I take pride in many achievements as a woman scientist that I consider most impactful to society. A study on the utilization of neem tree in the treatment and prevention of malaria stands out. This was conceived as an appropriate effort to use African knowledge in plant biotechnology. With the support of Association Education Santé of the First Lady of Senegal, a semi-industrial unit for organic products was created in 2004 to enhance the preparation and packaging of neem syrup and other products. This greatly contributed to the fight against malaria, particularly during the rainy season, as these products are cheap and readily available. I am delighted that I made a mark in transforming the lives of most Senegalese.
Who said women cannot make good science managers? Many scripts out there prove that women in position of leadership in science are a force to reckon with. I was the second woman in my country to be appointed to Cabinet as Minister for Science and Technology. At the helm, I created five poles of innovation where information on technologies and practical skills are transferred to young girls and boys. The use of biotechnology in agriculture was among these poles, which has given thousands of young people training opportunities in innovative technologies. The success of plant biotechnology research projects I have spearheaded over the years is a testimony of how women can lead in ground-breaking programs with profound impact on society. With my team, we succeeded in genetically transforming Hibiscus sabdariffa and selecting rice lines tolerant to salinity. The team also made substantial contributions to maintaining a favourable environment for long-term conservation of tropical fruits and legumes such as tomatoes and mangoes, to mention a few.
As scientists and parents, we must also inspire success to our children. We have a duty to help our boys and girls live their dream. In the face of challenges threatening to cripple the girl-child, let us rise up and assure her that nothing is going to stand between her and her dream. Personally, I draw my inspiration from my father. Though he was a finance officer, he believed in science and in my intellectual capacity. He ignited my passion for science by discussing scientific topics with me. His favourite motto was, “Always forward, backward never”. As a young girl, I embraced this motto in all aspects of my life and from class to the sports fields, it was always marching forward.
Through the support and mentorship of Prof. Yvette Pares, my professor in microbiology, I developed a strong will to do more for the girl-child. Girls encounter hindrances such as early marriages, pregnancies and difficulty in finding fellowships, which blunts their potential. As a member of the Advisory Board of Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) and Female Education in Science and Mathematics (FEMSA) Senegal, I promote the education of girls in science and mathematics, mentoring young girls and encouraging them to become more involved in science. I also visit high schools all over Senegal to motivate girls. I believe Africa’s future survival in the highly competitive international market will depend on how well we integrate science, technology and innovation, particularly the rapidly evolving field of modern biotechnology into our national development agenda. And, women will be at the core of this dream!
Yaye Kene is a professor of Plant Biotechnology at the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar. She is the Chair for Fundamental Applied Sciences and Innovation, and, the vice-chair of the National Academy of Science and Techniques. She is chairing the African high level Panel for Emerging Technologies (APET) African Union Commission / Nepad.