Dr Ismahane Elouafi wants women to be top of the crops

The director of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA) and founder of the Tamkeen: Young Arab Women Scientists Leadership programme tells Vision why female-focused workplace programmes are the building blocks of a better future

Dr Ismahane Elouafi is not afraid of a challenge. As director of the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture (ICBA), the researcher has made a career of using science to increase food security. And as if getting crops to grow in some of the harshest conditions on earth were not merit enough, Elouafi has further spread her philanthropic wings, working against inequality in the field of agriculture, and beyond.

After recognising that women make up 45 per cent of the workforce in the Middle East’s farming sector, Elouafi noted that, although emirates such as Dubai have plentiful female talent, women scientists lack the leadership skills to move them forward in their careers.

To counter this, Elouafi and ICBA launched Tamkeen: Young Arab Women Scientists Leadership, a programme developed in collaboration with the Islamic Development Bank and the Gates Foundation.

The aim of Tamkeen – meaning ‘empowerment’ in Arabic – is to build up a critical mass of women equipped with the soft skills needed to get ahead in the agriculture sector.

“Most women are [involved in] the academic side… and most curricula are very scientific and technical, [so they don’t provide] those soft skills you acquire on the job or through training,” says Elouafi. To counter this, the scientist ensures that communication and leadership skills are integral parts of the programme, as well as mentorship and peer-to-peer development.

Tamkeen: Young Arab Women Scientists Leadership
Elouafi aims to help over 600 women in the next ten years with Tamkeen

Tamkeen has just concluded its design phase, and Elouafi hopes to launch the first step of the full two-year programme in late 2017 or early 2018, focusing on participants from the UAE, Morocco and Jordan. Phases two and three would follow in subsequent years, bringing in women from Egypt, Tunisia and Oman, and Lebanon, Palestine and Algeria, respectively.

“We’d love to have 15 to 20 women per country, to have enough representation from different spheres of work such as ministries, private business, and universities,” says Elouafi. “The optimal situation is that every year we’ll have 60 women added to the group. So over 10 years, we could reach around 600 women.”

Success for Tamkeen will not just be about getting women to rise to the very top, however. Rather, it is about giving women choice, and placing the power in their hands. “Some people don’t want to grow upward,” says Elouafi. “Some people want to stay lateral, but have control over their career. We understand it’s going to be a complex and long-term impact: we are gathering lots of data, so we can show on average how much a woman has gained from going through the programme.”

The aim of Tamkeen – meaning ‘empowerment’ in Arabic – is to build up a critical mass of women equipped with the soft skills needed to get ahead in the agriculture sector

Now the programme is ready to roll out, the next priority is on finding donors to support Tamkeen. Elouafi says IDB and the Gates Foundation have been extremely supportive, but she is hoping to bring in Arab donors and philanthropists.

“Really the plea is to the Arab donors – it is a critical phase in history for most Arab countries, where there’s a lot to gain by bringing women to be on par with men, to use their abilities, their power, their capabilities, to improve the lives of the population,” she says.

Whatever Tamkeen’s potential, Elouafi is also frank that attitudes in the Arab world also need to change, particularly in terms of flexible approaches to working practices and maternity leave, and also attitudes to women in the workplace. But, she says, this is where confidence, nurtured in part by programmes such as Tamkeen, comes in.

“You have to be confident, you should not be shocked by side-talk, by negative comments right and left. You should have a clear vision, and go for it.”