Linda Akanvou’s life was shaped in part by the stories her mum and dad told at dinner as she grew up in Ivory Coast – along with a lot of discussion about the genetic traits and biological properties of certain staple grains and other foods.
“On some nights, we would try new varieties of fruits and cereals, and my mother would explain how and why it is different,” said Akanvou, now a senior program manager on Winrock’s Agriculture, Resilience and Water team. “I understood early the need to have climate-resilient species and was aware of cereals’ long versus short cycles and their impact on productivity,” added Akanvou, who earned undergraduate degrees in economics and management at a university in Morocco, then graduate degrees in international relations and economics at Penn State University. She now lives in Texas. “It was all fun because I could see that my parents loved their jobs. Both parents also traveled a lot for work and came back with great stories. It grew my curiosity as a kid, and my mum nurtured my love for sciences from a very young age.”
Mum is none other than Louise Modeste Akanvou, now one of the top agricultural scientists in Ivory Coast. She is a noted crop geneticist, with deep knowledge of how to prevent parasitic, plant-pirating weeds, such as striga hermonthica – commonly called purple witchweed ─ from decimating harvests and impacting food security in West Africa. Akanvou is also one of very few women scientists in leadership positions in agricultural research institutions in Africa.
Louise Akanvou reached her current position as senior scientist and scientific advisor to the director general in charge of international cooperation at the National Agronomic Research Center in Ivory Coast through decades of study and hard work, building a body of meticulous research, and by publishing and defending her data and analyses. She also received a boost at a pivotal moment after finishing her master’s degree in genetics and developmental biology.
Eager to pursue doctoral studies, in the early 1990s, Akanvou learned of a pioneering program implemented by Winrock called African Women Leaders in Agriculture and the Environment.
The goal of AWLAE was simple: to ensure that aspiring women agricultural professionals in Africa received the support they needed to become successful leaders, and to share their knowledge with others. The program received funding from public and private sources including the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Robert Havener, Winrock’s first president. Havener and his wife, Elizabeth, also funded a separate Winrock scholarship program aimed at supporting opportunities to grow the number of women agriculture extensionists in Africa; that program merged with another and continues today as the Havener-Dowswell Scholarship.
The AWLAE program opened doors for Louise Akanvou and other accomplished and motivated women agriculturalists when opportunities were scarce.
“At that time, I had finished my masters …and started working as a maize researcher” in Ivory Coast, Akanvou says. “I was one of the very few women scientists in that institute in the northern part of the country. I nourished the desire to train myself to be in the decision-making sphere and above all, to have a positive impact on agricultural research in the field of food and nutritional security.”
Upon acceptance to AWLAE, Akanvou began pursuing her Ph.D. in crop science at the University of Ghana. She conducted coursework at the University of Nebraska and research at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria. “I knew that I had to be one of the best as a woman to be considered and listened to.”
After defending her dissertation, “Inheritance of Resistance to Striga hermonthica (Del.) Benth. in an Open-pollinated Maize Population, TZL-Composite 1 C1,” Akanvou returned to Ivory Coast, joining the National Agronomic Research Center, where she became the first woman to lead the Maize-Millet-Sorghum Program. She also led CNRA’s Gene Bank from 2010-2021; an extremely important responsibility in the wake of Ivory Coast’s devastating, five-year civil war. During the conflict, the Gene Bank – a national storehouse for carefully selected, high-performing seeds – was destroyed; Akanvou was put in charge of rebuilding it. She oversaw a United Nations Development Programme grant that reestablished the facility, now viewed as vital infrastructure as climate change and conflict continue to disrupt agriculture and threaten food security, globally.
Akanvou cites her work leading restoration of the Gene Bank as one of her biggest accomplishments. Others include contributing to the development of grain varieties capable of overcoming crop-killing weeds, ultimately enabling people to continue cultivating their own food – and to survive. Her ability to pass on knowledge and, she hopes, inspiration to others, including students and colleagues, as well as her own daughter, Linda, also ranks among her most important personal accomplishments.
For her part, Linda Akanvou says her mother’s love of science and exploration, her intellectual curiosity and desire to help others advance and succeed has influenced her, as did her childhood experiences. In her own studies and career, Linda Akanvou also has traveled extensively. Now working from home in the U.S., she helps manage a pair of Winrock-led projects, an agribusiness development activity in Central Asia and an entrepreneurship project in Senegal.
“I grew interested in social and economic inequalities as I was observing my environment and talking to my friends,” says Linda Akanvou. “During my years of high school, Ivory Coast was going through a military and political crisis that devastated the economy. A lot of people died in the process and I found out that some of my most brilliant friends from very modest families were forced into marriage and never finished school because they were not able to leave the war zones… Ultimately, I wanted to be a voice for the young girls and boys that were victims of the system, and I wanted to learn how to better help the world to be a better place for my generation and the ones after.”
So now, she’s doing just that.
“I think my story with my mother comes to a full circle today because she was given the opportunity to show to her daughter what she loves and how she contributes as a citizen of the world. My mother and I remain very close and even now, we have calls where we talk about our passions. She talks about food and innovations she is still discovering through exchange visits, and I explain to her how my programs help through agribusinesses young people and women. I think it shows the importance of having educated women who become role models for young girls.”