The highlands of the Mount Elgon region on the border of Kenya and Uganda, where researcher Jacqueline Kariithi is doing her fieldwork, is a protected area of natural habitats. It's also lush with wheat, maize, and coffee, many of the smallholdings farmed by women.
It's a gender-specific pattern common to most of sub-Saharan Africa. But, the trend isn't reflected in agricultural research and development, where women are thin on the ground. The recipient of a two-year African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) Fellowship, Kariithi is part of an initiative to change this.
AWARD a catalyst for innovation
AWARD is a career-development programme for women agricultural scientists in East and Southern Africa. Core to this programme is the development of mentoring partnerships, science skills, and leadership capacity. As a catalyst for innovation, the fellowship programme contributes to the prosperity of women smallholder farmers.
Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Alliance for a Green revolution in Africa, the capacity-building programme has already groomed 390 women in 11 sub-Saharan countries since 2008.
Kariithi, a PhD researcher from Kenya in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at UCT and currently supervised by Professor Michael Meadows, is one of 70 women in the 2014 cohort of AWARD Fellows.
The AWARD fellows' specialisations span everything from plant pathology and water management to poultry science and cattle fodder production.
"It's a highly competitive process and the fellows must demonstrate that their research will bring fruit to the daily lives of smallholder farmers," says Kariithi.
Ecotourism in the Mount Elgon region
Kariithi's specialisation is ecotourism, a field that includes agritourism and nature-based tourism and which, like other forms of niche tourism, has become a growth industry in many parts of the world. (A strong agritourism sector in the Western Cape, for example, is the wine industry.)
Her research is about managing natural resources via an integrated approach to nature-based tourism in the Mount Elgon region.
One of the world's largest intact calderas (where the top of a volcano has collapsed into itself), Mount Elgon is also renowned for its hot springs, caves and climbing. UNESCO declared the Mount Elgon ecosystem a Biosphere Reserve in 2003.
"Communities living in the protected area are encouraged to diversify their farming incomes through agritourism," says Kariithi. "My PhD will create a mechanism that can provide recommendations for stakeholders in the region, to show how responsible agritourism can provide an alternative livelihood for many of the farmers."
Kariithi became interested in ecotourism while working on her master's degree at Bradford University in the UK. Her undergraduate degree was in environmental sciences, which served as a foundation and later a bridge to her current specialization: "I'm keen to explore the links with agriculture so that, as tourism grows, so does a growth in visits to farming communities, bringing revenue back to these farms and stimulating the growth of cottage industries, creating employment and additional markets."
Importantly, agritourism also incorporates forms of indigenous knowledge of managing farming resources, with the aim of preserving the wealth of crop-plant species and livestock breeds in the region.
The importance of mentorship
Mentorship is integral to the success of AWARD fellows. Each of the fellows is assigned a mentor working in their specific research interests. In turn, Kariithi will 'share forward', by mentoring a junior researcher over the next two tears.
Kariithi gained first-hand experience of the value of mentorship during her undergraduate studies when she interned for her role model, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, the late Wangari Maathai*.
"She inspired me to stay in the field and inspired a commitment to the environment; she was one of several people who taught me how people and the environment go hand-in-hand."
Coming to UCT has been an important decision for Kariithi; she had wanted to do her PhD research at a leading African institution with an international reputation. What has impressed her has been the rigour of scholarship here.
*Maathai delivered the Vice-Chancellor's Open Lecture at UCT in July 2005.
Story by Helen Swingler. Image by Michael Hammond.
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