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A top-level panel of scientists has urged African countries and international donor agencies to implement a wide range of initiatives to enhance the potential contribution of science and technology to the continent's food needs.

Recommended measures include building a network of centres of research excellence across Africa, taking stronger steps to prevent the brain drain of newly-qualified agricultural scientists, and providing an 'enabling environment' in which agricultural research can flourish.

The scientists say that there is an urgent need to increase significantly the amount of money allocated to agricultural research in Africa. They suggest that the goal should be to double the current level of expenditure which, at less than one per cent of total agricultural product, is currently well under half the level of most developed countries.

They also endorse the use of genetically modified (GM) crops as an essential element of any strategy to develop foodstuffs that can be productively grown in some of the less hospitable conditions found on the continent.

But they warn that the ecological and climatological diversity of such conditions makes it naïve to believe that it will be possible to design a 'green revolution' for the continent similar to that which Asia — with its heavy reliance on only rice, wheat and maize — used to increase food production in the 1970s and 1980s.

These are among the conclusions to emerge from a two-year study carried out by a panel of 18 experts, many from Africa, set up by the InterAcademy Council (IAC), a body that draws on the experience and expertise of 90 national science academies around the world.

The panel was co-chaired by Speciosa Wadnira Kazibwe, former minister of agriculture, animal industry, and fisheries in Uganda, Rudy Rabbinge, dean of Wageningen Graduate School in the Netherlands, and M. S. Swaminathan, past president of the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

Published under the title Realising the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture, the panel's report is based on a series of workshops and expert analyses. It sketches out the constituent elements of science and technology strategies that it says are needed to achieve long-term improvement in agricultural productivity and food security across the continent.

As such, the document is intended to help frame discussion on such issues both within African countries themselves, and at an international level. It will, for example, be the subject of a seminar being held next month by the African Union, placing stress on the internal actions that individual African countries need to take to enhance their capacity to produce and use agricultural science.

The authors of the report also hope that its recommendations will be integrated into regional development strategies, such as those currently being developed under the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), which has already expressed interest in, for example, both promoting basic science education and developing centres of research excellence.

But the document is also intended to act as a guide to rich nations in framing their own support activities in this area. Later this year, for example, a meeting of aid ministers from member states of the European Union will be asked to focus on the type of assistance they can provide to put the panel's recommendations into practice.

Within such political contexts, the report should be seen as helping to launch a major international effort to "get the investment, get the science, and get the political will to break the back of productivity and failure in this sector," says Mark Malloch Brown, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme. "The omens are right to turn it around."

Malloch Brown was speaking at the official presentation of the report to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan — who had initially requested it — at the United Nations in New York on Friday (25 June).

Planting cowpea seeds at an experimental research plot at the Golden Valley Research Centre, Zambia
Photo Credit: (P. Lowrey / FAO)

Annan said that a series of food crises on the continent "has brought home to us the urgent need for a strategy to break the pattern of recurring crises and bring about a 'green revolution' in Africa". To achieve this, he said, "we need to mobilize the best scientists the world has to offer."

But the study itself emphasises that there is no single technological solution for the many problems facing agriculture in Africa. Instead, it proposes a number of steps that the scientific community — working closely with farmers and representatives from Government and private industry — could take to avert famine and relieve future suffering on the continent.

At the most concrete end, it identifies four out of about 40 farming systems currently used in varying degrees across Africa as being the most promising targets for immediate improvement, namely:

  • the maize-mixed system, based primarily on maize, cotton, cattle, goats, poultry and 'supplemental non-farmwork';
  • cereal/root crop mixed system, based on maize, sorghum, millet, cassava, yams, legumes, and cattle;
  • the tree crop-based system, anchored in cocoa, coffee, oil palm, and rubber, as well as involving yams, maize, and non-farm work; and
  • the irrigated system based on rice, cotton, vegetables, rain-fed crops, cattle and poultry.

Within each of theses systems, says the IAC panel, policy-makers, scientists and farmers "should explore all scientific and technological options". These should include both conventionally-bred and genetically modified plants, both chemical and organic fertilisers, appropriate irrigation, and strategies that integrate pest, soil and nutrient management.

Addressing the UN meeting, Swaminathan — widely acknowledged as one of the key fathers of Asia’s 'green revolution' — said that the panel hoped that national governments and Africa, as well as international aid agencies, could be persuaded to support a number of pilot research and development projects in such areas.

But he also stressed the importance of ensuring that the organisations representing farmers, the principle beneficiaries of productivity gains resulting from such projects, should be closely involved in deciding priorities and framing research programmes.

"The old linear model should be replaced by a participatory interactive model which is likely to be more effective in reaching objectives," Swaminathan said, pointing to his own experience with villagers in India.

Swaminathan also stressed the importance of Africa pursuing an "evergreen revolution" that would only come about when improvements in plant breeding were linked to ecological advances.

The study panel endorses Swaminathan's concerns about ensuring that the pursuit of agricultural productivity is embedded in a commitment to sustainable development. But it also points to the need for a significant and sustained increase in the resources devoted to agricultural research and development.  

In particular, it recommends that expenditure on agricultural research as a proportion of agricultural gross domestic product rise to at least 1.5 per cent by 2015 — roughly twice the current levels — with most of the additional resources being used to strengthen national agricultural research systems.

Examining pigeon pea crops at Baka Research Station in Karonga, Malawi
Photo Credit: (A. Conti / FAO)
Rabbinage pointed out that, even with such an increase, the amount of money spent on improving agricultural productivity on the continent — currently about $300 million a year — would still be less than the agricultural research budgets of some large US universities, such as Texas A & M University.

And Kazibwe stressed that African governments should acknowledge the importance of research in this area by making their own political commitment to it. She added that it was "a shame" that so many people in Africa wanted to be on the receiving end of international assistance, but did not want to undertake the minimum amount of change to make themselves better.

Kazibwe asked how it was that people in Africa could wake up and drink water every day, "but not water your crops, and then hold your cup out for maize from the United Nations?"  It was time for Africans to take serious and significant steps on their own behalf, she said.
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