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Why African Women Scientists Matter

August 25, 2015

I had an opportunity to share my thoughts on why investing in African women scientists matters with the Sci Dev community. SciDev.Net is the world’s leading source of reliable and authoritative news, views and analysis on information about science and technology for global development.

My interview on my work with African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) was part of the Africa’s PhD Renaissance series funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

Check out my full interview on Sci Dev here

AWARD fellows from Mozambique: fun fearless leaders of Africa’s agricultural transformation

Nothing About Us, Without Us: Placing African women at the centre of conversations about the African agricultural revolution

August 18, 2015

In October  2014 UN Women with the African Union (AU), IFAD, FAO and WFP co-hosted an exciting regional Sharefair for Rural Women’s Technologies  at the UN Compound in Gigiri, Nairobi- Kenya. The innovations showcased have tremendous potential to improve the lives of African women smallholder farmers.

I got to address the plenary session and focused my attention on African the loud silence of women’s missing voices in the African agricultural sector.  Below is the full text of my speech:

Nothing About Us, Without Us

As a young girl I remember my parents taking me to what was then the Nairobi ‘show’ put together by the Agricultural society of Kenya. I was mesmerised by all the products on offer, the balloons, the toys, and, as always, the junk food.

Those early days going to the ‘show’ bred in me a passion for agriculture that has surprised even my parents. Brought up in the concrete jungle that is Nairobi’s Eastlands, nobody expected me to care about agriculture.

Yet here I am. My favorite thing is grow my own food and whenever I can, I like to take my son to agricultural fairs. Its our special bonding time.

Agriculture has the power to connect the spirit and the body in powerful ways. Agriculture has the power to inspire a young generation.

A young generation who, like my unborn child, are facing an uncertain food future in Africa.

We are facing a serious challenge; Africa needs to increase food production by 260% by the year 2050 if we are to feed ourselves and our children.

Even as we focus on increased food production its important that we focus on HOW we do this.

If we are not careful we might end up increasing food production to feed the world as African children die of hunger.

Its important that this increase in food production not just be for export but that we increase food production so that we feed Africans.

As some of you know, I am new to the Agriculture sector, having taken the helm of AWARD only seven months ago. Before that I served as an Asst Prof of Political Science at the university of San Francisco and the director of Akili Dada, a young women’s leadership incubator.

In the seven months since I have joined the agriculture sector I have heard a lot about how we are going to need to innovate so as to meet the challenge of feeding Africa.

We have also been told that African women are a critical component in unlocking Africa’s agricultural potential.

I must admit, however, that, even as we talk about how important African women are to the agricultural revolution at hand, I have been surprised at how often African women are talked ABOUT rather than occupying the podium and actually speaking to the issues.  It is, in some spaces, perfectly ok to have a panel about African women in Agriculture without any African women present!

That is why I’m thrilled to be here with you. At an event that places African women’s voices at the center of the agriculture conversation.

From my prior background in academia and then working in women’s rights I know that if we are not intentional in our focus on women they get forgotten.

Today I would like to share with you three key areas that I believe are critical to pay particular attention to women and for women’s voices to be heard:


It is surprising to me that its only recently that the key players in the agriculture sector have began talking about the critical links between agriculture and nutrition.

Indeed I believe the decades-long silence and failure to connect the dots between agricultural production and human nutrition is a direct result of the marginalization of women’s voices within the larger agricultural ecosystem.

If we had been listening to women’s voices all along we wouldn’t just now be discovering how important nutrition is in the conversation about increasing food production.

Mechanization: There is a strong argument that for African Agriculture to really take off, we need to mechanize. I have heard it said that we need to relegate the hoe to the museums of history. That my unborn son will need to go to the Nairobi National Museum to see what a jembe or a panga used to look like and how they were used. Right next to the primitive stones that pre-historic humans in this region used to hunt those millions of years ago.

Unfortunately, Too often conversations about mechanization of African agriculture are conversations about big tractors to farm massive trackts of land.

And that is where we need to be careful. Because if we refuse to see African women, if we refuse to acknowledge the conditions under which African women farm, we will fail to connect the dots between women’s lack of access to land, and the proposed mechanical tools.

In being enamored by the big shiny new tractors, we can fail to see the ways that most African women engaged in agriculture farm smaller tracts of land and don’t have access to the financing it takes to purchase the big machines.

I am heartened to be here and to see the focus on accessible technologies and machines. Modern tools that women can use and use now. We must make sure that investments in these tools continue.

Access to finance: There is emerging conversations about how to improve African farmer’s access to finance so as to ensure that they can participate effectively in markets.   Again reforming our financial sectors to address the needs of farmers is critical.

But we must also be careful that we pay attention to where women farmers are located in this space. We risk serious failures if we create farming finance systems that don’t pay attention to the ways that patriarchy functions in our communities. It is critical, as we design farming finance, to set aside funds that specifically target women and that help women leverage on their particular assets, be it social connections, labour, or small animals. Farming finance that requires title deeds as collateral will, from the beginning, be designed to marginalize women.

Women at the table:

We also know that for women not to fall out of these critical discussions, women MUST be at the decision making table.

We also know that in Africa today only 1 in 4 agricultural scientists is a woman and the numbers are even worse when it comes to leadership where only 1 in 7 is a leader. If you have a room of 7 core leaders making decisions on what new seed varieties should be developed, what new methods of financing we should adopt for rural agriculture, only one of those decision makers will be a woman. That is where we must drive change.

AWARD’s work is critical in driving change. We are working to ensure that African women scientists have the advanced science skills, the professional networks, the mentoring, and the leadership skills they need to make a real difference in the African Agricultural ecosystem.

But the task ahead does not just belong to AWARD.

Its critical that we invest in girls and young women to ensure that they make it to the agricultural sciences, to agribusiness, and to agricultural financing.

That is why experiences like the sharefair are critical. I guarantee you that there is a girl or a young woman who has passed by here today whose life has changed. Who has become inspired to pursue agriculture as a passion.

She may be the next winner of the World Food Prize, the next minister of agriculture in any of our countries, or the next president.

African Agriculture Rising: Prosperity for a select few or will ALL of Africa rise?

August 11, 2015

I got the exciting opportunity to address the 2014 AGRF held at the Nelson Mandela hall of the African Union.  Coverage of my speech included:

The full text of my speech is below:

Five months ago I left academia as well as the young women’s leadership incubator that I had founded 10 years prior to accept a position as Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

I was drawn to AWARD and the agricultural sector in particular because of my big-eyed wonder at the potential that agriculture has to be the driver of Africa’s transformative growth. Trained as a Political Scientist, I’ve grown perhaps skeptical of expectations that we have any hope of transforming a continent that is still hungry. I am optimistic that agriculture filling Africa’s hungry bellies and nourishing her stunted children is the place we must first start if we are to drive the transformation that we all dream of.

I have received many warm welcomes including this tremendous opportunity to stand in the hallowed halls of the African Union. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to address you, many of you my elders.

So allow me to come to you as a younger sister and even as a daughter. A beautiful thing about out African cultures is the tremendous space each of them allows for young people to ask questions in the process of learning. It is this opportunity that I seek to take. Allow me thin to come to you as a young woman with questions that are at once naïve, but that are, at the same time, hopefully provocative.

The first question that I have for you, and for all of us really, is: Why is it that Africa must increase food production?

I realize how simple this question sounds but it does honestly come from a place of confusion out of the many difference answers I have received to the same question since coming into the agricultural sector.

It seems to me that, as Africans, we are at an urgent crossroads and facing a critical decision. We must decide whether increased food production will be part of what H.E. the Minister of Agriculture from Nigeria called a ‘prodigal agriculture’. An agriculture that follows previous paths of extraction and export of Africa’s natural resources but serves only to grow our poverty.

That is one fork in the road.

Instead, it seems that we must increase Africa’s food production so that we can feed Africans and build African wealth and prosperity.

What at first seems a simple question is suddenly steeped in a bitter history and continued threat of the extraction & appropriation of African resources that does not build African prosperity.

Clarity about WHY we must increase food production then becomes an important as we continue these conversations.

Once we establish what I heard called ‘an adequate consensus’ about why increased production is important, then we have increasing clarity on why we must build agricultural value chains that are inclusive.

Because even as we celebrate Africa’s rising, we must maintain a commitment to ALL of Africa rising. This is a call that H.E. the chair of the African Union reminded us so eloquently about during the opening plenary.

Allow me here to invoke that famed reggae musician, Bob Marley, who reminded us that when it rains, it does not rain on one man’s house alone.

You are not wealthy when your brother sleeps hungry and lays in waiting ready to pounce on you at the gate of your mansion as you drive out in the morning. That is not wealth.

True African prosperity must see ALL Africans rise. To achieve that, inclusivity is imperative.

The second question, perhaps a naïve question, but I think a critical one still is: HOW do we build this inclusivity into our work?

And here allow me to lean into my training as a Political Scientist and ask a question I learnt to ask often. Which ‘others’ are we seeking to include? Which women are we including? Which youth are we including?

In conversations about inclusiveness we often talk about categories of people at the margins of our societies as if they are a monolithic whole. We often use lenses that do not allow us to capture the complexities of real life.

Intersections of identities are important.

None of us here fits neatly into just one category of identity. You may be male but come from a marginalized pastoralist community. You may be female but come from a family of wealth and power.

Our identities are complex.

African identities are complex.

Commitment to building inclusive agricultural value chains will recognize the complexity of the identities of those we seek to include.

This has real implications for our work, our daily work.

For example, when discussing question of inclusiveness in access to land for agricultural production, we must make sure that women are part of the equation. But we must also ask ‘which women?’, avoiding the temptation to conflate all women into one monolithic group.

Many of us here know that in our families, the relationship between the mother in law and the daughter in law is often a complicated power dynamic. A dynamic which impacts young women’s access to land.

Which women?

And this is not just a women’s issue. Because often when it’s a women’s issue, its easier to slip it under the carpet and forget it.

We know that as sub-divisible plots of arable land are decreasing and that young men also have increased challenges accessing land and are forced into urban poverty.

So questions of land and land access must have at the center issues of inclusiveness.

A second example, technology in agriculture, offers tremendous promise. But we also know that infrastructure imbalances place rural populations at a disadvantage compared to urban ones when it comes to taking advantage of the opportunities offered by technology is revolutionizing African agriculture.

These complexities don’t mean that we stop addressing issues of land access or technology in agriculture. It means we must constantly be reminded of WHY we are doing this work. We are doing it so that ALL Africans may rise.

My third and final provocation is to challenge us to address the issue of inclusiveness not as an issue of charity. As if, by including those at the margins of our societies, we are doing them a favor. The question of inclusivity is not about charity; it is about building Africa’s prosperity.

Two examples come to mind:

It has not made sense to me that as a continent, we continue to deny ourselves the talent and the brilliance of women who comprise 50% of our population. Why is it that we we are ok to leave behind 50% of our potential leaders, innovators, women who may hold the solutions to the biggest challenges facing this continent? Why is it that, through systems that leave women outside of decision making, outside of the rooms where critical decisions are made, we do not access for ourselves, as a continent, the tremendous resources that these women represent?

The youth bulge in Africa. We have an opportunity in Africa. We can either see the increased number of young people on this continent as a threat, as a destabilizing force, or we can look over to Europe, look over to Japan and see they way they look at our young population with envy as their own population ages. We have tremendous power with the labor force that is coming up. Including young people, having young people present at the table when we set policies, when we have these conversations is going to be critical to whether young people are a threat or an opportunity for Africa.

I want to close by reminding us that a generation ahead of us fought hard for Africa’s independence. This year many of our countries are celebrating 50 years of independence.

But unfortunately we can agree that even with independence, African prosperity has remained somewhat elusive. Many of the aspirations that our fathers and mothers had at independence have not yet been realized.   Some have, but too many of our people remain poor.

I firmly believe that we, those of us in this room, are the generation charged with bringing about Africa’s prosperity. Our fathers, our mothers brought independence. It is on us who are alive 50 years from independence to secure Africa’s prosperity.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.

But even as we work towards a prosperous Africa we have a set of tough set of urgent question that we must answer first: Prosperity for who? Is it going to be prosperity for a select few who won’t be able to sleep comfortably at night or will ALL of Africa rise?

Africa is Rising and the United States is late showing up

August 3, 2015

I recently had a great opportunity to participate in a panel conversation analysing the impact of President Obama’s recent visit to Kenya and Ethiopia for a show on National Public Radio.  The actual show starts at about minute 8.

Fellow guests on the KRCW show To the Point were:

Heidi Vogt, Wall Street Journal (@HeidiVogt)
Alex Perry, Newsweek (@PerryAlexJ)
Bronwyn Bruton, Atlantic Council (@BronwynBruton)

Among some of the tough topics we discussed were the democratic struggle in Ethiopia as well as the state of Gay Rights in Africa and Kenya specifically.  I think I left the host a bit out of breath at the end there :)  Take a listen.

On the whole I believe President Obama’s visit will continue to have great impact, certainly in Kenya. At minimum, his focus on empowering women and girls, and securing rights for all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, is wind at the backs of human rights activists who are advocating for social progress.  His speech and its reception by the Kenyan people was electrifying.

Change: On joining African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD)

July 31, 2015

After making the decision to leave Akili Dada I had to decide whether to return to my tenure-track faculty position at the University of San Francisco, or to stay on the African continent and chart a new path.

I chose the later and was honoured to be selected, out of a pool of amazing women candidates, to serve as Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD).

Hosted by the World Agroforestry Centre and a part of the CGIAR community, AWARD is a career-development program that equips top women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate agricultural gains by strengthening their research and leadership skills, through tailored fellowships. AWARD is a catalyst for innovations with high potential to contribute to the prosperity and well-being of African smallholder farmers, most of whom are women.

AWARD’s mission so closely aligns with my vision on the need for continent-wide gender transformation in driving Africa’s prosperity.  I also believe that Agricultural transformation is absolutely fundamental to ending poverty in Africa.  AWARD combines these two passions beautifully.

The CGIAR posted this announcement of my joining the AWARD team:

NAIROBI, KENYA — African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) today announced the appointment of Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg as the program’s new director.

AWARD is a career-development program that equips top women agricultural scientists across sub-Saharan Africa to accelerate agricultural gains by strengthening their research and leadership skills, through tailored fellowships.  To date, 325 scientists have benefited from the successful program and are better equipped and empowered to develop agricultural innovations contributing to the prosperity and well-being of African smallholder farmers. 

Dr. Idah Sithole-Niang, Chair of AWARD’s Steering Committee and Professor of Molecular Biology and Virology at the University of Zimbabwe, congratulated Kamau-Rutenberg and noted that AWARD is now well positioned to further advance its mission.

“Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is internationally renowned for creating an innovative, transformative model of leadership development for women and girls in Kenya,” said Sithole-Niang. “She is an accomplished, dynamic leader herself, who brings outstanding experience to AWARD, coupled with a passionate vision for its critical work.”

Prior to joining AWARD, Kamau-Rutenberg served as Founder and Executive Director of Akili Dada, an award-winning leadership incubator that invests in high-achieving young Kenyan women from under-resourced families, who are passionate about driving change in their communities.

Kamau-Rutenberg also served as an assistant professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and a lecturer in International Relations at the Jesuit Hekima College, a constituent college of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa. Her academic research and teaching interests center on African politics, as well as the politics of philanthropy, gender, international relations, ethnicity, and democratization, along with the role of technology in social activism.

Born in Kenya, Kamau-Rutenberg holds a PhD and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from Whitman College in Washington, U.S.A.

She has received widespread recognition for her work investing in women, including being honored as a 2012 White House Champion of Change, named one of the 100 Most Influential Africans by New African magazine, recognized as a 2012 Ford Foundation Champion of Democracy, and awarded the 2011 Yamashita Prize and the 2010 United Nations Intercultural Innovation Award, among others.

Dr. Tony Simons, Director General of the World Agroforestry Centre where AWARD is housed, said, “Dr. Kamau-Rutenberg’s experience in the academic and development sectors makes her well qualified to enhance AWARD’s strong reputation for excellence and to scale up its relationships with African partner institutions, such as universities and institutions of agricultural research.”

Kamau-Rutenberg is married to Dr. Isaac M. Rutenberg, Director of the Center for Intellectual Property in Information Technology at Strathmore University Law School, and they have a 5-year-old son.

She will assume her duties as director on March 24, 2014 and will be honored at a welcome reception on March 27 in Nairobi.

For further information visit AWARD

Change: On Resigning from the University of San Francisco

July 30, 2015
As part of my transitions in 2014 I also resigned from my tenure-track faculty position at the University of San Francisco.  This was a heart-rending decision made even harder by the fact that the University had bent over backwards to support my passion for growing Akili Dada first with a sabbatical then by extending my employment with two years unpaid leave.  I really struggled with the decision to leave a well paying job with fantastic colleagues, great benefits, in a city that I love.
The resignation letter I wrote to my then Dean from Kenya came from the heart:

Its with a very heavy heart that I share with you my intention to resign from my tenure-track faculty position at USF.

After months of agonising I have come to the conclusion that I’m no longer going to be able to remain on a tenure track at USF while pursuing what I feel is my life’s calling to return to the African continent and be a part of the ongoing social transformation here.

As you know, for the last 10 years I have been at the helm of Akili Dada.  You have supported me in this work and because of your encouragement Akili Dada has grown to reach over 20,000 people in communities across Kenya by investing in young women social changemakers like 13 year old Elyne and Akili Dada fellow Caroline.

You had generously allowed me a leave of absence so that I could come to Kenya and devote my efforts to getting Akili Dada ready to outgrow me, its founder.

After 2 years of hard work I’m proud to say that this week was my last week of actively heading Akili Dada.

We have a strong Board of Directors and a dedicated staff team who are passionate about Akili Dada’s mission. After a rigorous interview process the Board of Directors has appointed our own Purity Kagwiria to be the next Executive Director and to ensure that Akili Dada’s work will continue and outgrow its founding vision.  I am excited, and I consider myself lucky that this work chose me. I have given my all and I’m ready to move on.

So, if not Akili Dada then why not return to USF?

The process of deciding to move on from Akili Dada has had me thinking deeply about my life’s calling.  I live an incredibly fortunate life and have had access to privileges and opportunities that so many of my fellow Africans, and especially African women, never get to access.  I started Akili Dada to create opportunities African women whose class backgrounds and life herstories reminded me of my own.  That work is not yet complete.

My years in the U.S., first at Overland High School,  Whitman College, then in grad school at the University of Minnesota, at USF and with Akili Dada have helped me earn skills that are much needed here on the continent.

I love USF, I have grown tremendously at USF. I am deeply drawn to the USF mission and the ways that rigorous academic analysis is rooted in a commitment to create a more just world all while having fun.  These are the things that brought me to San Francisco and they are the things I will miss the most.  And of course you, who have nurtured and supported me and taught me what true leadership looks like.  I will remain in deepest gratitude for the ways you have mentored me, advocated for me, and invested in me.


Change: On leaving Akili Dada

July 29, 2015

Its been more than a year since I decided to make the transition from leading Akili Dada, an organisation that I founded and still love.  The decision was a difficult and emotional one but one also based in my belief that leaders must practice what they preach:  Akili Dada is a young women’s organisation and it must continue to be run by young women. I had aged out :)

Also important is that successful leadership transitions must be modelled and become more common as they are critical to effective social change for Africa.

Its been a while but in case you missed it, below is the message that I sent out to friends and supporters of Akili Dada:

Dear Akili Dada Community,

Over the past decade, I have had the tremendous blessing of working with you to build Akili Dada’s vibrant and joyous community. Together, we have built a home for young African women that nurtures them as they grow into strong, vibrant, dedicated leaders. Together, we have transformed what began as a small scholarship fund into the leading girls’ leadership incubator in Kenya and on the African continent.

I know that you understand the strength of Akili Dada and the abundance of leadership in our ecosystem. Because I, too, know and trust that strength, I have decided that it is time for me to move on from the position of Executive Director of Akili Dada.

My decision to step down as Executive Director is one that we have been working toward for quite some time, in open conversation with Akili Dada’s staff and senior leadership. This transparency has allowed us to plan accordingly to strengthen the organization to withstand my transition. Among other actions taken, my family and I moved to Nairobi two years ago, so that I could be more present in developing the infrastructure of Akili Dada.

The past two years have seen a tremendous amount of growth for Akili Dada. Our Board of Directors, which includes both new faces and old, provides strong leadership from women who are passionate about Akili Dada’s mission today and who carry a powerful vision for Akili Dada’s future. They are truly my dream team. We also have an incredible staff team comprised of the best, brightest, and most passionate advocates for young African women’s futures. Working in a synergy that can only be drawn from shared passion and sense of mission, we have led Akili Dada to numerous international awards including recognition from the U.S. White House. Although many of these awards recognized me as the face of Akili Dada, they were never about me as an individual; they were about the work that the Akili Dada community has and will continue to perform. I feel incredibly fortunate to have worked with such an amazing community and have full confidence that they will thrive even in my absence.

I have given my all to Akili Dada and feel that the strongest and most innovative ideas I’ve had for us have been shared, implemented, or added to our future plans. An organization’s strength is best proved by its ability to outlive its founder, and I know, beyond the measure of doubt, that Akili Dada will grow far beyond me. I feel it is my responsibility to take a step back and watch it flourish under new leadership. I believe that the best founders know when to hand over leadership.

I am especially confident in a smooth transition because the Board of Directors has already appointed my successor. It is our very own Purity Kagwiria! I feel so fortunate to be able to hand over leadership of Akili Dada to such an incredible woman, whose mind and heart are devoted to this work and who knows first-hand the struggles that African women face. For the next two months, I will be on leave and Purity will serve as interim Executive Director, assuming full responsibilities upon my official departure at the end of March.

Purity knows this organization, community, and the landscape of our work better than anyone. In the three years since she joined Akili Dada, I have been keen to prepare her to take on increasing levels of responsibility. From the start, I knew that she had a bright future in global leadership. We are incredibly lucky that she has chosen to stay with Akili Dada.

Over the past six months, I have been even more intentional in sharing every part of the Executive Director role with her in order to prepare her to lead this organization.

Still, this is not leadership bequeathed to her. Akili Dada’s Board of Directors undertook an intense and rigorous two-day interview process to satisfy themselves that Purity is the best next leader for Akili Dada. Throughout that process, Purity’s passion for working with young women, her extensive knowledge of the organization, and her fresh vision for Akili Dada’s future shone through.

As I pass the torch to Purity, I invite your active support of her as the new Executive Director. The strength of this community lies in our shared dedication to nurturing the next generation of African women leaders. Purity is a sterling example of the type of leader that Akili Dada seeks to send forth into the world. We are lucky that she has chosen us.

Even as I step down from my official position at Akili Dada, I remain committed to this institution’s growth, and I hope you’ll join me in celebrating what Akili Dada has been and will become. Indeed, I shall remain a vociferous advocate and ambassador of Akili Dada’s work, even as I work hard to give Purity the time and the space she needs to develop her own leadership style and vision for Akili Dada’s future.

Akili Dada’s greatest asset is the community of women and men who have worked so hard to make Akili Dada into what it is today. I will always be a proud founder of Akili Dada, and I am confident that together we shall propel Akili Dada to the next level of its spectacular growth.

With love and in deepest gratitude for an incredible decade, 

Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg
Founder and Outgoing Executive Director
Akili Dada


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