07 February 2020
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning and thank you very much for your invitation.
I feel deeply honored to be in your midst on this auspicious occasion.
I wish to thank His Excellency Mr Kanayo F. Nwanze, President of IFAD for his invitation to address this distinguished Forum.
I stand here in front of you as an African woman, born and bred on the small island of Mauritius.
My island country has given me the best that she could provide and there I have witnessed first hand the immense contribution of women in the developmental agenda of my country.
When I travel on the continent, I am amazed by how much those that ‘hold half the sky’ contribute to the development of societies.
When I think of the great women in Africa, what comes to my mind immediately are the likes of Wangari Maathai who spent her entire life protecting the environment and forests in her native Kenya.
I think of late Dora Akunyili of Nigeria who devoted so much of her time to the advancement of quality medicines.
There’s the haunting music of Oum Khalthoum from Egypt, and that of Miriam Makeba from the Transkei in South Africa.
The African continent is brimming with talents, resources and potential.
When I think of the evolution of the continent, I cannot but envision its future where the energy, creativity and talents as well as the potential of traditional and ancestral knowledge of our people will help define us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As a scientist and a Muslim woman, I have built my entire career standing on the shoulders of anonymous women who have, so generously, shared with me their tremendous knowledge of infinite value.
I had the great honour of exploring this precious traditional knowledge in my country, and eventually, that found on the continent.
But to be honest, after over 20 years spent in this area, I have only scratched the surface.
From that vantage point, I always refer to the African biodiversity and its associated data, as ‘Africa’s green gold’.
Because Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) if properly harnessed, can enhance agricultural yields, promote better health and safeguard our water supply in a changing climate.
There are many common areas where science and traditional knowledge intersect, and they can be natural allies for achieving the common good of our societies.
African women are the custodians of such information.
Seen against this backdrop, the time is now opportune to ask several key questions.
What role can the African woman play in shaping evidence-based conversations on the development of the continent, if she is equipped with the appropriate scientific knowledge and tools at her disposal?
At a time of rapid transformation of the continent, how can a positive and hopeful narrative emerge?
Are African women up to the task of creating that space for a more active participatory citizenship, to take hold and drive the conversations needed to sustain Africa’s positive trends, be it in agriculture or any other sphere of activity for that matter?
Are they empowered enough?
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen
We meet at a consequential time in Africa’s evolution.
Africa, particularly, South of the Sahara, is undergoing unprecedented economic, social and cultural transformations.
Economic growth rates have been up for the past two decades; combined commodity boom, improved governance, sound macroeconomic fundamentals, commitment to reform and new resource discoveries have all contributed to this robust growth.
As referred to by a leading magazine, the ‘hopeless continent’ has moved on to become ‘a rising continent’.
Unfortunately, the recent decline in commodity prices have resulted in an estimated sluggish growth of less than 2% for 2017.
Estimates show that growth will still continue to remain strong in Africa’s low-income countries, which bodes well for the fight against poverty, hunger, malnutrition and disease.
But these welcome trends have also to be seen against the backdrop of sobering facts, making the proverbial glass half-full.
Sub-Saharan Africa remains the locus of poverty, with too many of our fellow citizens living below the poverty line.
Today, nearly two in five children are malnourished and one in eight women is underweight.
Changes in demography, high population growth rates, rapid urbanization, slumping commodity prices and plummeting oil prices are all posing major challenges, threatening to reverse hard-won development gains.
I would be remiss if I did not address climate change and the fundamental threat it poses to balanced development in SSA.
Food production in SSA will need to increase by 60 percent over the next 15 years, and the agriculture sector will be hit hardest.
Without adaptation, Africa will suffer severe yield declines in important food growing areas, for example, the maize-growing areas across southern Africa.
Rainfall volatility is on the rise, particularly in the hyper-arid areas of the Sahelian zone.
Extreme weather events – droughts in eastern Africa, floods and cyclones in southern Africa – are increasing, in frequency as well as in intensity.
As you know, around 3 billion people live in the rural areas of developing countries.
They account for about 40 per cent of the world’s population but they represent more than 70 per cent of the world’s poorest and hungriest.
Most of them depend on agriculture for their lives and livelihoods.
So, focusing our attention on poor rural people, particularly smallholders, is key to achieving SDG1 to end poverty and SDG2 to end hunger.
This is only a fleeting snapshot of the major challenges facing our continent.
Africa could easily double its productivity in food crop production, simply by better management of the existing farmland.
It is well documented that agriculture is an engine for economic growth and poverty reduction in developing nations.
In Africa, women in the rural areas feed their respective regions.
Investing in the empowerment of women will improve agricultural production and cut Africa’s food import bill, which today stands at around US$35 billion a year, excluding fish.
Agriculture should remain at the heart of the technological transformation of Africa as the continent boasts of 60 % of the world total amount of arable land.
Over 1 billion people around the world still live in poverty and a high percentage live on the African continent.
In the absence of a flourishing agricultural sector, the majority of Africans will be excluded from the rising tide of prosperity.
Modern Biotechnology can also provide ways of transforming agricultural products as well as breakthrough and innovative technologies to combat rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint.
For example, more than 18 million farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce farming's impact on the environment.
Bio-refineries can convert renewable biomass to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
It is now established that ICT innovations are dramatically changing the way African governments and businesses operate, ultimately driving entrepreneurship and economic growth.
Kenya has shown the way where the Kilimo Salama scheme is providing crop insurance for farmers, using the M-PESA payment gateway and helping them to better manage natural hazards such as drought or excessive rainfall.
In Malawi, a deforestation project is training local communities to map their villages using GPS devices and empowering them to develop localized adaptation strategies by engaging communities.
ICT is also helping promote good governance in Africa by streamlining the delivery of public services, increasing citizen's participation in governance and contributing to increase transparency, efficiency and accountability.
It is becoming increasingly clear that investment in Science, Technology and Innovation is no longer an option.
The sustainable development of Africa’s R&D will require long-term and increased government investment in S&T, formal recognition of traditional knowledge, so that we can nurture the human capital and create a cadre of current and future scientists who are equipped to take on the multifaceted challenges confronting our continent.
This is where institutions like IFAD make a difference.
In the 2016 report, IFAD, through its experience over nearly four decades, has shown the way in the generation of knowledge for rural development.
The report shows that when rural people can organize themselves and have reliable access to land, natural resources, technologies, finance and markets, both their livelihoods and their communities can flourish.
This inclusive rural transformation can be promoted through people-centred development in which “beneficiaries”, including women can become agents of their own development.
They can participate in decision-making, implementation and help in rural transformation.
IFAD’s gender equality and women’s empowerment policy also ensures our work contributes to SDG5 on Gender Equality.
Trained women should also be encouraged to become entrepreneurs.
This is a good way to absorb the highly qualified youth coming out of Universities.
But at the same time, a culture of entrepreneurship is crucial.
President Obama, during his visit to Kenya stressed the urgent need to promote entrepreneurship in Africa.
This is what he said and I quote:
“Entrepreneurship creates new jobs and new businesses, new ways to deliver basic services, new ways of seeing the world -- it’s the spark of prosperity. It helps citizens stand up for their rights and push back against corruption.
Entrepreneurship offers a positive alternative to the ideologies of violence and division that can all too often fill the void when young people don’t see a future for themselves.
Entrepreneurship means ownership and self-determination, as opposed to simply being dependent on somebody else for your livelihood and your future.
Entrepreneurship brings down barriers between communities and cultures and builds bridges that help us take on common challenges together.
Because one thing that entrepreneurs understand is, is that you don't have to look a certain way, or be of a certain faith, or have a certain last name in order to have a good idea.” [Unquote]
As a scientist who paid attention to Traditional Knowledge, I became an entrepreneur and have translated that knowledge into an enterprise.
I had remained convinced, against all odds, that if traditional knowledge is explored with cutting edge technology, the results would be mind blowing.
I am so pleased to have been vindicated by Chinese scientist Youyou Tu who has just received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for her work on Chinese traditional medicine, in particular, on the medicinal plant Artemisia annua (Qing Hao), which has given the world the potent antimalarial agent – Artemisinin.
African countries have contributed, through traditional knowledge, Iboga, Argan oil, Shea butter as well as ingredients from the Baobab tree amongst others.
It is clear that development starts with people.
This means listening to local people with traditional knowledge.
They may not have university education but they can be innovative.
They can introduce us to ways of thinking and practices that are not confined by our own experiences and backgrounds and help mitigate amongst others the impacts of climate change.
It also means taking the time to listen to those who practice traditional knowledge, those who have translated that knowledge into projects and products.
Very often, they are the women folk who do that!
Yet, in Africa, there is a gross under-representation of women in education, science and technology-related courses and professions.
Some countries in Africa, like Rwanda, are leading the way and have increased access to girls both at primary and secondary levels.
The gender divide is however, profound at higher education level.
S & T degrees have, on average, 30-40% less female students, and yet, equitable access must be at the heart of any modern education system.
It is now obvious that investment in Science, Technology and Innovation is no longer an option.
The sustainable development of Africa’s R&D will require long-term and increased government investment in S&T so that we can nurture human capital and create a cadre of current and future scientists who are equipped to take on the multifaceted challenges confronting our continent.
The few that have been trained have already left the continent through brain drain.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This trend has to be reversed in order to allow Africa to take her rightful place in a fully integrated global economy.
Harnessing new technologies, promoting Research and Development, translating academic research through entrepreneurship, appropriate IP, are all ways and means of promoting productivity, employment opportunities and the ability to move up the production value chain.
Africa will not advance and take her rightful place as a global leader unless she moves beyond the outdated mentality of past centuries, and until we offer our daughters the same rights and opportunities as our sons.
Mahatma Gandhi had once said:
“When you invest in a man, you invest in an individual. But when you invest in a woman, you invest in a community, society and country”. [Unquote]
Women are the primary care givers in rural households, and when women earn money, they are more likely than men to spend it on food for the family, and on education and healthcare for their children.
There is compelling evidence that women’s education, health, nutritional status and decision-making power have significant impact on the health and nutritional status of children.
From increased agricultural productivity to higher energy production, from more efficient and broadly available ICT services to better employability around the extractive industries, sustaining the building of human capital in S & T, are all highly critical to empower Africa to take advantage of her strengths and unfolding opportunities.
Africa is on the move.
We have every reason to be optimistic of our continent.
But for the sustained development and the betterment of the plight of our people, we will continue to rely for many more years to come on the unwavering support and commitment of international institutions such as IFAD.
With these words, I would like to again express my sincere gratitude to IFAD for their invitation.
I wish you all well and success in your endeavours.
I thank you for your attention.