Local engagement key to bringing biotech to Africa

Small-scale farmer in Ghana Copyright: Flickr/bbcworldservice

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Moves to introduce biotechnology to Africa must consider the needs and values of local people, argues socioeconomist Wilhemina Quaye.

Africa has long debated the development and use of biotechnologies such as genetically modified organisms. Advocates point to their potential for solving economic, social and environmental challenges, highlighting their nutritional benefits, for example, or the environmental benefits achieved through reduced pesticide use. Critics focus on the low public funding available, problems with intellectual property rights, limited human capacity, poor infrastructure and biosafety issues.

But what has been largely absent from the debate is a consideration of how African socio-cultural realities affect biotechnology development.

To ensure that biotechnology is appropriate, effective and sustainable, its intended users must be involved in its development, and it must improve their capacity rather than create ties of dependency. For example, communities need to be empowered to use biotechnology to produce locally grown food, rather than rely on imports. My own research on community-based food technologies in Ghana suggests that people adopt technologies more readily if they are involved in their development and if they hold power over the decisions that affect them.

To do this, researchers and policymakers must have a full understanding of public interests and concerns through socio-cultural analysis.

Local factors

Socio-cultural analysis — sometimes referred to as stakeholder and institutional analysis — involves several steps, the first of which is identifying and characterising the target groups and institutions involved or affected by biotechnology development. These include small-scale farmers, processors and general consumers. This helps identify the factors constraining local people’s access to, and effective use of, biotechnology.

This is particularly important for biotechnology research and development aimed at alleviating poverty. Plant biotechnology research and development to address food insecurity should involve the small-scale farmers who guard the genetic resources and indigenous knowledge that are essential for preserving biodiversity and assessing the suitability of new crop varieties. It must also involve local researchers and extension agents who play vital roles in developing, disseminating and adopting the technology.

Second, socio-cultural analysis involves establishing an in-depth understanding of the cultures and identities of the intended beneficiaries, as well as the interdependence of the cultural, economic and ecological factors. For example, the use of tissue culture and molecular makers in plant biotechnology should reflect farming practices in the region.

The third step is to engage relevant groups in making decisions and setting priorities. This ensures that the technology addresses a pressing local need rather than a universal one. In Africa, for example, significant proportions of small-scale (food crop) farmers want to use self-pollinating seeds and have the local capacity to produce them, so they may not want, or need, a terminator seed. Indeed, African farmers are concerned about the loss of traditional ways of cultivating and an over-reliance on the seed industry.

Building trust

In setting biotechnology research and development agendas in Africa, some overarching questions must be answered. To what extent is the public knowledgeable or even aware of biotechnological issues? Is the public informed about infrastructure development and the workforce’s readiness to ensure standards?

Answering such questions may involve debate with stakeholders through education and communication strategies such as public-awareness campaigns, community talks, and radio or television programmes. This will ensure informed debate, better manage perceptions, and help build public confidence in the regulatory systems.

Researchers and decision-makers must also establish the norms, values and cultural and religious beliefs that influence public acceptance of biotechnology, helping policymakers highlight the benefits, address health and environmental concerns, and deal with biosafety issues.

Policymakers must also consider the socioeconomic implications of accepting biotechnological products. How many jobs will be lost or created, and which ones? How will livelihoods be affected? Will only a few profit-driven individuals and companies benefit? In the case of genetically modified foods, will small-scale farmers and processors lose their livelihoods to foreign companies? These considerations will help create a reasonable balance between the trade-offs.

The bottom line is that anyone developing biotechnologies must respond effectively to the intended users’ needs and aspirations, and better manage the perceived risks or threats associated with accepting biotechnology. To do this, biotech agendas must consider the socio-cultural realities in Africa. This will help build trust and public confidence, and aid the acceptance of biotechnology.

Effective engagement with intended users and target groups, including identifying their values, priorities, beliefs, attitudes and preferences, is crucial in the development and use of biotechnology in Africa.

Wilhemina Quaye is a researcher at the Food Research Institute, Ghana.