International Women’s Day 2023: Spotlight on two inspiring women researchers from AfricaRice
Updated: May 16
To mark the International Women’s Day (8 March), we invited two inspiring women researchers – Drs Esther Pegalepo and Fatimata Bachabi – from AfricaRice to share their experience about their work, their motivation and aspirations as well as their message to young women who are interested in pursuing agricultural research for development.
Dr Fatimata Bachabi
Dr Bachabi is Germplasm Health Unit Manager (Postdoctoral Fellow) at AfricaRice. She is from Porto-Novo, Benin. She holds a PhD degree in Plant Pathology with focus on seed health from the University of Lomé, Togo.
Why did you choose seed pathology?
I remember during my childhood there was a period when getting regular salaries was difficult for my father, who was a teacher. It was a big challenge for my parents to provide for us, including paying our school fees. All the members of our family had to go to the field to do farming. However, often we would find damaged cowpea grains after harvest – they were either broken, discolored or moldy.
I felt very depressed when my brother explained to me that pests had damaged the plants and the grains. I told him that I could have solved the problem if I were a doctor of the seeds. After I defended my PhD dissertation on Seed Pathology, my brother called me doctor of the seeds, reminding me of my childhood promise.
I started learning about plant pathology in 2008, when I attended a training course in Japan at Tsukuba on plant selection techniques. Prior to that, I enrolled for a course in breeding. One of our teachers named Dr Shoohara, a Plant Pathologist at the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), trained me in several aspects of plant pathology from detection to identification. I am deeply grateful to him and also to Dr Patria Gonzales, Head of the Seed Health Unit, who spent a lot of her time teaching me how to detect seed-borne disease pathogens.
At AfricaRice, my work in this area started when the former Program Leader of Genetic Diversity and Enhancement, Dr Kumashiro, assigned me to conduct all seed index activities of the genebank materials and test the health of the main genebank accessions.
For more than 12 years now, we have distributed genebank accessions including breeding materials all over the world! Have you ever heard of any problem with the AfricaRice material that our genebank distributes? As long as the established protocols are followed, we will never face this problem. This gives me a great deal of satisfaction. My goal is to reduce poverty through the distribution of healthy seeds to various stakeholders including farmers. I have the patience and motivation to get good results and accomplish my goal.
All of these enabled me to enroll myself in a PhD program on Seed Health Pathology at the University of Lomé in Togo in 2018 and I was promoted as PDF in 2023.
As a woman in science, did you face any challenge?
We face many challenges in research and at home, but I have overcome them with confidence and hard work. I learn a lot from my supervisor, Dr Marie-Noelle Ndjiondjop, who is strict about the procedures we need to follow to achieve high quality.
What message do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing agricultural research for development?
Great achievements can be made in the field of seed health and quality, but only if you are patient, passionate, determined, and have a high level of integrity. It is essential that young people understand the impact of agriculture on food, health, economy, environment, and wellbeing of people.
Since agriculture depends so heavily on seed health and quality, to maintain its competitiveness, we urge our youth to pay more attention to fundamental areas of agriculture, such as seed health. Reduced yields due to poor seed health and quality have negative effects, including lower market value, reduced exports, higher food prices and food shortages. In order to preserve and improve national and global food security, we need to train more young professionals, who will become the next generation of leaders in seed health.
Her supervisor, Dr Marie-Noelle Ndjiondjop, praised Dr Bachabi for her dedication and seriousness with which she handles her project. “She has been working as bridging staff between the genebank and germplasm health unit to ensure a timely distribution of genetic resources, breeding lines and that germplasm exchange from or/to AfricaRice are free of quarantine diseases. I strongly encourage her to remain focused in her specific area of research in Africa, and to become a global expert in that domain.”
Esther Pegalepo, AfricaRice PDF in Plant Breeding, is a Cameroonian. She obtained her PhD degree in Plant Genetic Resources and Crop Protection from the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin.
Why have you chosen to pursue a career in agricultural science?
I chose to pursue my career in agricultural science because I want to contribute even in a small way to the reduction of poverty in Africa and across the world. Women are the most affected by poverty and by helping them with the introduction of the new technologies and knowledge, we contribute to their wellbeing and to their empowerment.
What do you like in your work?
I joined AfricaRice in 2014 as a Research Assistant in plant breeding and coordination of the Breeding Task Force across AfricaRice countries members. I work directly with the rice breeders in NARS to evaluate new advanced breeding lines and come out with the suitable lines that can be released. In October 2022, I was promoted to a PDF position in plant breeding. I remember many enjoyable moments in my work.
One such experience was with the CGIAR Regional Integrated Initiative on Transforming Agrifood Systems in West and Central Africa (TAFS-WCA), where I worked with the groups of women producing rice in Man, Daloa, Bouaké and Korhogo. where AfricaRice introduced FARO 66, FARO 67, ARICA 3 and ARICA 18. These varieties were tested with the local variety JT 11 to compare the yield and the resistance to abiotic stresses.
After the testing, almost all the farmers selected FARO 66, FARO 67 and ARICA 3 because of their yield performance and resistance to diseases compared to their own variety JT 11 and some of them started harvesting the panicles of these varieties to use in their own farm. I taught them how to thresh directly after harvest to avoid postharvest loss and they saw the difference between what they were doing before and the advantage of the application of the new technologies. My satisfaction came when they were so happy with the result.
As a woman in science, did you face any challenge?
The most important challenge I faced was related to data management and analysis. To overcome this challenge, I got the financial support of AfricaRice and my supervisor helped me with training in data management and analysis; some of my colleagues also gave me support when needed. Today I can manage and analyze some of my collected data.
How do you see yourself in 5 years?
Today I’m a PDF in Plant breeding and in 5 years I see myself as an Associate Principal Scientist in Rice Breeding. Many thanks to AfricaRice and to all those from whom I have learnt. This has helped me immensely in my career.
Dr Baboucarr Manneh, AfricaRice incoming Director General and CGIAR Regional Director, West and Central Africa, commended Esther for her valuable contribution to the coordination of the Breeding Task Force activities across many African countries, leading to the successful identification and demonstration of elite breeding lines by national partners.