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Growing Talents: Youth in Agriculture #12 – Teddy Amuge

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 Teddy Amuge. This talented scientist overcame many obstacles at a young age; obstacles that instilled in her a steely determination to help her country’s rural people overcome the diseases that continue to rob them of their livelihoods and their ability to feed themselves. This is the first interview under the “Behind the scenes: Youth in laboratories” chapter. Click here to find out more about the series.

Strength through adversity

When Teddy Amuge was 11 years old her father passed away, leaving behind a widow and 10 young children. Teddy’s mother did what she could to feed and educate her family, mainly by selling vegetables grown on their own land in northern Uganda, but there often wasn’t enough money to make ends meet. Whenever the household’s meagre income couldn’t be stretched to cover school fees, Teddy helped her mother work the land and compensated for her long absences from school by studying especially hard during the few months a year she was able to attend.

Such adversity has helped mould Teddy into the determined young woman she is today. Her hard work and self belief earned her several scholarships that eventually enabled her to graduate with a Masters degree in Crop Science from Kampala’s Makerere University.

Getting to the root of cassava diseases

“I’m a product of a farm,” says Teddy. “Even when my father was alive, we ate the food we grew on our own land. At home we grew and ate cassava. Cassava provides about 50% of the dietary needs of Uganda’s population, so when the country was badly hit by the Cassava Mosaic Disease (CMD) in the early 1990s, the disease became vividly known to me. I knew I had to do something to help find a solution. I joined NACRRI in 2006 on a Masters fellowship and was part of the team using molecular tools to produce cassava lines resistant to CMD. Towards the end of my studies, we had identified some markers that could be used to create such lines. At the same time, another virus began to attack the cassava, and sadly all our lines succumbed. We had to start looking for plants to begin the breeding process all over again.”

Then in 2010, this dedicated scientist became only one of 180 African woman scientists to have won an AWARD Fellowship. AWARD is a professional development program that strengthens the research and leadership skills of African women in agricultural science, empowering them to contribute more effectively to poverty alleviation and food security in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Under the AWARD fellowship, Teddy now carries out her PhD research at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Nairobi, Kenya, where she works on finding a solution to both the CMD and the emerging Cassava Brown Streak Disease (CBSD) pandemics.

Teddy Amuge at work in the lab

“Unfortunately, many of the farmers can’t recognize this new aggressive disease,” explains Teddy. “It’s only at harvest time that they usually discover that the roots are completely rotten. We’re trying to educate them so they can identify the aerial symptoms of the CBSD, but it’s proving very difficult to detect. It’s a struggle for the farmers, because cassava is both a food and cash crop and some crops have been totally wiped out. My project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seeks to combat CBSD using biotechnology applications, while the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, which is managed by Catholic Relief Services and also supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, selects clean Cassava cuttings and multiplies them in the lab, plants them in selected fields and then sends them to farmers in stricken countries: Uganda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. Several other projects in place in many CBSD and CMD-hit cassava growing areas, mainly under Agriculture Ministry, are aimed at eradicating these major obstacles to cassava production.”

The mother of all mentors

The AWARD Fellowship also provides Teddy with free training on proposal writing and development, scientific writing, and leadership skills, and has assigned a mentor, Dr. Lilian Waiboci-Muhia, a senior scientist and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, to guide her for one year.

Teddy, who currently counsels and tutors several undergraduate students, strongly believes in the power of mentoring.

“Teachers and lecturers aside, my greatest mentor has been my mother,” she says. “She always said, ‘Nobody wants a half working person. If you want to work, work hard and work well!’ I’m very proud of my mother. She has done so much for her children. She has always put her family ahead of everything else in life. I hope I can be a good mentor like her.”

The mentee becomes a mentor

“Whenever I return to my village, I go back to my old school to speak to the children, both boys and girls,” says Teddy. “I tell them that I once stood exactly where they are now, and encourage them to do their best. I wasn’t the best in my school, or in my class, but my background and passion made a difference. I want to share that passion with the children and get them thinking about what they feel passionately about, and how they can possibly help the community.

“As for myself, I learned that it’s one thing to have a passion to change my community, but it’s quite another knowing exactly how to change it. You need to reach the people, find out exactly what they need, and find a way of delivering what you’re doing to them. Otherwise your work won’t make any impact. As a researcher, I need to be honest with my results and aim at getting the results out to the people who need it.”

Influencing policy makers

Teddy hopes one day to influence policy makers in her country, so that poor farmers can get the help they deserve in a timely manner

“It seems that certain government policies in my country are so held back by bureaucracy that it limits some processes,” she says. “For example, many policies do not favor research and work that is directed at improving agriculture, otherwise we would surely have been so much further ahead with finding a solution for the diseases that are devastating many cassava fields. So we rely on external donations. I feel that current principles and policies mean that we are losing valuable time; time that can be used to make a difference in agriculture.

“In the future, if I could somehow be involved in implementing such policies, I would focus on handling crises as quickly as possible and make sure that I incorporate more rural people in policy networks.”

From Uganda to New York and home again

During the 55th Meeting of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) held at the UN headquarters in New York in February 2011, Teddy was given an opportunity to speak about cassava production and highlighted the lack of institutional and social support for women farmers in the industry. She did this simply by talking about her experience, her culture and her vision for the future.

“It was a great experience,” says Teddy. “When I got home, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother all about it.”

Her mother’s response?

“She reminded me that they need good cassava; that we need good food. Which is exactly what she tells me every day.”