Senegal, Dakar – In the fertile landscape of West and Central Africa, a quiet revolution is underway. Women, long the backbone of the region’s food systems, are increasingly taking their rightful place at the forefront of agricultural research, driving innovations that promise to nourish not just families, but entire communities.

“Women in rural areas are the true heroes of Africa’s food system,” asserts Marème Niang Belko, a leading agronomist at the West African Regional Centre of Excellence on Improving Adaptation to Drought (CERAAS), based in Senegal. But, she stresses, their potential has been hindered by limited access to education, resources, and representation in scientific fields. “Most of them are analphabetic, or have a very low level of education, and face significant time constraints due to household responsibilities.”

This sobering reality paints a stark picture. In 2016, the Africa Development Bank reported a mere 6% of researchers in Guinea being women, with the numbers barely exceeding 11% in Mali and 17% in Côte d’Ivoire.

However, change is sprouting. Organizations like CERAAS are nurturing a more inclusive research environment. “Almost 50% of our research programs are now led by women,” Belko proudly declares. “They occupy various roles, from researchers and technicians to administrators and communication specialists.”

This shift isn’t just about optics; it’s about harnessing diverse perspectives for impactful solutions. “Women researchers bring unique insights and priorities to the table,” explains Dr. Agnes Otzelberger, Senior Gender Specialist at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “They often have a deeper understanding of the specific challenges faced by women farmers, leading to research that directly addresses their needs.”

The impact is already rippling across communities. Belko, now co-leading the Crop Innovation in West Africa (CIWA) project, is connecting farmers with drought-resistant varieties and climate-smart practices. “These innovations improve food security and empower women, allowing them to contribute more effectively to their households and communities,” she emphasizes.

Industry leaders are acknowledging the growing value of women in research. “Investing in women researchers isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also smart economics,” states Jean-Marie Eloh, Director General of CORAF, the largest sub-regional research organization in Africa. “Studies show that increased female participation in agriculture can boost yields by up to 20% and lift millions out of poverty.”

The journey towards gender parity in agricultural research is far from over. Systemic barriers remain, and access to funding and training needs to be further addressed. But the seeds of change have been sown, nurtured by the dedication of organizations like CERAAS and the unwavering resolve of women researchers like Belko. As Dr. Otzelberger concludes, “By empowering women in research, we are not just cultivating crops, we are cultivating a more equitable and sustainable future for all.”