Leading voice in rural agriculture speaks at World Food Prize

Dr. Jemimah Njuki spoke to William Penn students and staff on Wednesday, October 18, as part of the World Food Prize month. Njuki is a Senior Program Specialist at Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Over the last 15 years, she has orchestrated gender research and managed women’s economic empowerment programs throughout Asia and Africa.

Njuki was living a lavish life on the east side of Africa, when she met with her former professor. This professor was a Head Regional Development of Productivity in remote parts of Kenya. He was seeking a project officer with skills in business and livestock.

After this conversation, Njuki moved back to agriculture. Upon arriving, what Njuki saw sparked memories she had growing up. “I saw women, doing the same things I had been doing 25 years earlier. Cultivating with a lot of drudgery, fetching water from miles and miles away, looking for firewood, girls that couldn’t go to school because they needed to help out on the farms.”,Njuki explained. It was in this moment, Njuki said, she knew her purpose.

Her professor told her, “‘you can make a difference.”

Njuki shared her story of avoiding something she swore to never be involved in, she realized that was her purpose in life. “I hope I can inspire all of you students to actually find the purpose in your lives,” Njuki said. “But also a purpose that makes a difference in other people’s lives.”

She went back to school and received a PhD in development studies with a specialization in gender farming systems. Njuki then spent the next 15 years studying about gender inequality in agriculture and ways that she could fulfill her purpose.

Women in Africa and parts of Asia only gained access to farmland through birth or marriage. Their rights, in these countries, to land and agriculture necessities were so limited that Njuki knew current policies had to be confronted. Njuki knew that a women, being skilled or proficient in agriculture and making money for a family in Africa, was a rarity. This was because agriculture was seen as a male dominant career and lifestyle. So she set out to alter the mentality behind women and the field of agriculture, one land plot and innovation at a time.

“We also need to address some of the gender socio-norms that are preventing women and girls from reaching their potential,” she said. “So all these customs about women should own land, part of it is legislation. We need to legislate so women have equal access and ownership rights.”

“We have to develop innovations, and that is what is what we do a lot at the Canadian International Development Research Centre,” she said. “Developing these innovations and technologies improve practices that increase productivity of women.”

An example of Njuki’s innovations were the production of pre-cooked beans in Kenya and Uganda. IDRC and Njuki teamed up with a public sector in Africa to fund this new practice. “It takes about three hours to cook beans,” said Njuki. “This is such an important crop for women and women’s income, but also for nutrition. By developing these pre-cooked bean products, women not only get access to markets with their beans, but also get these bean products they can actually cook in 10 to 15 minutes instead of three hours.” This simple, yet inventive idea led an improvement of women’s lives and the productivity level by tremendously reducing the amount of time it took to cook beans.

According to The World Food Prize website, this month long dedication is an international honor for the individuals who advanced human development by improving food quality, quantity or sustainability throughout the world.  A unique aspect of the World Food Prize is that it has the potential to inspire generations — now and to come — by bringing in and recognizing role models who have made a lasting impact.

This honor  “emphasizes the importance of a nutritious and sustainable food supply for all people.” Which is what Njuki was able to accomplish when she developed an innovative method to increase the productivity of women by fostering pre-cooked beans.

Hailey Brown is the Communications/Event Coordinator for Penn and worked closely with Dr. James North, Dr. Gary Christopher and Christy Boston to make this lecture possible. Brown enjoyed Njuki’s speech and life’s mission, she said, “The way she grew up and was tasked with a lot of the major agricultural hurdles she and her family had to deal with just to survive, can help put life into perspective for many individuals.”

worldfoodprizeWilliam Penn is fortunate to be a very diverse university and Brown said having that diversity helps to produce empathetic and innovate leaders to, one day, send out into the world and make a difference. There’s a whole world of culture that many students have yet to discover, but by “bringing in leaders to speak from across the world is almost like giving a set of eyes to the City of Oskaloosa,” said Brown.

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