in real life. Second, Dr Michael Thiel, who co-supervised my postgraduate studies, whose research focus is on climate change, land use and land cover, application of remote sensing for climate change studies in Africa. He has been very crucial in my growth, mentoring me in all research pursuits and encouraging me along the journey.


Crops for Health



Q. Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A. I was born and raised in rural Kenya. I attended boarding school, thus learning to be responsible and independent at an early age.

Q. What inspired you into science and into your specific area of research?

A. My passion is in biotechnology and health, largely inspired by memories of my grandfather who used to extract plant-based therapies to treat sheep suspected of having sustained snake bites.

Q. Where did you obtain your earlier degrees?

A. I hold a Bsc in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (2011), and an MSc in Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics (2014), both from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT), Kenya.

Q. Who is your key influence?

A. I am inspired by Dr Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan scientist renowned for her research and development initiatives on tissue culture banana as a way of enhancing food security in Africa.

Q. What is your research focus?

A.My research aims to synthesize compounds in the African cabbage (known scientifically as Cleome gynandra), that have value for human and animal health). Although widely used as a vegetable and a medicinal plant, C. gynandra is one of African orphan crops; neglected or overlooked plants that are often more nutritious and better suited to local agricultural systems than exotic varieties. My studies are supported by the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund. I am registered in Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania, and I am currently on a sandwich programme at Korea Institute Of Science And Technology, Seoul, South Korea.

Q. What progress have you made so far?

A. I have conducted and published a systematic review that updates knowledge on glucosinolates, sulfur-containing compounds found in cruciferous vegetables like the African cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale. These compounds play an important role in human and animal health (disease therapy and prevention), plant health (defense chemicals, biofumigants and biocides), and food industries (preservatives). The study also presents factors that affect the natural occurrence and biological availability of the compounds, supporting increased harnessing of their therapeutic values.

Q. What is the contribution of your research to the sustainable development goals (SDGs)?

 A. Broadly speaking, my research is aligned to the SDG 2: End hunger. Central to this goal is the understanding that a profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the more than 690 million people who are currently hungry. Because of their high nutritious value, African orphan crops are a vital way of addressing malnutrition, especially hidden hunger, in Africa. My research will contribute much needed scientific knowledge, as well as awareness towards unlocking the full potential of these crops.

Q. How does your academic journey contribute to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic?

 A. Alongside two other female RSIF PhD scholars, I was interviewed for an article discussing the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on our personal lives and research journeys. We believe that the candid presentation of the challenges we have faced, lessons learnt and our sources of resilience will help to mitigate the adverse impact of the pandemic on other scholars and researchers.