The winner of last year's World Food Prize says major reforms are needed in the way Africa's agricultural research is organised if the continent is to substantially increase food production.
Monty Jones, executive secretary of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, urges closer links between scientists and farmers to ensure that research results are not only put into practice, but also disseminated effectively between countries and regions.
Jones won the 2004 prize for his work on 'New Rice for Africa' (NERICA), which combines African and Asian strains of rice into a new variety uniquely adapted to conditions in West Africa (see African and Chinese scientists win World Food Prize).
Speaking yesterday (8 September) at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Dublin, Ireland, he said that one of the major challenges facing African agriculture was the limited distribution of agricultural technologies.
"Too often [African] research programmes have been developed in isolation."
A technology developed in one African country might not get used elsewhere because the infrastructure to transfer it is non-existent, he said.
Jones noted that there had been key successes in agricultural research in Africa. Cassava yields, for example, have gone up by 40 per cent in the past decade or so, thanks to the efforts of organisations such as Nigeria's National Root Crops Research Institute. This has reduced the need to import rice.
But overall, Jones painted a gloomy picture, in which agricultural productivity had been declining in Africa for the past four to five decades. Aware of the economic and social importance of agriculture, in 2002 the continent's political leaders called for African agriculture to grow at an annual rate of six per cent by 2020.
Achieving this "daunting task" means, however, that Africa must become a strategic player in agricultural research and development, said Jones.
He emphasised that science and technology had an important role to play. But for this to happen, it would be important to build up both institutions and human resources, as well as reform research practices, he said.
"For example, national institutions tend to stretch themselves too thinly, and operate on meagre resources. They need to diversify their sources of funding, and also involve the users of research — including farmers and the private sector who will be responsible for taking technology to the market — from the outset."
He said research institutes needed to become more involved in agribusiness and with production. "We need to develop agricultural markets in Africa, as well as find ways of developing appropriate technologies," said Jones, adding that it was important "to follow an 'innovation system' approach to agricultural research for development".
One problem, he explained, was that international research centres, such as those operating through the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), tend to be isolated from realities on the ground.
"They should integrate their work into regional priorities and national programmes," he said. "We need to come up with a new mindset within which everyone works as a team, and realises that they have a role to play in driving the region's development."
Jones's institution, the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa is pursuing this objective, by for example stimulating the creation of regional and subregional research organisations, and linking these organisations to political bodies such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD)."Today, Africa is the only region in the world in which agricultural productivity is declining," he said. "We believe we can reverse this trend."