Africa’s agricultural revolution will be driven by technologyBy CALESTOUS JUMA | Wednesday, December 21 2011 at 09:50
The famine in the Horn of Africa reinforced the image of a continent struggling to feed itself. Behind these images of seeming despair, Africa’s agricultural revolution is starting to take shape.
Unlike the Asian Green Revolution that focused on increasing productivity, Africa’s agricultural revolution is focusing on using new technologies to solve local problems. Its humanistic touch is particularly evident in the attention it is paying to improving local crops.
Much of the assessment of Africa’s agricultural future has tended to focus on financial allocations. While funding is necessary, it is not the most important indicator of the future success of agricultural efforts. For this, we have to turn to trends in agricultural research activities.
As pointed out in The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, the ability of the continent to feed itself will depend largely on the extent to which it is able to harness the world’s scientific and technological knowledge and put it to local uses.
The meeting of the first general assembly of 18-year-old Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (Asareca) held last week (December 14-17) in Entebbe provided a glimpse of what Africa’s agricultural revolution is likely to look like.
The revolution will most likely be driven by three major forces: institutional upgrading; riding the biotechnology revolution; and regional co-operation.
Asareca itself is an example of institutional upgrading. The 11-member organisation (Burundi, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda) was created in 1994 to serve as a forum for heads of national agricultural research institutes and their international partners.
The organisation has been upgraded to include other actors from academia, the private sector and civil society. More importantly, the fact that Asareca assemblies now include ministers will help to raise the political profile of agricultural research.
It is expected future assemblies will include ministers responsible for other inputs into agriculture such as science and technology, infrastructure, commerce and industry.
The theme of institutional upgrading was also picked in the assembly’s decision to strengthen agricultural research in universities while adding teaching to existing agricultural research institutes.
By doing the latter, the region will start to build genuine “agricultural research universities” under the ministries of Agriculture that will help forge stronger links with farming and business communities.
The scientific highlights of the conference were reports of the isolation of a drought-tolerant gene in maize and the development of high-yielding, striga-resistant sorghum varieties.
This work has been done by two young Sudanese women scientists, Rasha Adam and Rasha Ali. The work on drought-tolerance involved genetic modification while the second used market-assisted breeding.
These and other examples of biotechnology research supported by Asareca on animal disease diagnostics, banana, cassava, beans, napier grass and sweet potato are clear indicators of locally-driven research.
Much of this work is being done as part of post-graduate training and it is therefore contributing to the training of the next generation of agricultural scientists.
The work on drought-tolerant maize supported the training of four PhD and one MSc students from Sudan, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Kenya.
The striga-resistant sorghum research trained three PhD and four MSc students.
It also supported training for 14 scientists and technicians in application of molecular markers at the Bioscience Eastern and Central Africa (Beca) facility located at the campus of the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi.
In addition, national universities are starting to serve as natural regional centres. For example, the work on drought-tolerant maize gene was carried out by a Sudanese student at Kenyatta University.
Prof Juma teaches at Harvard Kennedy School. His latest book, ‘The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa’ (OUP) can be downloaded for free at http://www.belfercenter.org/global/ Twitter @calestous.
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