“I want to be like a burning candle to give others light”

Dr Samira Mohamed is a researcher at icipe in Nairobi. When she started her studies she didn't understand a word at university – today she is an award-winning scientist.


[Translate to English:] Dr. Samira Mohamed

by Peter Lüthi, Biovision

Her warmth is irresistible. With it, Samira Mohamed brings warmth even to research laboratories full of moths and maggots. Dr. Mohamed is an agronomist specialized in crop protection and entomology (the study of insects) at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) in Nairobi. In 2020, she was granted the «Outstanding Professional Staff» award for her research success in integrated pest control. Her environmentally friendly solutions will also be used in Biovision-supported projects against invasive fruit flies and the devastating tomato leaf mining moth.

Mohamed was born in El-timairab, a small farming village in Sudan. «My exact date of birth is not recorded», she smiles. “My passport simply states January 1963.” Her father cultivated cotton for export and sorghum, fava beans and wheat for their own consumption and sale. Her mother kept a small herd of goats. “I had to fetch water and collect fire wood but we did not face any hardship; we lacked nothing”, remembers Dr. Mohamed.

Her parents placed high value on the education of their four children – especially the two daughters. «In primary school I was the smallest but always the top of the class», Mohamed smiles mischievously. She remembers the long way to school in the neighbouring village on cold mornings of 8° Celsius. During the day, the temperature could rise far above 30°, in extreme cases to 48°. She will never forget the day of extreme rainfall when she was joining the intermediate school which was in another village. «In the wadi, the water rose and rose», she recalls. «In the end we had to get on a boat that drove us to school in a five-hour cruise.»

A foundation for girls and women

The start of her agronomy studies at the University of Gezira was a disaster. «I didn’t understand a single word because I only spoke Arabic, but the lectures were in English», she remembered. Samira Mohamed learned English during her studies and specialized later in crop protection. «After ten semesters I was number one in my Batch», she says with a wink.

In 1990 she moved to the Netherlands for a two-year master’s degree at the Wageningen University and worked afterwards as senior entomologist at the Hudeiba Research Station – the only woman in this position, at the station. After receiving her doctoral degree, she joined icipe in 2007.

«Nairobi has become like my second home», says Samira Mohamed. But her heart remains close to her family and Sudan. After retirement she hopes to settle down in Khartoum, where her older brother who financially supported her during her studies also lives. There she wants to create a foundation to support women and girls to pursue careers in science. «An Arabic poem says that by educating a girl or a mother, you have educated a whole nation,» she explains of her plan, adding, «I want to be like a burning candle to give others light.»