Executive Director at Sustainability in the Digital Age and incoming CEO at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF)
As a woman, Rwandese-born Éliane Ubalijoro has always known her place. And that place has been heading molecular diagnostics and bioinformatics teams in a biotech company, teaching leadership development at McGill University in Canada, and harnessing digital innovation for human wellbeing and planetary health. From May, she will also become the first African woman Director General of a CGIAR Research Center (World Agroforestry (ICRAF)) and CEO of two Centers (ICRAF and its merged counterpart, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR))—in the global research partnership’s 52-year history.
“Leadership is about identifying where your interests and strengths meet the needs of the world. Find that sweet spot and focus; focus relentlessly,” says Ubalijoro, who in her upcoming role seeks to combine the power of artificial intelligence and high-resolution satellite data with CIFOR-ICRAF’s knowledge in forestry, ecology, and regenerative agriculture.
During her undergraduate studies in Canada, Ubalijoro single-mindedly focused on finding out how science could help improve the lives of farmers. She worked 12-hour shifts at the McGill University campus, with diverse duties including cleaning swine pens, managing the milking of a hundred cows, and telling children’s groups about farming.
Three decades on, as director of the think tank Sustainability in the Digital Age, she is overseeing research on cutting-edge technologies that help smallholder farmers in Africa to boost productivity while protecting soil health and adapting to climate shocks.
“My love for research, for innovation, and for Africa made any barriers I faced along the way dissolve,” she says. And there were plenty of barriers to face—especially during a five-year stint in the biotechnology industry. “Working as an African woman scientist was a shock: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I saw no one who looked like me at my level of leadership or above,” she said. Despite having a supportive team, that occasionally led to isolating situations.
Ubalijoro knows that when women are missing from the science and innovation space, their unique perspectives and needs are likely to be excluded from the design of the research, products, and services that matter most to them. And yet, women are holding the future of Africa’s demography, health, and food production in their hands—at the current growth rate, the continent will be home to one in four people on the planet by 2050. She firmly believes the world needs diverse leadership and scientific undertakings to keep economies within planetary boundaries— both in Africa and beyond. This highlights the urgency of bridging the gap for women and minority genders in science and technology.
Her message for new generations? “Stay away from cynics, especially when you are still articulating your dreams for the future. Look for the mentors, champions and coaches who can support your vision. And, invest in your personal growth—this will serve the work you do for the world.”