2021 Mandela Washington Fellow Sakiratou Karimou grew up in a periurban area in Benin. The region comprises low-income households that depend on agriculture for farming and others who specialize in processing and reselling agricultural produce. Sakiratou considered herself lucky, as she was sent to school while some of the other girls in her neighborhood had to stay home and help their parents sell products.
Sakiratou always knew she wanted to help her community and support vulnerable individuals. Like most others in her community, she pursued a career in agriculture. She obtained a bachelor’s degree in rural economics and sociology through merit-based scholarships awarded by the Benin government and the Economic Community of West African States. She received a Master of Science degree in agricultural economics.
At university, Sakiratou participated in a research field study that changed her perspective on environmental protection and renewable energy. While she was evaluating the rice value chain in northern Benin, women discussed with her how they had to abandon their processing activities because they could no longer find firewood and could not afford charcoal or gas as alternatives to firewood. This low availability of energy negatively affected these women’s households and income. After hearing that sentiment, Sakiratou dedicated her career to finding sustainable ways of producing renewable energy for communities.
“Sustainable agriculture and renewable energy systems are very important because they help humanity keep feeding itself without creating a hostile environment for living. Without those systems, we will produce our basic needs, such as food and clothing, by harming our environment. As we know, when the environment is harmed, we suffer. Sustainable agriculture and renewable energy systems help us to reduce CO2 emissions and help us to mitigate climate change,” said Sakiratou.
To further transform the agricultural and energy sector, Sakiratou founded Vert-Monde. “The NGO implements projects that seek to provide bioenergy to rural households, to give sustainable agriculture tools to farmers, to educate youths in civic engagement and volunteering, and to reduce plastics pollution. The NGO supports girls and women in all its projects by making sure that the needs of women are taken into consideration. The majority of people working in the organization and on its projects are women.”
Sakiratou is also the founder of SNaturel, a social enterprise that recycles plastic waste to create fashion, agricultural, and construction products. “In [the] fashion industry, we use recycled plastics to make handbags, backpacks, and suitcases. In [the] agriculture [industry], we are currently using recycled plastics to build greenhouses and make plastic mulching. In [the] construction industry, we are using plastics and paper waste to build sustainable and affordable houses,” she said.
Sakiratou knows that women’s representation in STEM and nontraditional fields is increasing; however, she wants to see more women in decision-making positions. “In my country, there is still a strong imbalance regarding women in nontraditional fields. Although that misconception is changing, there is still a low proportion of girls studying or working in STEM. When it comes to agriculture, women are present but mostly as workforce [employees]. There are very few women in decision-making positions.”
“Women need a lot of support if we want them to choose careers in agricultural research and energy. The fees of agricultural and energy programs are very high in our universities and vocational training centers, and very few young women can afford those fees. They need scholarships. I was able to study agricultural economics and renewable energy because of the scholarships that I received. Without those scholarships, it would have been difficult for me [to] pay for those programs.”
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