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Destroying Sexism With Excellence: Life as a Top Scientist in Kenya

Segenet Kelemu is the first woman to lead ICIPE, one of the largest insect research organizations in Africa. She tells her story to Mary Mwendwa.

Written by Mary Mwendwa Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Segenet Kelemu says visitors to ICIPE are often surprised to find a woman of color in the director general role.Mary Mwendwa

NAIROBI, Kenya – I am the director general and CEO of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE), one of the largest insect research organizations in Africa.What I really like about ICIPE is that the projects we work on are relevant to people – they impact them directly. We are an organization that combines human health, environment and agriculture together, because nature does not work in isolation.

Our flagship project is based on the push-pull technique, which we developed to help eradicate a parasitic weed called striga. Through this project, women farmers have been relieved of the burden of pulling the weed manually. In Africa, it is mostly women who have the role of weeding farms and therefore they use any means to make sure they uproot weeds. The push-pull project has saved them from this laborious task. It also produces high-quality animal feed, especially in drought-stricken areas, by improving soil health.

The strategy involves intercropping cereals with a repellent plant, such as desmodium, which repels stem borers from the target food crop. An attractant trap plant – for instance, Napier grass – is planted around the border, with the purpose of attracting and trapping the pests. As a result, the food crop is left protected from pests.

I have worked for ICIPE since 2013. Before then, I was the director of the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa [research hub], vice president of programs at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), and leader of crop and agroecosystem health management at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

My path to becoming a leading scientist came from humble beginnings. I was born and raised in a remote village in Ethiopia. I never wore shoes and I had only one outfit to wear. Our family was not rich – my father had a government job that earned him the equivalent of $20 a month today. We did not enjoy the luxuries of life, but at the same time we never slept hungry.

Sometimes, when I receive visitors they actually tell me they expected to see a white man in the position I hold. I jokingly respond, “Oh, well, sorry to disappoint you.”

When I was a young girl back home, I used to go to the market and sell produce from our farm, which helped me become self-reliant. I was given scholarships to study higher education in plant pathology, which helped me get to where I am now.

As a woman, and a woman of color, I have encountered challenges along the way. Sexism and racism are alive across the globe in subtle and more blatant ways on a daily basis.

The science world is dominated by men. Sometimes, when I receive visitors they actually tell me they expected to see a white man in the position I hold. “Oh, well, sorry to disappoint you!” I tell them.

The key thing, I believe, is to never take personally any of the prejudice I face. The source of bigotry and ignorance has nothing to do with me. Why should I waste my time and energy on things that are irrelevant to me? Why should I sweat the small stuff that can be a distraction to achieving my goals?

Kelemu received her most recent award in January 2018, when she was named as one of five Heroes in the Field selected by Bill Gates. (Mary Mwendwa)

Demonstrating excellence can eventually help destroy sexism and racism. That is what has kept me going in my career. The fact that I am given the responsibility to lead important and high-profile research for the center is a good example of being judged by my ability rather than by my gender.

I believe that the majority of thoughtful people around the world will judge me and other women by what we do and what we achieve, rather than our gender and skin color.

People keep asking me how I manage to care for my family and lead such a big organization at the same time. I tell them that I plan my time well.

Some women have sacrificed having children to allow them to take various roles in science. But I think we can still be successful scientists and have a family at the same time. I was privileged to have a nanny who took care of my child when I lived in South America for 15 years, so I had someone to support me at home.

It is also important to network in science and create partnerships. I work with about 500 scientists and technical staff from 40 countries. There are also 180 graduate students who come to the institute every year, from across Africa and abroad.

This is what I advise young people about how important networks are in career development. The success of my career can be attributed to the many people who have been part of it.

In Africa, we say it takes a village to raise a child. But I think it also takes a global village to raise a successful scientist.

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