Scientific research: African women don't give up

The observation is unanimous: African scientists, more and more numerous, work in networks and thus benefit from educational programs and dedicated scholarships

Scientific research: African women don't give up

The observation is unanimous: African scientists, more and more numerous, work in networks and thus benefit from educational programs and dedicated scholarships. They do not hesitate to create communities capable of giving them better visibility on social networks (Twitter, Instagram, TikTok) and to fully play the sorority card. Beyond finding support and funding, these women above all aim to change paradigms and received ideas about African research. Enough to initiate an impetus capable of enabling Africa to take its rightful place in global research. One question, however: what price do they have to pay when only 2% of researchers worldwide are from sub-Saharan Africa, a percentage where women represent a third? Through the path of the scientists we are going to talk about here, we can get an idea.

Research directly applied to the field, responding to the concrete needs of the populations, this is the mission that Olyvia Gwladys Fadeyi has given herself. The doctoral student in engineering sciences and technology at the Faculty of Agronomy of the University of Parakou, in northern Benin, is a go-getter. It studies mushrooms with the aim of creating a value chain for their exploitation in fields as varied as health and cosmetics. She is a mycologist. Fascinated by this complex universe, the researcher sees in the cultivation of mushrooms a means of expanding the endogenous knowledge of the populations of this region of north-west Benin and more broadly of West Africa, even though they have been consumed and used in traditional pharmacopoeia for millennia. With a 360-degree vision, the enthusiastic researcher also wants to support women on the path to financial independence in this area facing several difficulties such as climate change, security risks, and persistent gender inequalities.

Olyvia Gwladys Fadeyi has no equal when it comes to describing the excitement her work and discoveries give her: "It's fabulous to work on mushrooms, it's a really exciting world," she says from Benin. Because beyond being edible, mushrooms contain amazing properties that can be used in many areas. In Benin, there are 40 species of edible mushrooms but only 2% are really exploited. While mushrooms are a gold mine, she enthuses. This resource deserves to be better valued, the authorities could make it a new vein of development, "she argues.

With such a background and such ambitions, it is no surprise that she was selected among the twenty African women researchers rewarded in 2022 for the excellence of their scientific work by the Young Talents Sub-Saharan Africa Prize (excluding South Africa) for women and science of the L'Oréal Foundation and Unesco. International recognition and an endowment in the amount of 10,000 euros which will allow the young woman to concretize certain avenues of research, such as "finding new compounds for pharmaceutical or cosmetic purposes, she confides, still surprised to have received this award. I will focus on research and development to show that mushroom cultivation can become a full-fledged sector of the economy. »

The trigger for mushrooms, this active member of the University of Parakou got it thanks to her thesis director, Professor Nourou Soulemane Yorou. It is with the support of the latter that Olyvia Fadeyi has developed a multi-step strategy, the first phase of which consists of offering mentoring to around 180 women. Once trained in mushroom production and marketing methods, these women will be able to embark on this activity and thus create a source of income in a context of strong social pressure.

"In Africa, as everywhere in the world, the place of women is changing," says Alexandra Palt, CEO of the L'Oréal Foundation. There is a young generation who wants to move the lines, she analyzes in an interview * given to Point Afrique. These researchers want to write a new page in history and above all to be carriers of appropriate solutions for their continent. I feel this energy, now, is it going to be enough to change the game? It's too early to tell," she points out.

According to a UNESCO report, not only are women scientists still too few, but they are also underpaid and publish less in scientific journals. Not to mention the fact that they don't progress as much in their careers as their male counterparts.

One of this year's laureates, the doctoral student in astronomy and space science Ange-Cynthia Umuhire, has had a very good career, shaking up the codes. Holder of a master's degree in physics from Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda, and a bachelor's degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics, in Rwanda, everything accelerated after his three-month internship at NASA , in the United States, within the division of heliophysical sciences. A real springboard for the one who is now an analyst within the Rwandan space agency created just a year ago. "We are responsible for solving problems related to weather and climate forecasting, but also working on disaster forecasting," she explains. In the Department of Earth and Space Sciences, our team also analyzes how to improve agricultural yields for food security, pandemic forecasting and many other topics. Ange-Cynthia Umuhire explores a wide and promising field of research for which she has already published several articles in recognized scientific journals. Like her, more and more female researchers are concerned about the challenges posed by global warming in Africa. Indeed, water stress, devastating droughts and floods are hitting African communities, economies and ecosystems hard.

In Ghana, Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah, a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Physics at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), based in Kumasi, developed a keen interest in climate science early on. Concretely, the young woman participated in several projects such as Africa Rising West Africa, a program for which she analyzed rainfall data, vital for Ghanaian farmers. "I love science since childhood, I grew up with a very competitive spirit with teaching parents who pushed me very early to embrace a scientific career, but logic wanted me to go into medicine, proudly says Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah, also a computer coding enthusiast. I just found the courage to choose meteorology, because that's where I felt I would be most useful,” says the holder of a master's degree in mathematical sciences from the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences Next Einstein Institute , from Dakar.

The results of his research - in addition to being regularly published - are already being used by the Ghana Meteorological Agency, particularly in agricultural production planning, in a country and sub-region plagued by historic floods and where weather data are still insufficient. “Certain regions are likely to become inhospitable for human populations later this century for West African coastal countries, from Senegal to Nigeria,” the French Development Agency (AFD) recently warned in its book L African Economy 2023.

As the World Bank noted in a November report, Ghana, which has low carbon emissions compared to the global average, is, like several African countries, at the forefront of the impacts of the crisis. climatic. By 2050, it could reduce the incomes of poor households by up to 40%. "Agriculture represents 22% of Ghanaian GDP and 29.7% of jobs, so we necessarily need to predict rainfall, know the state of the soil, continues Winifred Ayinpogbilla Atiah, who wants his research to be used for others as well. African states. For the researcher, the fact of having been encouraged to study science very early on made the difference. "Changes are coming, however, I believe the education work needs to be done further upstream," she says. The sooner little girls become interested in science in the same way as boys, the sooner they find it normal and they don't face obstacles in the same way. They are more confident and can get involved in different areas of science. »

In neighboring Nigeria, computer science PhD student Oluwatosin Ogundolie is also concerned about these extreme weather events. His research focuses on the development of an optimized model based on an algorithm dedicated to flood forecasting. According to the World Weather Attribution (WWA), climate change has increased the likelihood of intense rains causing historic floods in Nigeria by 80 times, which in late 2022 killed more than 600 people and devastated the country's agriculture the most populous in Africa.

A pioneer, this global network of scientists has established itself in recent years through its ability to quickly assess the link between extreme weather events and climate change, this link not being systematic. Their results, produced urgently and made public without going through peer-reviewed journals, are obtained by combining methods approved by their peers, primarily historical weather data and climate models. For Oluwatosin Ogundolie: “Equal access to science for women and girls would enable a more effective response to Africa's greatest challenges. Because science, technology and innovations can reduce inequalities, generate income for Africa and support sustainable and inclusive development across the continent,” she argues. Words that could inspire other women scientists as the application process opens for the 14th edition of the Young Talents of Sub-Saharan Africa Prize for Women in Science from the L'Oréal Foundation and Unesco .

"Advancing African research by Africans for Africa"

Le Point Afrique: Have you noticed an increase in the number of African women scientists? If so, are we witnessing a real fundamental movement, a trompe-l'oeil effect or simply a catch-up?

Alexandra Palt: I think it's a bit early to tell. Quite simply, because in quantitative terms, the figures are still too low. On the other hand, on this subject, we believe that progress cannot be measured solely on the sole criterion of numbers.

More concretely, the fact that there are more and more role models, for example, matters a lot. In Africa, as everywhere, the place of women is changing. There is a new generation that wants to move the lines, that wants to contribute to the solutions. These researchers want to write a new page of history, which takes into account their creativity, their intelligence, and above all the solutions they bring and which are appropriate for the African continent. I see this energy, now, is it going to be enough to change the game? Unfortunately, it is too early to tell.

What are the systemic challenges facing women scientists in sub-Saharan Africa?

I see two. First, the challenges that all scientists in the world, men and women, face, such as the lack of means and funding or even the lack of recognition of a scientific career. Misconceptions and images surrounding the science profession need to evolve. Again, too often, when we think of this profession, we think of the long studies, the low salaries at the beginning, the sacrifices, the absences, etc...

Then you have the barriers that women and girls encounter more specifically, particularly in access to education and schooling. With Covid-19 we have noticed that many girls have dropped out of school, and early marriages have increased.

Some scientists told us about their difficulties in doing long studies because it is not accepted in the societies in which they live, since they are expected to marry, start a family . In addition, in sub-Saharan Africa, they are also expected to support the education of the youngest.

To sum up: cultural barriers, issues relating to the emancipation of women, as well as discrimination, sexism, harassment, the glass ceiling, or the absence of role models, penalize women scientists wherever they go. are found. And sub-Saharan Africa is no exception.

As with other areas, are there disparities across the continent, with some countries making progress and others not?

Overall, West Africa has even fewer female scientists than the average for the rest of the African continent. Beyond that, the difficulties and experiences overlap, with the exception of South Africa, which has done a lot to support research, and especially research on women. We are almost 45% women scientists, which is one of the reasons why we no longer include South Africa in the Sub-Saharan Africa Young Talent Prize.

The dedicated scientific institutions and the means made available to women scientists in South Africa are not comparable to what can be found in other countries.

How did the country go about achieving such a result?

The country is endowed with institutions, laboratories, the financial investment in this field is substantial. Researchers in this country, including women, have access to machines, expertise is found everywhere, especially in universities. You could say that women are really supported to do research. Elsewhere, the level of resilience, perseverance and commitment it takes for women to engage in very high-level research is truly more complex.

Afterwards, Africa is a continent of 54 countries with very contrasting situations. If there are indeed improvements in a certain number of countries, I rather observe the same obstacles and difficulties.

Each year we go to a different country with the L'Oréal-Unesco prize. We were in Senegal, Kenya, Rwanda and recently in December, in Ivory Coast. Women put too much pressure on themselves because they try to take on everything: a career, being a mother, being a wife. Many of them must meet traditional criteria while pursuing their dreams.

The good news, all the same, in this rather gloomy picture, the situation has not regressed because of the Covid-19. It is important to emphasize this, because let us not forget that in times of crisis, women and girls are the first victims, especially in countries where situations of inequality are already very strong.

We are not in a context conducive to a rapid increase in the number of African scientists, now, what is needed, in any case, is not to regress.

From my point of view, we must continue to work on the ground to advance African research done by Africans for Africa. And above all to face the challenges facing the continent.

Beyond individual paths, have you noticed the concrete emergence of places of research that promote the promotion of African women scientists, for example by offering dedicated journals where women would be published at an equal level to men, would benefit from the same research credits or equipment than men?

Indeed, there are more and more publications that highlight the research work of women scientists. Public spending is also on the rise, but it was still starting from an extremely low level. In Côte d'Ivoire, for example, the government has launched a major project that focuses on inclusive education and keeping girls in school, however, there are still a lot of problems to be addressed.

Lack of funding is a major obstacle for both male and female researchers, particularly on the African continent. Do L'Oréal and Unesco follow up after the prizes are awarded, in order to know if there is a leverage effect or if the prize has made it possible to attract investments towards certain projects?

First of all, there is an individual effect, since the Prize is accompanied by an endowment that allows researchers to continue their work. Then, we note a collective effect, because the Prize makes it possible to network, there is a sorority which is set up, mutual support, exchanges, links which are created. Finally, the Prize can have a transformative effect in societies, as it gives visibility to the work of women researchers. They make people talk about them, providing them with the necessary tools in the construction of a career such as speaking out, argumentation, presentation of projects, all this contributes in a way to changing the imagination, by creating role models.

The fight of the L'Oréal Foundation is not a fight for financial support for research, but it consists in making women scientists more visible and supporting them in the management of their careers. Thus, we demonstrate that career opportunities exist. The result today is that not only are we achieving our goals, but once again we are helping to change the way our societies view women in science.