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Ubuntu is at the heart of agriculture

By Kristy Jooste

Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is the Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). She gives us an in-depth look into her agricultural story.

Q: Biography

A: I was born in Kenya and moved to the United States where I lived with relatives to pursue an educational opportunity. I attended Whitman College in Washington and received my Master’s and PhD from the University of Minnesota all in Political Science. Prior to joining AWARD, I was an assistant professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. During that time I also founded Akili Dada, a leadership incubator that invests in high-achieving young women from under-resourced families, who are passionate about driving change in their communities. Five years ago my husband and I made the decision to leave our jobs in the U.S. and pursue the African dream. We moved our family back to Kenya to be of service to the continent. It’s been one of the best decisions we ever made.

Q: Tell us about your history within serving the agriculture industry.

A: AWARD is my first job within the agriculture sector. However, I’ve been a farmer for quite some time, getting dirt under my fingernails as an urban farmer both during my time in the U.S. as well as in Kenya. You might not think of Silicon Valley as a farm-friendly place but I was part of a vibrant community of urban farmers and grew some of my best Sukuma Wiki there.

Q: How did you get involved with AWARD and come to be its Director?

A: What drew me to AWARD is the tremendous opportunity to bring together a set of distinct conversations that I feel need to get connected to each other. Conversations about gender and the ways we as a continent are not functioning at our most efficient when we leave women behind. There are also exciting conversations on how we can transform the agricultural sector on the continent to drive sustainable and inclusive economic growth and prosperity. And of course this is closely linked to the role that research and science can, and should play in spurring on innovation in the agriculture sector. Connecting these three conversations through AWARD’s activities is what is exciting to me. My background in political science reminds me of the importance of connecting dots, seeing the interconnections between things and crossing disciplinary boundaries. It’s exciting for me to bring that background to my role at AWARD.

Q: What are your goals as Director?

A: Gender matters – And when I say gender, I don’t mean just women. I mean young men, young women, older men, older women, and the relationships between us. The first step to thinking about gender: forget the battle between men and women. We need to think about how we move forward together. For me, Ubuntu is at the heart of how we ensure African agriculture leads to economic growth. My goal as director is to lead this organisation to a place where we, as a continent, are having vibrant conversations and debate about the best ways to integrate gender responsiveness into every facet of the agriculture sector. Right now we are actually debating whether gender matters. In five years I’d like us to have moved past the preliminaries and to be debating how we best integrate gender. I need us to get to the point where all the players are learning from each other about how to leverage the enhanced efficiency gender responsiveness brings to agriculture, and how that helps to unlock our potential. In the short term, AWARD is trying to map where the conversations are, who is saying what, and identify where the opportunities for change are. Engaging with the readers of this magazine is part of reaching out to the broader agricultural sector and inviting its many stakeholders to engage us in conversations on how gender matters for where they are located in the sector. In terms of specific actions, AWARD recently launched a program called GAIA – Gender in Agribusiness Investments for Africa. GAIA is working to support the agribusiness sector by identifying and support entrepreneurs whose businesses have the potential to help bridge the yawning gender gap in African agriculture. We are also helping investors into the sector understand how a gender lens can multiply their triple bottom line. We are also doing a lot with African research institutions, supporting them in addressing their gender gaps, both in terms of issues of staffing (gender at work) as well research design and processes (gender in research). And of course there are the AWARD Fellowships for which we are best known. Our two-year career development fellowships are aimed at supercharging the careers of the continent’s leading African women scientists.

Q: What keeps you up at night?

A: I’m concerned that Africa must jump on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to really get things right in agriculture. There is so much potential for agriculture on this continent, and I worry that we might talk ourselves hoarse and not achieve much impact in the process.  On a daily basis there is the obvious work of running an organisation of this size and that spans the continent. The management tasks related to budgets, resource mobilisation, getting the right people on my team, and making sure my team has everything they need to do their best work.

Q: Challenges you face in your job?

A: AWARD is a sizable organisation with a wide reach. We have partners not just on the continent, but also around the world. Making sure that I’m giving everyone the attention that they deserve and balancing my time is a challenge.  On a personal level, I’m a mother to two sons – 8 and 2 years old. I’m trying to do my job in a way that also allows me to be a wife and mother. There is a lot of juggling to make sure I apportion my time, energy and attention in ways that keep all fronts moving forward. I try to keep reminding myself that balance is an on-going process, and not a one-off event.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your position?

A: I’m very fortunate to work with an amazing team of professionals on the AWARD staff. I’ve also met amazing leaders from across the sector, some of whom have become close collaborators and even mentors. I am so thankful for the opportunity that my role at AWARD allows me to shape Pan-African and global conversations about the place of gender relations in securing Africa’s prosperous future.

Q: Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

A: On a personal level I hope my boys and husband will be happy, healthy, connected to a strong sense of purpose, and proud of their mom and wife. Professionally, it would be wonderful to think that our work convincing people that gender matters in agriculture will be done. However, I suspect it won’t be. AWARD is currently in the second month of a five-year strategy, so in five years AWARD will probably be at the beginning of our next five-year strategy. I hope that the landscape will look different, that we will be able to point to a very real difference that we have made on the continent.

Q: Advice for the agricultural sector?

A: African agriculture has always had Ubuntu at its heart. For agriculture-driven economic growth and prosperity, we cannot forget the spirit of Ubuntu. We are not going to prosper if men and women don’t prosper together.

Q: Any interesting facts about yourself which our readers would be interested to know?

A: There’s been lots of excitement at home as our goat just had a kid and we are experimenting with goat milk. I just made my first goat milk yogurt and I might try to make goat cheese this weekend. I’m very proud of my previous work with Akili Dada – the opportunity to have founded and grown an indigenous organization to international recognition including being honoured by Obama White House and the United Nations. I’m really proud of the team and culture that we’ve built at AWARD and I know we are headed to similar heights.

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