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These powerful African scientists are changing the world


By Pauline Nguru and Guadalupe Casas

As the UN states, both science and gender equality are crucial for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Yet, despite efforts to ensure gender parity in science, discouragingly, the proportion of women in science, technology, engineering and maths — STEM — is quite low and reports of gender discrimination in these sectors are still rife. As rightly stated by UNESCO, there is a gender gap in science and according to data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could have more female Elon Musks, more female Mark Zuckerbergs, or more female Stephen Hawkins?

So why not inspire our future budding female astronauts, physicians, mathematicians or researchers by showing them that some powerful women are already paving the way? Let’s take the time to learn about and appreciate these ten African women who are breaking glass ceilings and carving a better future for girls and women in science:

1. Wangari Muta Maathai

Dr. Maathai, the first female professor in her home country of Kenya, was also the first African female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, Dr. Maathia started and led the Green Belt Movement, which aims to counter deforestation. The campaign encouraged women to think ecologically and to plant trees in their local environments, leading to the spread of the movement to other African countries. Dr. Maathai passed away in 2011, but thanks to her efforts, more than thirty million trees have been planted.

2. Quarraisha Abdool Karim

Professor Karim is a South African epidemiologist who specializes in infectious diseases; is the vice president for the African Academy of Science, Southern Africa; and the foreign associate member of the Institute of Medicine (IoM) of the National Academies. Most notably, Prof. Karim was awarded the top U.S. breakthrough prize (Twas-Lenovo Prize) for developing world scientists and was also awarded South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Mapungubwe, for her work in fighting the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Her scientific discoveries have contributed not only to better treatment but also to make women more self-reliant in risk prevention.

3. Francisca Nneka Okeke

Professor Okeke is a Nigerian Professor of Physics at the University of Nigeria and the first female to head the university’s faculty of physical sciences. Prof. Okeke is the recipient of the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award for her significant contributions to the understanding of climate change. She’s advocated for the further inclusion of women in the university’s department, which led to the employment of three new female faculty members. Prof. Okeke continues to encourage girls and women to participate in the development of science and technology.

4. Ozak Esu

Dr. Esu was named one of the Top 50 Women Under 35 in Engineering in the UK by The Telegraph and was shortlisted in the top six finalists of the IET Young Woman of the Year Award last year. Showing that women can and do contribute to their societies, Dr. Esu became an engineer in order to fix Nigeria’s energy problem. Her passion for sustainable engineering development will see her cement her place as one of the truly inspirational female engineers shaping our world today.

5. Margaret Mungherera

Dr. Mungherera was a Ugandan psychiatrist and served as president of the Uganda Medical Association. Quite significantly, she became the first female president of the World Medical Association — elected as such by 50 national medical associations worldwide. She had ambitions of entering the medical field from childhood and has spoken of the challenges faced in the field and the need to believe in yourself to achieve your dreams. 

6. Alta Schutte

Prof. Schutte is a South African hypertension and heart disease specialist whose main motivation is to alleviate the burden of HIV infection and non-communicable diseases of black communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. She obtained a PhD in Cardiovascular Physiology at age of 24 and continues to work as part of the Hypertension in Africa Research Team (HART), to discover ways to prevent Africans from developing hypertension.

7. Sherien Elagroudy

Dr. Elagroudy is an Egyptian professor of environmental engineering. She became interested in helping her country’s economy and environment during university, where she became involved with a group that was looking to start a campus-recycling program. They successfully implemented a program that allowed tonnes of recyclable materials from landfills to be reused. Dr. Elagroudy’s commitment to the environment has been recognized: She was awarded the Best Young Scientist award from an Egyptian university, received the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science, and was honoured as a young scientist at the World Economic Forum in China.

8. Dr. Julie Makani

Dr. Makani is a Tanzanian researcher and one of the most prominent hematologists in Africa. Her work on anaemia and sickle cell disease has led to new understanding of the illnesses — and led to her being awarded the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellowship for promoting excellence in biomedical science in Africa and the Royal Society Pfizer Award.

9. Jamila Abass

Ms. Abass is a software developer and the CEO and founder of M-Farm, a Kenyan mobile software company that aims to provide smallholder farmers with vital market information and reach consumers via SMS. Thanks to Ms. Abbass’ technology, her fellow countrymen and women can be lifted out of poverty and gain plenty of opportunities in commercial farming.

10. ‘The Restorers’ (Stacy Owino, Cynthia Otieno, Purity Achieng, Mascrine Atieno, and Ivy Akinyi)

From left: Stacy Owino, Purity Achieng, Ivy Akinyi, Synthia Otieno and Macrine Atieno outside a classroom. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Technovation

Last but by no means least, these five bright tech-savvy young teens prove that age is nothing but a number. They invented an app, I-Cut, to end FGM in Kenya and call themselves “the Restorers,” as their mission is to restore hope to hopeless girls.  The most amazing part of their story? They were flown to Google’s HQ to showcase their invention, which will no doubt help many girls and women end this discriminatory practice and see girls go to school. They all want to pursue a career in STEM and we are definitely rooting for them!

So what are you waiting for? Pick up those science books and let’s change the world together!

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