There’s more to a ‘gender-lens’ than meets the eye
What do beans have to do with power? What’s better than formal public recognition? With so many organizations to choose from, why join the Syngenta Foundation? We talked about these and other topics with our newest Board member, Dr. Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg.
Syngenta Foundation: You studied Political Science. What brought you into the world of agriculture?
Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg: For me, the thematic link is power. The reality is that agriculture is a field of contest. Because the sector shapes the outcomes of millions of people’s lives, power is fiercely contested. That’s fascinating to me as a Political Scientist. I’m always curious who gets to determine which outcomes for which groups of people and why…
You hold several Boards and other posts. What encouraged you to join the Syngenta Foundation (SFSA) in particular?
Two main reasons. Firstly, if we have any hope of lifting our people out of poverty, ensuring prosperity, and building intergenerational wealth, then ensuring an efficient and vibrant agricultural sector is critical for Africa. Secondly, I’m excited about the Foundation’s strong commitment to science, particularly scientific innovation in the service of smallholder farmers. I’m keen to support the ways we use scientific innovation to tackle rural poverty.
What particular mark do you aim to make here?
The Foundation is already having important conversations about gender and social inclusion. I hope to advance those conversations in the pursuit of prosperity for rural populations, in particular smallholder farmers. We need to watch carefully that innovations don’t have the unintended consequence of exacerbating gender inequality – for example, by adding to women’s labor burdens and increasing drudgery.
What has been a surprise since joining our Board?
I’d say “delight” rather than “surprise” – delight at the passion of fellow Board Members and SFSA employees for helping smallholders get out of poverty and achieve economic sustainability. Despite this being a corporate foundation, they do so without pushing a commercial agenda. For skeptics like me, that’s a real pleasure to see.
You were formerly the Director of African Women in Agricultural Research and Development. AWARD works for “gender-responsive agricultural innovation”. What does that mean in practice? Why is it so important?
Gender-responsiveness in this context is about being alert to, and addressing, the diverse needs and priorities of individuals and communities across agricultural value chains. It means paying attention to how the innovations we are promoting will impact the lives of intended beneficiaries. That includes recognizing that sometimes those impacts can be negative and need to be mitigated.
Let me give an example, with beans. Conventionally, breeding a new bean variety has meant focusing on yield increases. The financial benefits typically accrue to male growers, middlemen and traders. Adding a “gender lens” requires breeders not only to think about growers’ needs but also to consider other users of the beans. Those who often bear the social responsibility for cooking and feeding families are women. Researchers in the lab therefore also need to consider questions such as how long the new variety will take to cook, how much wood and water will be needed for cooking and even the taste of the end product.
To make informed decisions on preferred traits, breeders need to get out and understand women’s preferences and not just those of the stereotypical male farmer. Unfortunately, very few breeders have the social science training to be able to appropriately gather data on trait preferences. Shifting to gender-responsive innovation therefore first needs considerable investment. But it’s worth it – the highest-yielding bean in the world is worthless if nobody wants to eat it!
“We have a moral obligation to be good ancestors”
You earlier established Akili Dada to address the under-representation of women in leadership positions in Africa. You’re now starting a new initiative with similar aims. How does one best go about such a huge task?
Loosely translated from Swahili, Akili Dada means ‘Smart Sister’. One part of being smart is learning from sisters who have broken through the ceilings that often stop women from realizing their leadership potential. But we must also build the capacity of those in positions of power, usually men, helping them to become effective allies, mentors, and sponsors to the women in their orbit.
In my current role as an Executive-in-Residence at Schmidt Futures, I’m working further along the leadership pipeline. We’re designing and building a global program focused on those Black women who have made it into senior leadership. We are hoping to use their experience, wisdom, and positional power to achieve a much greater impact in the field of Black women’s leadership.
I’ve moved across sectors and continents. But my career trajectory has remained rooted in a commitment to improving the numbers and experiences of Black women in leadership. Whether in the Boardroom or the C-suite, I believe that increasing the diversity of those who determine priorities and allocate resources within our institutions will result in more just and equal societies. In this, we have a moral obligation to be good ancestors.
You’ve received numerous honors and awards. Which has given you the greatest pleasure and why?
Formal awards and public recognition are always encouraging. But the greatest honor for me personally has been when a young woman found me and said: “Thank you. The work you built or led has had a positive impact on my life and changed my trajectory for the better”. Those have been the biggest accolades and I treasure them.
If you had a million dollars to invest, how would you use them to the greatest advantage of smallholders?
Across Africa, we need more scientists who are working on contextually relevant innovations to solve those farmers’ problems. We also need to help researchers communicate better and link up their innovations with policymakers for more efficient adoption. I’d invest a lot of that million in organizations that work in these areas.
As a member of several boards and wearing multiple hats, what are your top tips for time management?
I’m probably not the best-qualified person to ask! It’s still a struggle. I tend to be more disciplined about being present when I’m in a room, for example not allowing myself to get too distracted by my mobile phone.
As a mother, wife, and generally over-stretched woman, however, I rely heavily on the grace of others when I need extra time or an extra pair of hands. I’ve also been very lucky to get to build and be part of a ‘village’, comprised mostly of other career women. It’s driven by reciprocity. We help each other pick up ‘dropped balls’ and ‘have each other’s backs’.
What, when you have any, do you most like doing in your leisure time?
I’m an urban farmer. I also love knitting, crochet, weaving, and sewing. I always travel with bamboo knitting needles to get through airport security! In an interesting way, the world of handicrafts tends to be a women’s space. I appreciate the opportunity to be part of a global sisterhood of women who craft things with their hands.
What can the rest of the world best learn from your native Kenya?
‘Long-distance running’ might sound like a cliché answer. But I don’t just mean it in the athletic sense. For me, Kenya is a land of tenacity and entrepreneurship. We’re in it for the long haul, even when our institutions falter.
Something else I notice across Africa is the careful attention to speech and public speech acts. It’s an important part of our culture. It requires sophistication to understand, but there is such a powerful way to communicate through what is said or not said when it is said and in what order one speaks. There is a humility and lack of hubris that I think much of the world could learn from. Especially when it comes to international development.
Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg is Executive-in-Residence at Schmidt Futures, having previously led the Rise program there. Before that she was Director of AWARD (African Women in Agricultural Research and Development), working towards gender-responsive agricultural innovation. Wanjiru serves in several Board and advisory roles focused on gender equality, agriculture, and climate change. Born in Kenya, she holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota, as well as a B.A in Politics and an honorary Doctorate from Whitman College in Washington, U.S.A.