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4 Women Scientists Breaking Down Barriers to End Hunger

This International Day of Women and Girls in Science — and every day — USAID champions women scientists who are making game-changing discoveries and overcoming barriers to build a brighter future.

Woman working in agricultural lab

Girls and women are systematically pushed away from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields during their education. USAID proudly supports women and girls in STEM to solve the most critical development challenges we face today. / Haley Ahlers

Gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) is vital for achieving a stable, prosperous, and resilient world. Although women face many barriers in male-dominated science fields, they’re still making meaningful contributions and shifting power dynamics to end hunger and malnutrition.

Through Feed the Future, the U.S. Government’s initiative to end hunger, USAID supports women scientists all over the world to break down barriers to become leaders and role models in STEM. As we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11, we spoke with four female scientists who are leading by example and harnessing local solutions to end hunger and build a better future.

Fanna Maïna, biotechnology engineer

Fanna Maïna photo

Fanna Maïna is a researcher with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Sorghum and Millet. She envisions a future where women’s empowerment is central at work and home, and where all can have access to nutritious food. / Kira Everhart-Valentin

Her Role

Fanna earned a Ph.D. in Agronomy through the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Collaborative Research on Sorghum and Millet, led by Kansas State University. While at the Innovation Lab, she learned how to identify the best breeding strategies for growing crops and new methods of plant breeding to improve farmers’ harvests. She now uses those techniques she’s learned as a biotechnology engineer at the University Saad Dahleb, where she’s working with local communities in Niger to end hunger.

Her Work’s Focus

Fanna is bridging the gap between scientific and farming communities to develop new crop varieties adapted to local growing environments. Through the skills, tools, and varieties she has developed with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab, Fanna has trained over 60 farmers in Nigerien villages to grow these different types of crops. She teaches the next generation, works with youth in Niger’s farming communities, and trains students as technicians in laboratory testing, especially in molecular biology and bioinformatics.

Her Vision for Women in Science

“Women’s empowerment means helping women, no matter their origins and social status, to reach their full potential and create a meaningful life with respect to their society and environment. Women’s empowerment means helping each other to overcome limiting beliefs and patterns. There will always be ups and downs, and mistakes. Learn from them and you will succeed. Ask questions and seek help when needed. Set small goals to make the world a better place for everyone. No matter where you are living, you can make a huge difference.”

Marème Niang Belko, agronomist and gender specialist

Belko photo

Marème Niang Belko believes that providing more access to resources and training in the crop sector and social science fields will bring more inclusivity and gender parity for women in science. / Courtesy of the Institut Sénégalais de Recherches Agricoles

Her Role

Marème Niang Belko is an expert in the science of soil management and crop production. She also serves as a gender specialist and co-lead researcher at Crop Innovation in West Africa (CIWA), the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement’s center based in Senegal. Marème connects plant breeders with CIWA’s gender team to ensure that farming activities are inclusive, strengthen resilience, and bolster nutrition.

Her Work’s Focus

Her research centers around improving crops in the Sahel region of West Africa, which has irregular rainfall and desert-like conditions. She analyzes how sorghum, pearl millet, and cowpea are grown in order to advise farmers how to protect their crops and make them more resilient. She provides farmers various management options to mitigate climate change and drought. Marème also mentors young women in her field. She says women often have trouble accessing resources like financial capital and targeted training. She works with young women to expand their network and access more trainings on topics like leadership development — sharing wisdom from her personal experiences along the way. She encourages women to be confident, curious, and focused to achieve their goals.

Her Vision for Women in Science

“Empowerment in crop improvement and related social science fields means supporting an inclusive approach by investing in women’s access to resources, information, and training. This will help increase women’s decision-making authority and agency to overcome the gaps.”

Scovia Adikini, plant breeder and geneticist

Adikini photo

Scovia Adikini is a plant scientist with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement in Uganda. She wants to see more mentorship programs for girls and young women interested in becoming scientists / National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute (NaSARRI)

Her Role

Scovia Adikini leads the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement’s East African Center of Innovation for Finger Millet and Sorghum in Uganda. She’s also a senior research officer, plant breeder, and geneticist at the National Semi Arid Resources Research Institute, the national research center in Uganda. She studies plant seeds to produce favorable characteristics that improve nutrition in staple crops in the region.

Her Work’s Focus

Scovia grew up in a farming community in Uganda, aspiring to be a doctor and help sick people. After seeing how growing nutritious food can prevent certain diseases, agriculture became her passion. Her research as a plant breeder helps families learn the right conditions to grow crops for increased food security. Her current research focuses on improving finger millet and sorghum productivity through breeding varieties that are well adapted, which increases food and nutritional security and income for families. She encourages women interested in science to have a defined vision and develop a strong sense of self-awareness.

Her Vision for Women in Science

“I want to see women who take up leadership responsibility, making decisions that influence at all levels, with access to opportunities and resources that can make their dreams a reality. Because if they remain silent, it will remain the same old story where the voice of the woman is not heard.”

Jessica Kampanje-Phiri, social anthropologist

Kampanje-Phiri photo

Jessica Kampanje-Phiri is a social anthropologist with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement in Malawi. She encourages young women interested in science to remain optimistic and stay the course. / Photo Courtesy of Jessica Kampanje-Phiri

Her Role

Jessica Kampanje-Phiri is co-lead researcher at the Center of Innovation for East and Southern Africa, hosted by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement in Malawi. She is also lecturer of social work and the former deputy head of the department of Human Ecology at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources. She and her team work to set priorities for their research on the social, political, and cultural aspects of food and hunger in Malawi.

Her Work’s Focus

After university, Jessica worked at the United Nations to help coordinate a response to the Malawi hunger crisis. This experience gave her tools to solve issues like hunger and food security on a global scale — and showed her how science can accomplish that mission. She is now a social anthropologist and expert on food and nutrition policy. Her research with the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Crop Improvement examines how human interactions, gender, and policy issues affect the way cowpeas get from farm to table. She encourages women interested in science to remain optimistic and stay the course.

Her Vision for Women in Science

“As women, we can do it. Put yourself out there, don’t be afraid to fail. Keep on pushing until you get the result you are pushing for.”

About the Author

Nora Lapitan is the Research Community of Practice Lead with Feed the Future.

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