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[NAIROBI] Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan yesterday (16 July) urged African farmers to build stronger links with scientists and research institutions as part of their efforts to boost food production on the continent.

He also said that, whatever the potential future benefits of genetically modified (GM) crops, conventional seed breeding currently represented an important path towards securing a 'green revolution' in Africa, and thus of decreasing Africa's dependence on food aid.

Annan made his comments after a meeting with the Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki in Nairobi, Kenya, as the new chairman of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an organisation focusing on alleviating poverty and hunger in Africa.

"As we speak, many people in Africa are receiving food donations. This is however not sustainable," he said. "We need to get the right seeds into [the farmers] hands by strengthening research partnerships with local universities and other institutions."

Having recently toured Kenya, meeting some of Kenya's farmers and scientists, Annan announced that the alliance will be based in Nairobi, Kenya. President Kibaki ensured his country's support for the alliance and for the research community.

Annan announced that over the next four years the AGRA initiative will focus on developing hardier seeds, improving soil health and use of fertilizers, improving water management, and strengthening agricultural markets. The alliance will put special emphasis on problems specific to small-scale farmers.

He also said AGRA programmes will not involve GM seeds, but will instead focus on conventional seed breeding.

"Science is evolving. We do not know what science will offer us in ten or twenty years. However, our programmes will not involve GM seeds," he said.

Annan said science and technology are becoming increasingly important to small-scale farmers.

"The cell phone revolution has come to rural Africa, and farmers can now use their cell phones to get real-time market information," Annan said, referring to the Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange program.

"These are just a few of the many innovations bringing the benefits of technology and science to small-scale farmers so that they can improve their farm productivity and incomes and end the poverty that has become so entrenched in rural Africa," said Annan.

Annan said for Africa to achieve a green revolution as experienced in Asia in the 1960s, governments must provide policies that can support growth, but must be careful of obstructing progress.

Insufficient infrastructure, such as roads, poor storage facilities and weak market structures must also be addressed, he said.

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