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Our top stories of the first half of 2015 focused on agriculture, environment and ICT, writes Bernard Appiah.
As 2015 comes to an end, we highlight science articles published by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English regional edition that were most popular with our audiences by the end of June.

Many top stories had agricultural ‘flavour’, which attests to the huge impact of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa, but other stories that many readers viewed included those relating to environment, information and communication technology (ICT), research and development (R&D), education and funding.
Boost for staple crops

Staple crops such as rice, bananas and root and tubers including cassava and potatoes received a major boost. For instance, one of our first stories of 2015 described a partnership for developing rice. The US$500 million-programme targets 23 countries in Sub-Sharan Africa, with the first phase expected to end in 2019. The funding is expected to be provided by African governments. What an excellent idea to help translate their resolutions to end hunger by 2025 into tangible action, if the project is successfully implemented.

“Many top stories had agricultural ‘flavour’, which attests to the huge impact of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Bernard Appiah

Still on rice, a story on this year’s AfricaRice Science Week, held on 9-13 February in Benin highlighted the importance of marketing local rice. The story provided an example in Côte d’Ivoire where rice production has had a net increase of 30 per cent in the past two years while import decreased by 20-30 per cent during the period.

In Tanzania and Uganda, a five-year project to improve banana farming by developing high-yielding and disease-resistant banana hybrids also became popular among our stories. The project is to help smallholders in the two countries, which produce more than 50 per cent of all bananas in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nigeria-headquartered International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, which is implementing the project, says the two countries achieve only nine per cent of the crop’s potential yield because of pests and diseases. The involvement of graduate students in the project could boost the sustainability of the project. According to an expert cited in the story, the project could raise yields by 30 per cent more than the current potential.

A story on roots, tubers and bananas indicated that a three-year project in Uganda aimed at adding value to the crops had begun. A postharvest specialist at the International Potato Center in Uganda, who is the leader of the project, says use of postharvest and processing technologies could help prevent losses of bananas, roots and tubers, and improve food security on the continent. Another expert indicated that cassava roots have a very short marketing period of 48 hours, thus leading to economic losses of up to 90 per cent of the initial value if smallholders lack storage technologies.
Our top stories on agriculture were not only about yield increases. For example, the papaya mealybug, also called Paracoccus marginatus, has been detected in Tanzania’s coastal areas and in Zanzibar island, thus triggering alarm among the region’s scientific and agriculture community. The pest could hamper food security in the region. It was refreshing to know that scientists have initiated efforts to prevent it from spreading.
Dealing with environmental challenges

Climate change and flood may be twins, and thus it is not surprising that two stories that discussed interventions for dealing with them are among our top performers this year.

For instance, delegates who attended the 41st session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in Kenya in indicated a need for urgent action to tackle climate change. This story indicated some strategies to actively involve researchers in IPCC’s work.

“While our top stories of the first half of 2015 showed increased focus on agriculture, environment and health, the region also produced impactful articles on governance and enterprise.”

Bernard Appiah

In one of our Africa Analysis blogs, Linda Nordling discusses how an African flood forecasting system could help mitigate suffering from catastrophic floods.  The focusing system, which is being refined, became more necessary in the wake of the floods that occurred in Malawi in January this year. The researchers found that it could predict increased risk for flooding, but it was unable to identify the exact location of flooding events. As researchers further test the system, Nordling indicates that political will from African governments is needed.

Another story that was linked to climate change attracted many visits. In this story, a meeting called for Africa to create  innovative, sustainable and integrated landscape management  to help tackle challenges of  food security, environmental conservation and climate change. But there was even a gender dimension to integrated landscape management.

According to an expert, integrated landscape management will have great impact on women as demonstrated by a project in Ethiopia. For example, as upper watersheds become rehabilitated, women do not have to travel far to fetch water, thus helping them spend more time with their families.
Agriculture meets health

One of our top stories showed the interrelationship between agriculture and health. The story, based on a study published in PLOS One in May this year, suggests that dessert locusts could spur food security and help prevent chronic diseases.

According to the researchers, locusts have high amount of chemicals such as phytosterols — which could help control heart-related diseases — and proteins, fatty acids and minerals that increase the human body fight cancer and prevent inflammation of body organs.

With the WHO indicating that chronic diseases such as heart attacks, stroke, cancers, diabetes and asthma kill about 28 million people a year in low- and middle-income countries, the study could have positive implications.

Communication and technological power

The power of innovation, ICT, and other technologies became evident in three of our top stories. For example, a forum held in Kenya in March this year called for female-friendly agricultural technologies and innovations to help bridge the gender gap in agricultural productivity and food security on the continent. Some of the key observations at the forum were that women find it difficult to use agricultural technologies and that most agricultural technologies favour commercial farming. With most women being smallholder farmers, they are often left out.

A story on ICT based on a study in Tanzania showed that when sesame farmers view interactive training modules on tablet computers in a local language, their knowledge could increase more than when they use traditional demonstration farms. However, an independent expert underscored the role of agricultural extension officers in improving the knowledge of farmers, noting that ICT should not be used alone. Another story that showed the power of ICT was about a low-cost device for testing HIV and syphilis that could help save the lives of patients in developing countries. The device, which was tested in Rwanda, could be used to analyse a blood sample for HIV or syphilis in 15 minutes. According to researchers, the devise could correctly identify 92 to 100 per cent of the patients with syphilis or HIV and 76 to 100 per cent of those who did not have any of these disease.

Improving education and R&D

Stories about Africa’s educational sector and funding for research and development (R&D) also featured prominently in the first half of 2016. In one story, the double-edged sword of private universities in East Africa was shown. Although such universities could play a big role in Africa’s educational renaissance, they could also lead to falling educational standards if adequate regulatory measures are not put in place.

In Ghana, a new laboratory for aiding research and training in designing improved cookstoves was commissioned in March this year at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Ghana.
According to an expert, the facility could boost the training of local manufacturers from Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Mali, Nigeria and Sierra Leone as well.

In South Africa, a five-year research programme involving local researchers and US counterparts, announced in May this year that it will support 31 joint research initiatives to promote HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis research. The US$40 million project funded jointly by the South African Medical Research Council and the US National Institutes of Health will involve research conducted in South Africa to tackle the two killer diseases.

While our top stories of the first half of 2015 show increased focus on agriculture, environment and health, the region also produced impactful articles on governance and enterprise.

We will bring to you other SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English regional edition leading science stories in the second and final instalment of this year’s round-up.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.