Building a career in the field of food systems

Transforming food systems has the potential to drive economic development in Africa. Food systems account for about 50% of economic activity on the continent and could create even more jobs by 2030. Some studies have shown that in countries such as Ethiopia, Malawi Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, food systems will provide more than 70% of total jobs in 2025. In this context, there has been an increased focus on promoting access to more and better opportunities for the career development of women and youth in the food system.

Women are pivotal actors in every part of the food system – as farmers, processors, researchers, wage-workers, traders, distributors, and consumers. According to Prof. David Nabbaro, Director of 4SD and the WHO Special Envoy, “women play a key role in food systems and in times of crisis, and must be at the centre of planning and decision making”. Despite the critical role women play, women’s contributions often go unrecognised and they face many inequalities. For example, their participation and inputs are often undervalued, unpaid, and overlooked.

Despite their significant contribution to the African food system, there is still a marked under-representation of women engaged in the scientific workforce (including research) and policy-making spaces. In South Africa, 41% of researchers are female but they do not hold leadership positions and few women actually pursue careers in STEM fields. In fact, women only constitute about a third of the global workforce in these fields and, according to UNESCO, only 35% of all students enrolled for STEM-related subjects at higher education institutions are female. This so-called “STEM gap” is due to factors such as learning environment and the belief systems underpinning it, social bias, persistent lack of support in learning institutions, and a lack of role models.

FSNet-Africa is actively engaged in helping women early-career researchers build their careers in the field of food systems through a 2-year structured research fellowship. Through the structured fellowship, FSNet-Africa will give women the tools they need to advance their careers and take up leadership positions. The fellowship has 16 female and 4 male early-career researchers from six African countries – namely, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zambia.

In addition, FSNet-Africa has partnered with the University of New South Wales (UNSW), through the the Australia-Africa Universities Network (AAUN), to conduct a study on women early-career researchers (WECRs). As part of this study, FSNet-Africa offered an opportunity for all FSNet-Africa fellows (both male and female) to engage with high-profile senior female scientists through online coaching sessions. The first session, held on 3 February 2022, focused on how early-career researchers can build an international profile – primarily through publications and applying for funding. The second session, led by Prof. Claire Quinn, was held February 2022 and focused on building a career in the field of food systems. Prof. Quinn is co-director and co-investigator of the FSNet-Africa project and Professor of Natural Resource Management at the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds, United Kingdom.

Based on her own journey in academia, Prof. Quinn shared insightful tips on how to build a career in the field of food systems.


ONE: Building a career is a process that is shaped by your background and life choices. Your background might present both challenges and opportunities.
TWO: You need a support network – both a career network and a social support network. You need people that support you, cheer you on, and celebrate your success.
THREE: Your career progress does not have to be linear. You can start off doing one thing and end up somewhere else. Diverse learning and experiences are valuable. Exploring other avenues helps you discover your interests and passion.



FOUR: Be open to new opportunities that you might not ordinarily have considered. Be open to adaptation and making the most of opportunities that come your way.


FIVE: Collaboration is key; do not work in isolation. Find like-minded people with whom you share interests. The team you work with can make a substantial difference.


SIX: Do not sacrifice who you are just to get ahead in your career.


SEVEN: Interdisciplinary work is important. Working across disciplines can be challenging, but it is rewarding.



Prof. Quinn’s coaching session emphasised the importance of being open and adaptable, and not restricting yourself to one discipline. The third and final coaching session will focus on health aspects of the food system and how to build a successful career while balancing family responsibilities.