Africa, Changing Lives: Making Research Real, Development & Aid, Education, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights

DEVELOPMENT-AFRICA: Women in Pursuit of Knowledge

DAKAR, Aug 8 2009 (IPS) - While Africa is still far from having adequate capacity for scientific innovation, women are more and more present in the field of research for the continent’s sustainable development.

Processing shea butter in Ghana: women in the region are building on traditional knowledge to improve production. Credit:  Kenneth S. Yussif

Processing shea butter in Ghana: women in the region are building on traditional knowledge to improve production. Credit: Kenneth S. Yussif

This is the view of Dr Marie Louise Correa, formerly minister in charge of scientific research in Senegal. Correa stresses that economic growth and development are based on a country’s capacity to acquire and use new technology.

Research in Africa is held back by the relatively small numbers of engineers, technicians and researchers, Correa says, adding that women are not marginalised in scientific research. “We work in perfect harmony with male researchers. Certainly, we are women, but this doesn’t disturb us in the exercise of our functions.”

For evidence, Correa looks at the number of women involved in science research at the Cheikh Anta Diop University. In the 1990s, there were only 15 women researchers there; today there are more than 40.

Correa was one of a group of researchers and policy-makers from across Africa who met in Dakar on May 4-7 to discuss knowledge in the service of development. The conference was convened by Knowledge Management Africa, a continent-wide network for promoting and sharing knowledge to improve governance and service delivery.

“The continent is far behind in terms of scientific research, but we women play an influential role in the development of the continent through research. It’s important to note the fruitful contributions of the women researchers at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar.” she said.

Early support for women in science

Also present was Yacine Touré, an advisor on science and technology at the Food Technology Institute of Senegal (known by its French acronym, ITA), who argues that the problem in Africa is most often at the level of sharing and the transfer of knowledge.

“To begin with, in the acquisition of knowledge, there are fewer educated women than men. In Senegal, less than 50 percent of females are in school. Those who are, often leave school at the primary or secondary level,” she said.

“If there is not equality between women and men in research, it’s not because of a lack of capacity by women, it’s due to sociocultural realities. We need a change in the behaviour of parents, so they’ll let their daughters continue their higher studies instead of being married off early.

“For example, at ITA, there are more than 80 technicians and scientists, more than 35 of them women including six women scientists.”

Senegal provides some support for women who want to pursue careers in science; the government provides a number of bursaries to girls who get their baccalaureate, enabling them to study any of a number of government research institutions like ITA and the National Academy of Science and Technology.

Touré thinks that what is needed is for African governments to follow up programmes like this and prioritise support for research in the service of sustainable development.

Beyond the university

According to Dr Alhadji Wareme from Burkina Faso, knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of universities and the like, but is also to be found by building on traditional techniques and craftsmanship. He says women’s groups have made enormous strides in this regard in Burkina Faso, notably in the production of shea butter.

“The filière (producer to consumer chain) for shea butter produced by women’s organisations offers major opportunities in terms of invention and wealth creation in a rural or urban setting, providing livelihoods for women in particular, and a source of foreign currency for the country due to growing export demand,” he told IPS.

(Improving shea butter production in Burkina Faso – and neighbouring Mali and Niger – has been directed towards improving joint action throughout the sector, from producers through processors, distributors, exporters and consumers: the entirety is referred to in French as a filière.)

The foundation of these productive advances, Wareme underlines, is in tradition knowledge. According to him, Burkinabe women have long processed shea nuts for butter. With assistance from a development partner, the International Development Research Centre, these women have improved production techniques, using manure, taking better care of the health of the trees, as well as speeding up the extraction process using a machine press.

Wareme shares Yacine Touré’s views on weaknesses in sharing knowledge. “Women’s groups, combining traditional and and modern techniques, have succeeded in creating something good in the shea butter filière. What’s needed now is a programme to share these techniques more widely.”

Beyond that, Wareme says, challenges remain in “putting in motion a harmonised strategy in the management of knowledge and improvement of the system of innovation” to maintain growth in production, and establish access to markets for shea products internationally.

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