Dr Kelemu’s rise: From climbing trees in rural Ethiopia to excelling in science

Friday May 30 2014

Dr Segenet Kelemu in her ICIPE office in Nairobi. Photo/Kingwa Kamencu

Dr Segenet Kelemu in her ICIPE office in Nairobi. Photo/Kingwa Kamencu 

By KINGWA KAMENCU

It was on a brightly lit stage in China, 2006, that Segenet Kelemu had her road-to-Damascus moment.

“I was being given an award for having trained many Chinese graduate students who had returned to their country and were making an impact. As I was handed a gold medal by the president of China, I felt very embarrassed as they read out all the things I had done. I thought: Here I am from a dirt-poor country in Africa, and I’m making a difference in China.”

The Friendship Award of the People’s Republic of China was for her work as senior scientist at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAD) in Cali, Colombia.

On returning to Colombia — where she lived — she informed her husband and daughter that they would be going to Africa. The nagging whisper at the back of her head telling her to return to the continent, had risen to a shout.

Though Dr Kelemu had no idea what would happen next, fate would arrange for the then International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) director-general, Carlos Sere, to ring, asking her to set up a project in Kenya. “I’d been recommended to him as the person that would make it work.”

The ILRI project involved the creation of a biotechnology centre for 18 East and Central African countries taking up the role of director of the Biosciences Eastern and Central Africa (BecA) Hub at ILRI.

Moving on

Having proved herself on this front, she then moved to the Kofi Annan-chaired Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) as vice president, where she headed programmes for a year, until she was appointed to head the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi in 2013. This is her current role of director-general. Dr Kelemu is ICIPE’s fourth CEO and the first woman to lead it.

We meet in her ICIPE office. I find the scientist warm, personable and humorous, full of witty quips and anecdotes.

Dr Kelemu describes her upbringing in Finoteselam, a lush green village in northwestern Ethiopia, as happy and carefree, remembering herself as curious, spirited and independent minded. While these traits are helpful in the scientific world, they got her in constant trouble as a child.

“I was always challenging things, poking my nose into things that didn’t concern me. I’d challenge the priests in church, which would horrify my mother. She would say that I’d drop dead for that or be punished by God.”

However, this precociousness would provide the wind in her sails. With marriage considered the main priority for girls in her society then, Dr Kelemu, who preferred climbing trees and playing football with boys, was seen as an anomaly.

“As a woman, you were not supposed to walk fast, you had to look down when talking to people and only speak when spoken to. Women were not supposed to shout, climb trees or play soccer. I did all these things. I rode donkeys, played soccer with the boys and ran when I wanted to.”

This meant that while suitors trooped to seek her sister’s hand in marriage, almost no one was interested in Segenet. She chuckles about it, giving credit to her parents for having the foresight to send her and her sisters to school in the first place.

In school, the young girl was just as rambunctious as she was outside of it, but amidst it all, a top student. This enabled her to get away with challenging and contradicting her teachers in class, having read the textbooks ahead of everyone else.

“The teachers were fabulous. If you were a good student, you got away with a lot of things. They’d always say they knew I’d get far, that I’d get somewhere big.”

The regular thrashings and spankings she got did not deter her from exhibiting this independence of mind. “My desire to do things differently and my curiosity to see why I was being prevented from doing something were stronger than the fear of being spanked. This helped me later in life because I got to see that there’s nothing in life you can’t do; you become fearless.”

On the other side of this seeming impishness however, was a strong sense of responsibility that showed itself from a young age and that has served her to date. Out of the seven siblings, her mother chose Segenet to oversee the selling of farm produce at the market, even though she was the middle child.

“My mother always wanted me to be the one to do it because I’d negotiate to sell at the best prices and I’d keep the money safe.”

Though an all-round A student, Dr Kelemu chose to follow science and agriculture. “I’d observed how the people around me spent their time concerned with how to feed themselves. So I felt a calling to do something to help. I saw how two university students had made a direct difference in a village they had been sent to teach by helping the people improve their farming practices, and I decided to study agriculture.”

A pioneer of sorts, Dr Segenet was the first girl from her region to attend university. Being one of five girls in a class of 200, she nevertheless graduated top of her class. Not only was she breaking stereotypes about women not being as intelligent as men, but she was breaking them in the very male dominated science world!

Getting used to being a “minority” early was to hold her in good stead when she went to the US for postgraduate study and working abroad.

“I was a minority in the village because I was different, I was a minority in my career of many men; in the US I was a minority for being a black person. And then science is also not a common field. In my advanced math class, I was the only black person.”

But Dr Kelemu avers that focusing on differences has never been her style. “If you spend all your time thinking about how different you are, you become self-conscious. With human beings, there’s always more commonality than difference.”

Her dream to go study in America was initially stoked when she met a US peace corps volunteer in her village as a child; encountering academic journals from the country while at university, further fuelled the idea. However, it would not be an easy road.

Eventually, Dr Kelemu got admission to Montana State University in the US.

Following her studies, Dr Kelemu joined Cornell University in the US to do post-doctoral research work, going on to join the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia as a senior scientist in 1992. She eventually became leader of Crop and Agro-ecosysytem Health Management there, a position she held until 2007.

Area of study

Her area of study had been molecular plant pathology focusing on developing cutting edge disease control strategies as well as exploring interactions between pathogens and microbes and their role in plant development. In 2007 Dr Kelemu returned to Africa after 25 years away to work at BecA Hub.

At ILRI, she was tasked with setting up the programme from scratch, overseeing construction of new buildings, putting together a team of researchers, assembling staff, getting funding, and setting up training programmes.

Looking back, Dr Kelemu realises that with every task, one comes out stronger. “I’m very grateful to the director-general of ILRI, he never questioned or doubted me, he totally believed in me. Even though sometimes I doubted myself, I was determined that I’d never disappoint myself or him.”

The Ethiopian-born scientist is proud of the work her team at ICIPE is doing to add value to the continent. “We work on human health, animal health, crop health and environmental health. Insects are critical in our lives, especially in what they do for food security. About 70-80 per cent of our food is pollinated by bees. If they disappeared, food would disappear.”

As CEO of the organisation, her role is to direct research, raise money, maintain infrastructure and pay bills. She oversees 400 regular staff, 60 graduate students annually and 100 contracted workers.

Headquartered in Kenya, ICIPE has been scaling out to reach other African countries to deliver services. It has offices in Ethiopia and Uganda and activities in over 30 African countries.

The question of how women in senior positions balance family and work is one that is the subject of interest all over the world. Dr Kelemu, who has one daughter with her Dutch-born husband, says she takes things in her stride. She laughs as she remembers some of her attempts to spend more time with her daughter.

“Sometimes when she was not in school, I would take her with me for conferences. But she would end up getting bored. Still, I take time to help her with her homework when I am at home though.”

What does the scientist do to wind down?

She grins. “I’m hyper, it’s difficult for me to sit and relax, but I read a lot of biographies. My favourite to date is Picasso’s. I enjoyed reading about his complexity.”

Dr Kelemu is clearly a person who sees the glass half full, an attitude that has enabled her to achieve so much. She has nevertheless had challenges along the way.

“Yeah, they are there everywhere, small and big. But you have to convert them into opportunities. I consider myself very blessed and fortunate. I got everything I wished for in life and more. So many people have been good to me.”

Dr Kelemu was named one of the five Laureates of the 2014 L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science Awards, while featuring in the Forbes Africa ranking of 100 most influential African women.

In 2013, she was elected a Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences. Not to be outdone, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) awarded the 2011 TWAS Prize for Agricultural Sciences jointly to Dr Segenet Kelemu and Prof Zia Khan, making her the first African to win the prize in that segment since its inception.

Her 15-year stint at CIAT in Colombia was marked by an Outstanding Senior Scientist Award.

Dr Kelemu believes women can excel in science and her accomplishments prove this. “Don’t believe science is for men. I think women make very good scientists. They are meticulous, observant, can multitask, and are more careful. At one point in Colombia, all the members of my staff were women.”

Widely published in the academic field, Dr Kelemu has also supervised students at different degree levels — experience that has added to her repertoire. She has also served on numerous boards and steering committees of major science organisations.

And then of course, there is the award that sparked the whole journey — just like the Biblical three wise men coming from the East — the Friendship Award, given to her by the People’s Republic of China.

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