Scholarship, science, and gender equity: The keys to boost Kenya's social development
Margaret Kamar, Kenya’s Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, comments on her cabinet's future plans to disseminate a scientific culture in her country.
She has bright eyes and a captivating smile, and is naturally gifted at public speaking. Margaret Kamar - Kenya's Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology – also has a talent for making people feel at ease.
Kamar received a Master in agriculture at McGill University, Canada, in 1986, and a PhD in soil and water conservation from the University of Toronto, in 1992. She subsequently served as a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (2001-2006), the legislative organ of the East African Community. In 2002 she was appointed deputy vice-chancellor in charge of research and extension at Moi University, in Eldoret, western Kenya, a position that was important in laying the foundations for her future.
Today, Kamar is one of six women ministers in the Kenyan cabinet, where they are joined by 33 men. She was appointed by the President, Mwai Kibaki, on 25 August 2011, and was sworn in four days later. That same day she reported to her new Ministry. Her programme, ambitious as it is, is focused on three main objectives: gender equity, education and boosting research in science and technology. Cristina Serra, from the TWAS Public Information Office, met Minister Kamar in June 2012, to learn details of her ministerial programme.
Q. Honourable Minister, men make up the majority of cabinet members in Kenya. Why not admit more women?
A. This observation holds true. However, we are confident that it is just a matter of time. When we passed our constitution, in August 2010, we ensured that a gender statement was included. According to this statement, the government should strive to guarantee that at least one third of the positions, both administrative and managerial, be allocated to each gender. Gender equity is one of the key concepts in our Constitution. And one of my personal goals.
Q. Do you plan to promote specific gender-oriented actions during your mandate?
A. Yes, I do. Since taking over as Minister, I have focused my efforts on the academic environment, insisting on having university councils made up of at least one third women. Another goal is having a woman in one of the top management positions. It takes time to achieve this because it is a real mind-shift, but wehave had a positive response from the universities.
Q. Have you capitalized on your scientific background in this new political position?
A. My background as a scientist first, and a professor afterwards, has been extremely helpful. When I was assistant minister for the environment 2010 – 2011, I was able to actively contribute to changing policies, in terms of boosting new collaborations among institutes and promoting the wider use of biotechnology.
Q. Why do you support the use of biotechnology in agriculture? Some African farmers are skeptical about its application...
A. I support any science so long as it not harmful, either as food or to the environment. Biotechnology in Agriculture is still new. It’s important that as research continues, all areas of doubt or resistance is clarified. I am now encouraging Kenyan scientists to venture more into the area of biotechnology. Scientists can then explain any doubtful areas in the science and its application. So far we have people including scientists, who have their doubts and fears. The only way to remove such doubts is to increase the number of specialized scientists and support their research.
I am well aware that the issue of agro-biotech is quite controversial, but I am also strongly convinced that ignorance fuels fear. People are afraid of novelties if they don't understand them. Genetic engineering has been playing a pivotal role in green biotechnology, in particular enhancing food security and food production.
Kenya itself has been working in the field from 1991, when the first weevil-resistant sweet potato was produced. That sweet potato didn't reach the market because of some setbacks, which proves that genetic innovations must be carefully tested before their release into the environment. However, 20 years have gone by since then, and today's technologies have evolved and improved.
Q. Can you provide an example?
A. I am keen on establishing a centre of excellence, which will be dedicated to agriculture and biotechnology. In the meantime, Kenya has already approved biosafety laws and regulations and soon a biosafety authority will be established.
Q. Higher education is among the keys to development. What is the role of Kenyan universities in the African landscape?
A. Kenya has 43 universities, both private, and public, but they do not collaborate effectively. Our immediate goal is to pass a law, that will bring these institutions together. As a unique body, they will be subjected to the same rules; will comply to the same inspection procedures, and will meet the same productive standards. This, I believe, will encourage both competitiveness and cooperation.
Q. Where do Kenyan universities stand in the African system?
A. Despite the latest ranking by some European research firms that place our best university (the University of Nairobi) only 14th, I can tell you that Kenyan's human resource production is highly competitive. We carry out a lot of research, but very little receives the attention it deserves. This is due also to poor Internet connections – another field where I certainly plan to invest my personal efforts.
Q. Brain drain affects Kenya as well as other African countries. Could it be turned into brain gain?
A. My personal opinion is that we should favour the free exchange of human resources at the international level. However, we are aware that government investments in training should also provide monetary returns. We are trying to address this problem from a different point of view, in order to actualize our Vision 2030. The old world needs human resources for development, and the same holds true for developing countries.
For this reason, universities and technical institutes should offer on-line e-courses, and promote the acquisition of the kind of technology, which is applicable both in Kenya nd abroad, and in the country. We need to forge a new class of tertiary employees, who are technically skilled and can help Kenya forge a solid middle economy. And when we train somebody who is willing to apply his or her skills in another country, this person, upon leaving the university that trained him or her, should pay a bond. This bond will be used to train future professionals, in a virtuous, self-fuelling cycle.
Q. What exactly is Vision 2030, and what do you think Kenya could achieve in terms of competitive positioning in the global market?
A. Vision 2030 is a strategic development blue print that is expected to transform Kenya into a mid-level income and industrialized nation. This will allow Kenya raise the standard of living of its people and place it, globally, in a more competitive position. Manufacturing and industry are expected to grow and so will trade.