Meet the Nourishing the Planet Advisory Group: Sudha Nair

Interview by Alex Tung

In this regular series, we profile advisors of the Nourishing the Planet project. This week, we talk feature Dr. Sudha Nair, Director of the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation.  She discusses the work of the Center and her views on the role of women in science and rural development.

Name: Sudha Nair

Affiliation: Director of the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

Location: Chennai, India

Dr. Sudha Nair is a prominent microbiologist with experience in regional, national and international initiatives that promote women’s contributions in science, as well as in working with rural women in using science and technology to improve their livelihoods.

Bio: Dr. Sudha Nair is a prominent microbiologist with experience in regional, national and international initiatives that promote women’s contributions in science, as well as in working with rural women in using science and technology to improve their livelihoods. She was the convener of the first Women’s Biotechnology Park in Chennai.  She has also acted an advisory member on initiatives including the Gender Advisory Board, United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development (GAB-UNCSTD).

How does JDR TATA Ecotechnology Centre’s work strike a balance between the conservation of natural resources, the need to give poor people the chance to secure a decent livelihood with the market and profit concerns of private corporations that you work in partnership with?

This of course is the challenge, but we address this through a process oriented approach- which is people centric – the essence of the “bio-village” approach. (The bio-village is a holistic approach to sustainable use of bio-physical resources to improve livelihoods of the poor particularly, women.) The capacity of the community is built in such a way that they understand the value of the natural resources, create value of their bio-resources and work as collectives of federations, producers and companies. One of the key components in the process is stakeholder participation and convergence with other players. Community based organizations (CBOs), which are nurtured in the process, play an important role in influencing local governance. The approach is, in essence, “Consortia-convergence-community-capacity building-conservation-collectives-conversion-commerce-connectivity-continuum”.

The last and most critical phase of the Centre’s matrix of sustainable development is “Withdrawl.”  What “exit strategies” do the Centre’s programs employ in the communities they work with to encourage self-sufficiency and sustainability of initiatives?

The preparation for the withdrawal stage is initiated from day one. With the community as the key partner in the implementation process, it is truly participatory. The “microplans” are drawn with their participation and the members of the Panchayati Raj Institutions (local governance). During the implementation process, we help them build their capacities in decision making and management.  Clusters of community members form CBOs. Sustainability of the CBO is ensured by ensuring financial sustainability, too. There is no real withdrawal, but a role change where the CBOs, as ultimate decision makers, can partner with us and other agencies.

In your presentation “Women as Biotechnology Entrepreneurs” at the EC-US Task Force on Biotechnology Research Workshop last year, you called for an innovative approach of “Women in Science and Science for women.”  Can you expand on the meaning of this concept and give some examples of how this can be achieved?

Women in Science -There are a large number of women in life sciences and this is mostly a global trend. When we wanted to do something for women who disappear in the “leaky pipeline,” self reliance was the best path. We looked at entrepreneurship as an option. Entrepreneurship Development Program (EDP) training is given by many agencies, but there is no follow up to see how many of those who underwent training actually initiated a company. There needs to be a lot of “handholding.”  When we initiated this Park [the Women’s Biotechnology Park in Chennai], we were almost the “early bird” to work on this. A lot handholding is done, and this is the uniqueness of this program. Most of our entrepreneurs are first generation women. Entrepreneurship can also be presented to women as a mid-career option, where those with ideas that can be scaled up should be helped to do so.

Science for Women: Today, credit is available to women but the challenge lies in converting this into good livelihoods. This is where science and technology (S&T) can play a role. Demystification of S&T is very important in helping them strengthen their livelihoods and understanding the innovations which go in this process. For example, it is good to look at value chains and the role of women in them and build their capacities to move across the value chain in their roles. We have rural women who have initiated the production of biofertilizers and biocontrols in small units and cater to the needs of the farmers to help them in adoption of Integrated nutrient management (INM) and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices.

What are some effective ways to help rural women understand and adapt locally appropriate biotechnology?

The areas where this is happening include on-farm and medicinal plant cultivation; formulation/tissue culture for green cover; seed villages and decentralized bioenergy systems. Women understand their immediate environment better and the knowledge they hold is different from men, and this needs to be taken into consideration while planning what kind of technology should be given to them. Capacity building cannot be done overnight- it is a process and [requires] handholding. This is one way of creating more green jobs in rural areas, especially for women

How would you advise professionals working in development to go about creating a channel of open, constructive communication with under- educated rural populations and to create a partnership that is most beneficial for local communities?

We definitely need a lot of such professionals who will understand both sides of a coin -science and societal needs.  There is nothing like working with them [rural populations] face-to-face. We need to have this as part of the [training] curriculum too. For professionals working in development, we need to have more journals which can document their processes and experiences.  [We need to consider] impact factor (measured by number of times articles are cited) of these publications, [which] can also help the career development of these professionals. Good films as visuals also help to reach out the rural people. A channel which is dedicated to featuring initiatives, like the National Geographic, will help too in reaching out to different stakeholders.

Can you speak about the role you think governments should play in helping women in developing countries become successful leaders in the field of science and rural development?

Policy support to build the capacities of the women [to create] an enabling atmosphere which helps them to come out and be part of learning process, be it formal or informal mode, and platforms where they can share their experiences, such as the The Third World Organization for Women in Science (TWOWS), which was recently rechristened as Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World (OWSD).

You also mentor graduate students.  What advice do you have for women scientists entering the field of rural development in the developing world?

Show resilience.  It is tough, but [I believe] women can relate better. Play a decisive role in the decision-making process, and take the voices of these women into corridors of the policy makers and reach out to them.

Alex Tung is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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