Q&A: African Agriculture with Florence Wambugu
Determination goes a long way if you want to change things for the better in Africa. Florence Wambugu, a Kenyan plant pathologist and virologist and chief executive of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, is living proof of this.
Last week (29 August) she collected the 2008 YARA prize, which recognises outstanding contributions to African agriculture, at a gala ceremony at the African Green Revolution Conference in Oslo, Norway.
Wambugu was recognised for her work introducing tissue culture bananas in Kenya. Tissue culture exploits the regenerative properties of shoot tips, allowing up to 2,000 plantlets to be produced from a single shoot in six months. In addition to improving plant characteristics, the techniques also prevent the transmission of fungi, bacteria and pests from parent to child plants.
The project, which started ten years ago, has improved crop yields and lifted Kenyan farmers out of poverty.
Here, Africa's "banana mama" tells Linda Nordling how winning the YARA prize has been the fulfilment of a lifelong goal.
You studied for your Bachelor's degree in Kenya, moved to the United States for your Master's degree and did your PhD in virology in the United Kingdom. You then worked as a researcher in the United States for a while. What brought you back to Africa?
It was a commitment to make an impact at the grassroots level. I remembered the investment made to train me by my government and my community, and knew that back home people were suffering from hunger, poverty and malnutrition. I felt strongly that I couldn't be comfortable in the United States or in the United Kingdom. I needed to go back home and be part of the solution.
Banana is an orphan crop, like cassava, sorghum or sweet potato. It hasn't received the same attention as the crops used for export. But it is very important for food security, very important for women and children. When I was growing up, for example, banana was a baby food.
I realised when I looked around that the technology existed to double the yield and help poor farmers come out of poverty. So I brought together people from all along the value chain — businesses, farming communities, scientists — in what I call a participatory bottom-up approach. It is this holistic approach in linking farmers to the market that has brought success.
What does winning the YARA prize mean to you?
It is very motivating, it is the fulfilment of a dream I had when I left America to go back. It makes me realise that an individual who is inspired, and who is ready to work with other people, can make a difference. We shouldn't just look at ourselves and say 'I'm a woman, I'm underprivileged'. Every individual can make a difference if they are committed.
It is also great to share the excitement with the communities that we work with. They also got the prize. We got it together. We will celebrate at the award ceremony here in Oslo, but we will also celebrate with the farmers on 23 September.
Is science and technology emphasised enough in discussions about how to improve yields in Africa?
No. But I think the reason why researchers are being silent is that they have done a lot of research, and there is so far very little to show for it at farm level. I believe we need to carry on doing research, but we need to make sure that there is a funding mechanism to take it to the farmer.
Should efforts to engineer a "green revolution" in Africa focus on cutting-edge biotechnology or more conventional technologies?
I think we need to do both. Countries like Argentina, Brazil, China or India , which are growing and coming out of poverty, are using both. We need advanced science to come up with new products.
In Asia, during the green revolution there, researchers produced a high-yielding rice quickly and that worked as a catalyst. But a product by itself can't solve the problem. You need to increase the investment in agriculture, you need to add mechanisation, you have to have pesticides, and you need good policies. Our tissue culture banana doubled what the farmers produced. But that won't help without good management and access to the market. You need to look at the weak points in the value chain and be able to target those weak points.
What has the patronage of Kofi Annan, as the chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, meant for efforts to improve agriculture in Africa?
I think he has meant a huge deal because he can talk to presidents and hold them accountable. He is at their level. You might think that, as a diplomat, he is out of touch with the people on the ground. But I think he understands the grassroots. I don't think we could find a better person.
How will you spend the money?
I'm going to use part of the money to help some women groups go into value adding, into processing and expanding their markets.
I'm also concerned about the scaling up of our success. I would like to ask the development partners to look at the value of this kind of project, the return on investment. We have been able to get farmers from earning US$1 a day to US$3 a day. We have reached thousands of farmers in a very sustainable way. It is something that is working, but we need to scale it up to other countries.