In May of this year, 22 women from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region won a competitive fellowship in agricultural research, sponsored by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat (WHEAT).
The Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture (Awla) fellowship program, the first of its kind, is designed to develop a cadre of aspiring Arab women researchers who are equipped with the knowledge and skills to make a positive difference in agriculture sustainability, in their countries in particular and the Arab region as a whole.
The cornerstones of the Awla fellowship are team-based capstone projects designed to put the skills, tools and knowledge gained during the program to practical use. Diverse teams of Fellows from varying nationalities and backgrounds are expected to produce a solution to a key challenge to women in agriculture, guided by the mentors, the Awla Steering Committee and selected stakeholders nominated by the Fellows. Fellows can choose from a variety of interdisciplinary topics as well as agriculture specific, as long as their topic of choice has a convincing value proposition. At the end of the fellowship program, the teams will present their capstone projects to relevant stakeholders to seek funding.
The first cohort of Awla Fellows — which includes researchers from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia – met from June 30 to July 7 in Tunisia for an introductory workshop to kick off their 10-month fellowship. WHEAT is funding two students in this cohort.
The Awla Fellows are a highly successful group of agricultural engineers, professors, wheat breeders and working researchers in agronomy, biotechnology, soil sciences and other technical agricultural fields. The orientation workshop gave them the opportunity to get to know each other and their selected mentors, participate in trainings designed to build their leadership and project management capacity, and gain an understanding of the online coursework and assignments that will make up their training.
Leadership and guidance
The workshop began with 6 days of training in positive psychology applications in leadership – a course that covered how to integrate concepts of resilience, creativity, finding meaning and purpose and more into both their interpersonal relationships and their organization management.
Next came a 3-day course to introduce the concepts of design thinking, a process for creative problem solving that encourages organizations to focus on the human needs of the people for whom they are creating. The Awla Fellows were encouraged to use these concepts to brainstorm notes for their team-based capstone projects, which involved addressing a key challenge faced by women in agriculture.
An important objective of the Tunisia workshop was to clarify roles and set expectations for the Fellows’ relationships with their mentors. Awla mentors, nearly all of whom joined their mentees in Tunisia, ranged from laboratory directors, lead professors, and government officials. A 2-day mentoring orientation helped to establish the semi-structured mentoring relationship, whereby mentors will share their knowledge, skills and experience with the Fellows to help their development during the course of the Awla program and beyond.
The Awla Fellowship consists of a series of online courses ranging from project planning to science writing, research methods and data management. Awla administrators ensured each Fellow had full access to the customized set of courses. Senior Fellows who complete the Awla program will have access to more than 3000 other courses across domains.
Throughout the program, Awla administrators will continue to support the Fellows both virtually, by following up their on-line courses and capstone projects and seeking funding for conference participation, and in person during an upcoming workshop in Tunis from October 28 to November 4, 2019. A final closing workshop, hosted by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in the United Arab Emirates, will take place in February 2020. The Awla funders will then plan another cycle of the program, with a new cohort of Fellows.
The MENA region faces critical and urgent agricultural challenges related to improved food security and nutrition, a better research and development landscape, and economic and social benefits of a narrowed gender gap that will require both innovative and inclusive solutions. With this strong foundation, the Awla Fellows are poised to become leaders that can take on these challenges.
The Arab Women Leaders in Agriculture fellowship is hosted by the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) Group and the CGIAR Research Program on Wheat.