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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #9 – Jemimah Njuki

Our “Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture” series of interviews, which puts a face to the youth in agricultural research for development (ARD), hears their voices and obtains an insight into their roles, perspectives, experiences and aspirations, continues with Jemimah Njuki. This young social scientist talks about her work that is empowering African women farmers. This is the first of our interviews under the “Carrying on the fight for gender equality” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

Gender in rural Africa: women on the brink of change

Jemimah Njuki didn’t set out to make gender issues the focus of her life’s work. She came across her passion in life quite by accident. While working as a livestock scientist in her native Kenya, she witnessed firsthand the inequalities that leave many African women marginalized and voiceless. And she knew in an instant what she had to do.

“After I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Dairy, Food Science and Technology, I began working for the Kenyan Ministry of Regional Development as a project officer coordinating activities on the ground,” Jemimah explains. “Although women did most of the work, they weren’t as involved as the men were in decision making and planning.  They weren’t often heard during meetings – they would sit as far behind the men as possible. Men controlled the assets and made all the major decisions; women just didn’t seem to have the capacity to change anything.”

The Ministry did begin a people’s participatory program in which women were a central focus so that they could talk to the women, find out their constraints and implement projects to address their issues. However, Jemimah didn’t have a clear understanding of how she could really impact these women. So she decided to pursue a Masters degree in Rural Development, specializing in gender and development.

Speeding along the gender fast track

When Jemimah talks about her work, there is a sense of urgency in her voice. It’s as if she can’t wait to do what needs to be done. While she was at university that same sense of urgency, coupled with her drive and passion, must have shown through in her work, because  one year into her Master’s degree at Tanzania’s Sokoine University of Agriculture, she was fast-tracked into what became the second year of a PhD program, a first at the university.

Fast forward several years to 2003, when Jemimah took up a post at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). Whilst there she led a program, first in Malawi and then in Zimbabwe, that worked with smallholder women farmers in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Kenya to improve food security, increase their access to markets and achieve gender equality.

Jemimah then moved to the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Nairobi, Kenya.

“I joined ILRI in 2009, partly because I wanted to come home for some time and also because it’s one of the CGIAR Centers with a critical mass of social scientists working with development interventions that might have some impact on the ground addressing gender issues,” she says. ”I’m currently leading the Poverty, Gender and Impact team, which, as the name suggests, works across three areas. My work focuses mainly on the second area: empowering women. We’ve taken the ILRI theme of livestock as a pathway out of poverty and really applied it to help women farmers.

“I work with some of ILRI’s projects to ensure that their strategies involve and impact women, that project staff have the capacity to address gender issues, and that their impact assessments have specific gender outcomes and targets.”

Not just about the women

This young scientist is quick to point out that gender issues are not just about women.

“Men have a key role to play in addressing these issues,” she explains. “We have to get the message across that gender inequality actually affects everybody.  Some think it just affects women, but it affects the whole household, the whole community, the whole country. When people start realizing that, then everybody will get onboard to address whatever inequalities exist. We work a lot on capacity-building and increasing awareness of such inequalities. Some of the strategies we use directly target women, but others target men, and yet others target the wider community.”

ILRI the gender champion

Jemimah talks enthusiastically about the support she and her team receive from ILRI management, both from the Director General and the Deputy Director General (DDG) of Research.

“In February this year, I co-organized AgriGender 2011, a workshop that brought together researchers, development practitioners, donors and policymakers working in Africa and Asia to discuss ways of enabling women to participate in and benefit from agricultural markets, and the DDG of Research was there, at the forefront,” she says. “This kind of commitment is necessary to get  gender mainstreamed into agriculture research and development.”

Jemimah Njuki speaking at the AgriGender 2011 workshop

“Participants exchanged knowledge, ideas and experiences: what worked and what didn’t. It was good to also have a strong government presence at the workshop, which is needed if we are to scale up our efforts. For example, the Ethiopian Minister for Agriculture attended and said that his government also needed to address gender issues. We still have a long way to go, but it was gratifying to bring all these people together who are behind the same cause. ILRI has projects that are reaching a thousand women, but we need to reach millions. And I think the people in that room actually have the capacity to do that.”

Watch Jemimah’s TED talk for more insights into her work.

Further down the track

Her experiences have motivated this dynamic woman to increase the reach of her work so that it can have more of a global impact.

“I’m reaching out to other partners and global networks of people who are carrying out similar work,” she says. “For example, I link a lot with the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) team carrying out gender research, and with some teams from donor organizations that are either funding or are interested in seeing change in the way research and development is done. I’m also linking with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, trying to assess the impact they are having on women with some of their projects. So I’m focusing on building these networks and hope to have a critical mass of organizations involved within the next five years.

“I’d also like to see gender research recognized as an area of research in its own right. It’s not just something that you add on to existing projects, like an afterthought. Even when we mainstream gender, it needs to be an integral part of what we do. It’s important that our target beneficiaries include women, and that our research approaches are structured around the engagement of women and how we achieve gender and equity impacts with our work.”

Encouraging the next generation

“Working with gender is very fulfilling, especially when you return to communities you’ve worked with and you see women who previously wouldn’t speak up leading their community and doing things like conducting participatory research in their gardens and marketing their produce in high value markets,” says Jemimah, who also finds the time to mentor young women scientists interested in working with African women farmers. “We have to start building a generation of young people who have that commitment. Currently, there’s so much momentum for agriculture development and gender equality and we need to take this opportunity to change things.”

I suspect Jemimah wants to seize the opportunity right now.