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  • Q&A: Denis Kyetere on innovative technologies for Africa's farmers

Denis Kyetere, executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, outlines his vision for the continent's farmers.

At the start of this year, Denis Kyetere, a prominent Ugandan geneticist and plant breeder, assumed his new post as executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), a non-profit organisation that promotes partnerships to deliver appropriate agricultural technologies to smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kyetere studied in Uganda, the United Kingdom and the United States. His previous roles include director of research at the Coffee Research Institute, and board chair of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa. Prior to his arrival at the AATF, he had served for five years as director-general of Uganda's National Agricultural Research Organisation.

As a scientist, his achievements include being a member of the research team that identified and mapped the maize streak virus gene 1, and the subsequent development of the virus-resistant maize variety Longe 1, which is now grown widely in Uganda.

SciDev.Net spoke to Kyetere about his vision for the AAFT and the foundation's efforts in research and technology development for African farmers.

What are your priorities in taking the helm of the AATF?

My key priority will be supporting AATF's mission — to ensure smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to the same affordable and productive agriculture technologies available to farmers in most parts of the world.

To do this I will focus on innovative partnerships and effective product stewardship. In addition, I want to expand our resource and technology base.

Would you say that current investment by governments and private sector in technology use in agriculture is adequate?

In Africa, it is generally not adequate, especially when one notes that most of the continent is still battling age-old problems of pests and diseases and facing new challenges such as the changing growing conditions caused by climate change.

However, it is important to note that African governments are aware of the need to increase investments in agriculture, as evidenced in the Maputo Declaration in 2003, where governments committed to allocating at least ten per cent of national budgetary resources to agriculture and rural development.

We have also seen encouraging efforts by some countries such as Ghana and Malawi, which have made enormous progress by investing more in agriculture. As a continent, we have still not reached the desired investment levels — levels that will see Africa attain meaningful growth. As historical evidence from places like the United States and Asia shows, investing in agriculture leads to improvements in the broader economy.

Recently Malawi showed that, even with the few challenges that cropped up, indeed, increasing investments in our farmers pays dividends. We need to continue urging our governments to invest more since there is enormous evidence showing that it makes a difference in terms of boosting agricultural productivity and overall economic growth.

Are African farmers taking advantage of the available agricultural technologies to boost food productivity?

In Africa, there are different types of farmers and farming systems that influence technology use.

Large commercial farmers in countries such as South Africa have different needs to smallholders in a country such as Uganda, which makes it difficult to generalise. However, I believe I would not be off the mark to say that technology use is generally low, especially among smallholder, resource-challenged farmers. There are many factors that contribute to this, such as financial constraints, lack of credit, and lack of awareness of available technologies. But perhaps the most crippling aspect is related to market access.

A maize farmer in Tanzania

Farmers are entrepreneurs and where opportunities and markets exist, they will do what they can to benefit, says Kyetere

Flickr/CIMMYT

I believe that farmers are entrepreneurs and where opportunities are available and markets exist, they will do what they can to benefit. Where markets are not readily accessible, farmers will see technology investments as a risk. But we also need to expand our extension services so that farmers are at least more aware and able to take advantage of valuable technologies that are appropriate for their farming systems.

The case of maize hybrid seeds is a good example of a beneficial technology that is making a difference in increasing yields but has yet to be widely used by farmers in Africa. Zimbabwe, for instance, was an early beneficiary of hybrid maize [developed through the Zimbabwe national maize breeding programme]. It contributed to doubling maize production between 1980 and 1986.

Which technologies have worked, and which have not, for smallholder farmers in Africa?

I would say technologies that have worked are those that have made a difference to the particular issue that farmers had to address in the first place. Technologies come in different forms, aiming at addressing different constraints and farmers' selection will be based on their need at the time. A few examples come to mind.

In Kenya, maize yields started to increase following the adoption of hybrid maize varieties and the accompanying high fertilizer use in the 1980s such that by 1986, average national yields were over two tonnes per hectare. To date about 80 per cent of farmers have adopted hybrid maize in the country.

The New Rice for Africa (NERICA) rice varieties developed by the Africa Rice Center have gained popularity among rice farmers in a relatively short period of time. The NERICA varieties have good agronomic performance and are resistant to harsh growing conditions, and have short growth duration. These are traits that are very attractive to farmers. NERICA varieties have shown great potential and are already disseminated on an estimated more than 300,000 hectares.

The other technology that has worked is the fertilizer micro-dosing technique which has reintroduced fertilizer use in countries such as Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. In West Africa, some 25,000 smallholder farmers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Niger have learned the technique and experienced increases in sorghum and millet yields of 44 to 120 per cent, along with an increase in their family incomes of 50 to 130 per cent.

How can we best put scientific research on agricultural technologies to practical use in Africa?

First, we must understand the specific challenges our farmers face, prioritise them, and apply science to seeking a solution. Second, we need to ensure policymakers are our partners [and] can consider how certain policies and strategic investments in scientific research can lead to meaningful progress for our farmers and our countries.

 
A cowpea seller on a market in Africa

Cowpea improvement is one of the key projects for the foundation, says Kyetere

Flickr/Gates Foundation

 

Do you think Africa has prioritised the role of research and technology in developing its agriculture?

Yes, I believe it has as different countries recognise that scientific research has a role to play in contributing to overall development and have stated this in their planning documents and even at the continental level. What we may still need to see are more instances in which this stated commitment is put into action, so that research can benefit from country budgets and policy discussions.

Where do you see AATF in five years?

AATF is already making inroads in facilitating the development and delivery of innovative technologies that will make a difference to the livelihood of smallholder farmers in Africa. In five years time some of the projects that AATF is participating in such as striga control in maize will have been widely adopted by farmers and made a difference to their lives. 

The Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project, which is developing drought-tolerant maize varieties, and the cowpea improvement project that is working on insect-resistant varieties of the legume, will be at the deployment stage, with some initial varieties already in the hands of local seed companies and farmers. This will be a major milestone for the Foundation.

I also see AATF able to establish new partnerships that will enable it access and add more innovative technologies to its portfolio that will address already identified constraints facing smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, we may also see AATF able to partner with more countries to increase access to appropriate technologies for resource-poor farmers.