Expo 2020 Dubai backs global crop of women innovators

Farming, dairy and health programmes that will make women self-reliant have won an Expo grant ahead of the world fair in the UAE

Women in marginalised communities will now have the backing of Expo 2020 Dubai in a drive to empower female entrepreneurs. Expo 2020 Dubai
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Women farmers in Ghana revive an indigenous crop, others from the Maasai tribe queue up daily to sell milk and health workers in India save mothers from dying from childbirth complications.

These women will now have the backing of Expo 2020 Dubai in a drive to empower female entrepreneurs in marginalised communities. Even before the world fair comes to Dubai, it has extended support to projects that promote women's financial independence.

Ghanaian Salma Abdulai moved the Expo team with her story about teaching women to turn abandoned, barren land into fertile ground using the wild grain fonio.

“My project is about reviving a cereal that has been forgotten in the north of Ghana for the past six decades. I want to use this to solve malnutrition and also help women to succeed because this sends a signal to the world,” said Ms Abdulai, founder of Unique Quality Product.

“While I was in hospital pregnant, a woman who had just given birth was crying all day. She had just found out her husband had run away because he could not pay the $2.5 a day to cover medical expenses. So we offered her a job at the fonio farm. Now she has had a stable income for four years and has been able to send her children to school all by herself.”

Rich in protein, iron and minerals, fonio is a staple in West Africa, but the seed is not known in drought-prone northern Ghana where only the very old remember it being grown when they were young.

When Ms Abdulai studied the plant, she realised it could be her weapon to tackle food security and self-reliance for women.

After two years of growing fonio, the land can grow profitable crops such as rice and maize. Women who struggled to make $2 a day, earn $1,215 annually and provide for their family.

Rich in protein, iron and minerals, fonio is a staple in West Africa, but the seed is not known in drought-prone northern Ghana. Expo 2020 Dubai

“Our women don’t want handouts, they want to work for their own income,” said Ms Abdulai who grew up in a large farming family and studied for a postgraduate degree in agricultural sciences.

“The Expo Live grant will help us buy the land from the community and prevent the women from being evicted once the land becomes arable enough to grow profitable crops.”

Her project was among 26 programmes from 22 countries selected this month in the third phase of the Expo Innovation Impact Grant Programme that rewards innovators who create social change or help protect the planet.

More than 1,200 applications from 114 countries pitched for a chance to win a $100,000 grant and showcase their project at the Expo 2020.

This new batch of innovators selected takes the total number of awardees to 70 from 42 countries. The initiative opens for applications every six months in the run up to Expo 2020.

In Tanzania, a project provides Maasai women income to grow and sell vegetables, and open small shops by monetising milk from cattle, traditionally the only possession they are entitled to.

Thousands of women from the Maasai tribe gather every day near dairy plants to sell milk.

An Expo Live grant is helping an organization in Ghana teach women to turn abandoned land into fertile ground so they can buy the land from the community and prevent them from being evicted once the land becomes arable enough to grow profitable crops. Expo 2020 Dubai

“I come from the Maasai community and because culturally women are only allowed to own cattle milk, I concentrated on how I could make milk a powerful resource for my mother and other Maasai women,” said Martin Sanago, director of the Institute for Orkonerei Pastoralists Advancement.

“Growing up I saw first-hand how the milk and hide from my father’s cattle were her only possessions and how she used this produce to feed our family. I wanted to make a real difference and create a tool that would bring Maasai women out of the cycle of poverty.”

The project operates five dairy plants to which nearly 3,000 women sell up to 8,000 litres of milk every day.

With Expo funding, Mr Sanago hopes to reach women who live far away from the plants by setting up more collection centres.

Yousuf Caires, vice president of Expo Live said the judges had heard remarkable stories as they looked for projects with creative solutions to impact lives.

“The Maasai dairy products project is addressing the marginalisation of women with a simple and practical solution, turning what used to be a form of discrimination into a tool for economic freedom,” he said.

The Expo grant also addresses preventable childbirth-related deaths and infections in India with the Ayzh Health programme. The project distributes affordable clean birth kits in rural areas. Priced at $3, this includes soap, an absorbent sheet and a scalpel.

The expo funding will help Ayzh train 1,000 midwives and provide them with kits to support the delivery of 10,000 safe births.


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“The birth kit solves the problem of infection at the time of child birth for the mother and the baby reducing the maternal mortality rate,” said Ayzh’s founder Zubaida Bai.

“Using the grant from Expo Live we will provide education to health care workers, midwives and auxiliary nurses and give them access to information to change their behaviour in time of childbirth thereby positively impacting mothers and babies.”

The projects chosen are among innovations in water management, renewable energy, health care and education to receive funding.

“Expo Live is based on a firm belief that innovation can come from anywhere to everyone,” Mr Caires said.

Organisers identify projects that would not reach their full potential without the expo support. Projects are also given business and promotion guidance and funds are made available as the venture meets specified conditions.

“This is a major component of our redefinition of what a World Expo can and should do — tap into its convening power well before the event to enable problem solvers around the globe to promote innovation and build partnerships that leave a lasting legacy not only in the UAE and the region but across the world,” Mr Caires said.