We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Ensuring Food Security and Building a Successful Career in Science With Dr. Segenet Kelemu

A headshot of Dr. Segenet Kelemu.
Dr. Segenet Kelemu. Credit: icipe.
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 6 minutes

Dr. Segenet Kelemu was born in Finote Selam, Ethiopia, and became the first woman from her region to attend university. After graduating with a BSc in plant sciences from Addis Ababa University, she moved to the United States to continue her education. She completed her PhD in molecular plant pathology at Kansas State University in 1989 and then moved to Cornell University for her postdoctoral studies.

Segenet later moved to Cali, Colombia where she worked at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture as a senior scientist. During this time, her research focused on the molecular determinants of host-pathogen interactions leading to the development of novel plant disease control strategies.

In 2007, Segenet returned to Africa as the director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Under her leadership, this center evolved into a thriving, state-of-the-art biotechnology research facility that brought together scientists and students from around the world to improve agriculture and food security in Africa.

In 2013, Segenet became the Director General & CEO of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi. One year later, in 2014, she received the L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award. Segenet Kelemu is globally acclaimed for her scientific contributions, institutional building and leadership. Throughout her long career, she has demonstrated extraordinary drive in her efforts to advance agricultural research and help farmers produce more food. In this interview, she shares her experience with us.

Mariana Gil (MG): What motivated you to pursue a career in science? Were there any role models that inspired you?

Segenet Kelemu (SK): No, there were no role models who inspired me to pursue science. I realized when I was in my first year of university that lifting people out of poverty first and foremost begins with modernizing agriculture and providing access to nutritious and adequate food to all. That is the basis and building block for any development and progress.

Without enough food everything else slides down the priority list. That is why I chose to study agricultural sciences.

MG: Could you tell us more about your current research interests and area of expertise?

SK: I am trained as a molecular plant pathologist, specializing in plant-microbial interactions at a molecular level. However, I am currently running an impactful research-for-development (R4D) organization specializing in insect-related sciences, the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe). This is the only R4D organization in the world that combines plant, animal, human and environmental health using insects as entry points.

icipe is a knowledge-dense, impactful and highly relevant organization whose mission is to help alleviate poverty, ensure food security and improve the overall health status of people in the tropics. We develop and extend management tools and strategies for harmful and useful arthropods, while preserving the natural resource base through research and capacity building. icipe was founded in 1970; I am the fourth director general & CEO and the first woman to lead it. It is a privilege to lead this amazing science center.

MG: How do you think your research can help to fight poverty, hunger and disease?

SK: Our interdisciplinary research on insect science is geared toward social and environmental justice through nature-based solutions. icipe has well-developed mechanisms and global partnerships for conducting and managing world-class collaborative research, and for translating research outputs and technologies into innovations for societal use.

The center has been harnessing innovations in insect science, facilitating high-level policy discussions, cultivating major partnerships and implementing transformational projects to achieve greater impact toward sustainable development in Africa. This is achieved through the transformation of continental food, nutrition and health systems in the face of a climate crisis.

We generate knowledge that is translated into nature-based, environmentally friendly, inclusive, innovative, accessible and affordable solutions, which are consolidated into integrated vector management packages for the control of human and animal disease vectors, integrated pest management packages for crop pests and comprehensive approaches for sustainable insect-based enterprises. For example, our research for the development program on edible insects impacts all aspects of the food system including farming, waste management and inputs.

Across Africa, insects are now being incorporated as protein replacements in animal feed. In human health, many communities are increasingly integrating insect-based proteins into their diets, thus diversifying their food sources and enhancing nutrition. Environmentally friendly, more affordable and sustainable insect-based organic fertilizers are promoting enhanced crop productivity and improved soil fertility.

MG: After several years studying and working in the US and Latin America, you decided to return to Africa, what is being a scientist in Kenya like?

SK: Being back in my continent and working to solve production, environmental and health constraints facing my fellow Africans is very rewarding and fulfilling. In addition to receiving top education in America, working in the USA and Latin America has given me extraordinary windows and exposure to other ways of doing business and hands-on experiences, managing teams from around the world, applying science to work for society, etc. I got the opportunity to apply all those acquired skills and more in Africa.

MG: Did you encounter any gender inequalities along your path to your current position?

SK: Gender inequality is a global phenomenon, and I am not immune to that. I think in my case, race played more than gender and when the two are combined, they have a compounded effect. However, I worked very hard to make these “two issues” be eclipsed by my skills, strong work ethics, delivery and a strong track record. It is possible to overcome these through hard work and excellence.

People can positively respond to skills, experience and knowledge, and anything else can be made irrelevant.

MG: What do you find the most rewarding aspects of having a career in science and what would you say are your proudest achievements?

SK: Careers in science can be taxing and highly demanding especially when you must raise all the funds you need to do the job. It requires dedicating long hours to work. However, it is exhilarating and rewarding.

You can use science to solve the most critical problems faced by society. You save lives, you improve the quality of life, you tackle environmental issues and so on. What other profession can be more rewarding than this?

In addition to building a successful career in science and science management that helped change livelihoods, my proudest achievement is being a mom to my amazing daughter Finote Gijsman (named after my village Finote Selam).

MG: How has the landscape of gender equality changed throughout your career? How can we improve access to senior roles for women in science?

SK: I think there have been improvements over the years. While being deliberate in certain instances to target an increase in female scientists, other avenues for equalization should include provisions of a balanced work environment. We need to boost women's participation in graduate programs at MSc and PhD levels and provide support and well-planned strategies for a career path and growth.

As the demographics change and food demands and consumption patterns evolve amid climate crisis and other challenges, we will have to train a new generation of scientists and innovators who can bring new ideas about healthy people, environment, robust economy, healthy animals and resilient and sustainable food systems that collectively make a healthy society. We cannot achieve these and more without women fully participating in science and technology. However, educating more women alone is not sufficient.

Other inequalities should be addressed such as removing workplace cultures that punish women for taking time off to have children, pay gaps and others, and addressing the societal deeply ingrained gender inequalities through policy. There are several successful senior managers in science around the world and hopefully, these can serve as role models on what is possible.

MG: If you could give one piece of advice to a young woman who is considering a career in science, what would you say?

SK: I give advice all the time including to my own daughter who is currently a PhD candidate at Princeton University, USA. Some of the advice includes: not to despair when experiments don’t work (that is why you do the experiment, to figure out how to do it and to find answers); that science is very rewarding; that you can create a fulfilling career in science and do the things you love to do and contribute to society; that science knowledge is empowering and uplifting; that women are meticulous scientists; that you can balance work-family demands; believe in yourself and in your capacity to be a brilliant scientist, be assertive, etc.

MG: What do you believe are the greatest obstacles that women face when working in science?

SK: I believe it is the lack of adequate resources to do the research. When a scientist dedicates a substantial amount of time to writing proposals to get funding, not getting the funding can be very frustrating and discouraging. Also, the multiple demands of scientific research and trying to balance it all with the responsibilities and demands of raising a family can be overwhelming.

Following the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope the global public is now aware of the value and power of science to society more than ever.

The value of investment in science and the appreciation of scientists cannot be overemphasized for our well-being and that of our planet.

MG: If you could start your career journey over again, would you take the same route?

SK: Oh yes, absolutely, I would do the same. I have been so fortunate to have many wonderful professors, mentors, supervisors, staff, students, research partners, research funders and others around the world. They all have contributed to my education and career progression along the way. It takes a village to raise a child, as our African sayings go, and to me, it takes a global village to generate a successful scientist.

Dr. Segenet Kelemu was speaking to Dr. Mariana Gil, custom content manager for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Dr Segenet Kelemu is the director general & CEO of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe), Nairobi, Kenya. She has dedicated her life to the achievement of poverty reduction and sustainable development.