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Distinguished food systems leader addresses the first inspiration session for Kenyan Fellows

The African Food Fellowship held the first monthly Inspiration Session for the Kenyan cohort of its Food Systems Leadership Programme on October 29. The session was led by Ms Dorothy Mukhebi, the acting director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Dorothy is a distinguished food systems leader and has helped build research and development capacity of institutions across Africa, especially narrowing the gender gap in leadership. Dorothy, who is also a member of the Fellowship’s Inspirational Committee, spoke to the Fellows for one hour, drawing from her vast experience in food systems. Here’s the abridged transcription of her address.

A little bit about myself…

When people ask me who I am (careerwise) I say I don’t know, because I have such a diverse career background. Outside of work I have found a balance in my life when it comes to family, friends, networks, spiritual self, physical self. Were it not for COVID-19, I would be running the Stanchart Marathon this weekend (October 31). My values are hardwork, integrity, selflessness, generosity. I am a simple person with varied interests.

A little bit about AWARD…

The African Women in Agricultural Research and Development was set up as a women- focused initiative that gave fellowships to women working in agricultural research and development. We are housed by ICRAF (World Agroforestry Centre). We started the fellowship because we wanted more women leaders in the African agricultural sector. The fellowship has three main pillars: mentoring, leadership and science. It has now evolved to focus on young emerging climate change leaders, both men and women.

Ms Dorothy Mukhebi

On our approach to gender…

We approach gender differently. AWARD defines gender as the research that addresses the distinct needs and priorities of a diversity of men and women in a food system. Previously gender was approached at face value: creation of solutions to challenges facing women without looking at underlying issues. AWARD is developing a gender analytical framework that recognises the complexity of food systems and how different categories of men and women interact. So we really appreciate the African Food Fellowship’s food systems approach because it looks at the interactions across the value chain.

On what sets us apart…

What has distinguished us and kept us going in the last ten years has been the focus of our work, which is leadership building, the quality of our fellows and staff, and the networks we have created. The result is that our fellows are excelling in their chosen fields, holding big positions in the country and abroad.

On beginnings, growth and expansion…

We began with a pilot programme in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the first year, then got a donor who enabled us to expand to nine countries in Africa, four in East Africa, three in Southern Africa and two in West Africa. The demand for our work was so high that countries and regional institutions were willing to put in money to enable us to expand to countries we were not in. Our expansion has been demand driven. We’re now in around 35 countries. We have built a very robust team of trainers. The biggest secret to our success is soft skills. We pay attention to the minor details concerning our fellows: emotional intelligence, self- awareness, personalities, communication skills, building confidence. We pay personal attention to every individual fellow, coaching them and mentoring them, and exposing them to opportunities.

On keeping alumni engaged…

We formed country chapters for the alumni. We initially gave them some money to kickstart but now they fundraise for their activities, including going to schools and institutions to give talks. They have been so successful that they invite each other to go to each other’s countries

On ensuring equitable engagement of genders…

When the fellowship was born, our focus was on fixing the leaky pipeline of few women in the R&D sector. It was leaky because at graduation, we would have 60-70 per cent men against 30-40 per cent women. By master’s level, we lose more women and at PhD, we lose even more. Finally at their workplaces in the research space, the percentage of women in leadership was minimal. So our focus was on having more women leaders in the research and development sector. We have succeeded because some institutions have more women than men. So that is no longer our focus. This is why our approach to gender now focuses on different categories of men and different categories of women and how they interact. We are not linear, we go deeper.

Some final words of advice…

Be innovative, start with a small idea and focus on it. It’s better to do one small thing excellently, than do many things (and fail). Focus on quality and excellence. Build partnerships and learn from each other. Celebrate the small things, as well as the big milestones.