Dr Jane Ininda is the head of seed research and systems development at AGRA. She plays a key role in developing improved seed varieties that boost farmers’ yields in Africa. In this interview, she speaks about her role as a woman leader in science and the impact of her work in Africa’s agricultural industry.
Please tell us more about your professional role at AGRA
I am the head of seed research and systems development at AGRA. I am one of several women leaders at AGRA and I sit on the cutting edge of a massive effort to transform smallholder agriculture in Africa. In my role, I oversee and provide technical direction in seed research and systems to teams in 11 African countries. These teams comprise 22-25 program officers per country, who look up to me for expert advice and technical direction in our mission to ensure that farmers have access to high quality seed.
Why is the seed sector important to you?
From where I stand, seed is the most important input for increasing farmer productivity because it contributes 40% of the total output. It is unfortunate, however, that the input has not been given the attention it deserves. This is mostly because the systems in African countries are often dysfunctional along the value chains.
How did you get involved with seed, and what are some of your major accomplishments?
I got interested in agriculture and then seed development when I was growing up in the relatively marginalized area of Mbeere South, a sub-county in Kenya’s Embu County. My parents were peasant farmers, who only managed to give us sufficient food for five months in a year. I witnessed their toil in planting but later harvesting very little, and for a long time, I dallied with question, “How can we get enough food?” Later, my passion led me to study agriculture at the University of Nairobi. Through my training, I came to understand the importance of seed, and as a young researcher, my passion for seed earned me a scholarship to study plant breeding at Iowa State University, USA, where I was exposed to the secrets for unlocking high farmer productivity.
What are some of your major career accomplishments?
When I came back to Kenya from the United States, I bred and released 33 maize hybrids, which were commercialised by small seed companies to reach one million farmers. During this time, I also led a team of 60 plant breeders (40% women), who developed 680 additional crop varieties that were commercialized by 114 seed companies to reach 3.4 million farmers. I am also glad that under my leadership, AGRA developed early maturing finger millet that is now preferred for weaning diets, and as a superfood for cancer and HIV patients in Kenya. It is for such reasons that the organization was in 2020 recognised as a Centre of Excellence in Seed Systems.
How has your leadership role at AGRA helped define your career objectives?
AGRA is a farmer centred organisation that also focuses on the role of women in Africa’s agricultural systems on the understanding that 70% of producers in Africa are women. Through AGRA, I am able to facilitate the right decisions around crop research interventions, quality seed production, and the development of seed regulations with the participation of governments, private sector players, farmers, stakeholders and development partners. I revel in this job because I have witnessed, from my childhood, the toil of African farmers – mothers especially – and that is why I am constantly driven to push for change.
You are passionate about the role of quality seed in transforming agriculture. What are you doing around this matter as AGRA?
AGRA is a leader in this space, and has in the past nine years trained 600+ crop scientists and released 680 crop varieties. This is in addition to developing 119 private seed companies, supporting 18,000 agrodealers and training 33,000 Village Based Advisors (VBAs), for the benefit of more than 33 million farmers. This investment has generated a dynamic force that has resulted in increased yields, greatly reducing hunger and improving incomes for millions of households. Additionally, AGRA continues to contribute to policy changes that favour better seed systems. This has resulted in increased farmer productivity, stable seed companies and trusted seed trade practices, all of which are linked to increased seed quality.
What are some of the recent advances in science around staples that you find exciting, and how does this speak to food security?
AGRA scientists are currently exploring how to get high yielding crops and at the same time countering the effects of climate change. We are constantly supporting research to get better seed for high yielding and nutrient rich crops. In Kenya, for example, we are working to break the overdependence on maize, as there are multiple options available to curtail malnutrition, obesity and other diseases. I, for example, believe that the mix of legumes and cereals must be given as much attention as maize. I also see the access to high yielding seeds as important for achieving the kind of yields that ensure food security. These must be complemented by better resilience programs for farmers to fight the effects of climate change and promote food security. In relation to seed, this implies disease resistance, drought tolerance and nutrient-richness. More focus should be placed on enhanced nutrition by promoting increased crop diversity to include nutrient rich staples such as high iron beans, b-carotene rich sweet potato, drought tolerance nutrient rich sorghum and millet.
Which woman leader has inspired you the most?
Melinda Gates; because she cares a lot about Africa’s agriculture. Reading her history, you will know that as a new graduate in crop science, she travelled to Africa, where she inspired young women researchers, including me. Since then, she has put her money, time and energy into improving the lives of African women. I remember that she visited my research project at the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO), soon after I graduated with my PhD, and, together, we gave packets of certified seed to women farmers in Tanzania. Her personal involvement in the project confirmed my conviction that seed is a critical agricultural input.
What lessons have you learnt that are unique to female leadership?
I was one of the pioneer recipients of the AWARD program for leadership in Agriculture. Fanned by our mentor Vicke Wilde, I learned that every opinion, especially from a woman, matters, as it often leads to innovation. As such, over the years, I have mentored many women in crop science for the benefit of African farmers. These include 10 women crop scientists I trained in Kenya, who went on to develop new technologies for farmers including dryland crops like cowpeas, pigeon peas, finger millet, cassava, beans and hybrid maize.
Being a woman in the area of plant breeding, do you recall suffering any biases and/or assumptions?
I realised that being a woman in any industry, you need to work twice as hard as your male counterparts. It was said to me that ‘science is not for women’, and “you won’t make it” just because I was an expectant mother with small children, who still needed to finish her thesis and research papers. Many women suffer the same challenges and they need encouragement. Thankfully, AGRA recognises this and encourages women professionals to achieve their full potential. Still, because of the conflicting roles in the family, I recommend that special opportunities be given to women researchers everywhere. On which note, I am immensely thankful to AGRA for placing women in positions of leadership and influence. Point in case, the organization has trained 600 crop scientists in different countries, 30% of whom are women.
What are your plans for the future?
My passion, going forward, is to drive scale and help more farmers access high quality seed, increase productivity and access food for more months in a year. We are already achieving that through our work in AGRA, where we now ensure food security for 7-9 months annually. That said, AGRA is working to promote sustainable partnerships that give farmers access to new technologies. In our work, we will continue to build SMEs and create businesses around seed supply by working with VBAs, seed companies and agro-dealers to support last mile access.