By Peter Orengo
NAIROBI, KENYA: Despite billions of shillings being sunk into research projects in agricultural research institutions to boost food security in the country, there has been very little success in terms of utilised innovation in Africa, a distinguished Harvard academic told graduating students while accepting an honorary degree in Canada.
Citing Africa’s weak systems of agricultural inventions, Kenya-born Harvard Professor Calestous Juma is now calling for greater research at agricultural universities to work with farming communities and push for a new agrarian revolution.
This is not the first time he is being feted for his outstanding work.
Few Kenyans back home know of his work which has been acknowledged by journalists he worked with in the 1970s.
However, Prof Juma’s incredible research record is well known worldwide. For example, he is considered an authority in the field of application of science and technology to sustainable development.
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Currently he is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Executive Programme at Harvard Kennedy School.
Prof Juma is also a Director of the school’s Science, Technology and Globalisation Project at Harvard Kennedy School as well as the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recognition of his work, Prof Juma has been elected to the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the UK Royal Academy of Engineering, the African Academy of Sciences and the New York Academy of Sciences. And the list goes on.
In 2012, Prof Juma was named by the New Africa magazine as one of Africa’s most influential 100 people.
While accepting his honorary degree, Prof Juma asked the youth at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Centre to embrace innovative sciences, saying that alone will make it possible to feed the billions of people who will swell world population in decades ahead, especially in developing countries.
Speaking to graduates of McGill University, Montreal, Prof Juma described the importance of developing more productive or nutritious and insect-resistant crops.
“As the world’s food challenges increase, so must humanity enlarge its toolbox to include genetic modification and other technologies such as satellites for monitoring land resources,” Prof Juma said.
“But these techniques are not silver bullets. They must be part of a wider system of innovation that includes improving interactions between academia, government, business and farmers.”
Prof Juma was born and raised up in Port Victoria, a tiny town on the Kenyan side of Lake Victoria — now in Busia County—where he obtained his early education.
During an interview for the Guardian in Stockholm, Sweden in 1970, soon after leaving Kenya, he said that as the firstborn son of a carpenter, his prospects for higher learning were slight. His childhood was blighted by bouts of malaria. But he was bright and eager to learn.
Prof Juma said that as a youngster, he expressed unrelenting passion for all things technical. It was at Port Victoria that he witnessed the introduction of technologies that improved the life of his people. His father pioneered the introduction of cassava in Kenya — a willingness to embrace the new clearly passed on to his son.
He completed his high school education at Port Victoria secondary, present day John Osogo high school in Budalangi and passed well.
After High school, he first worked as an elementary school teacher before becoming Africa’s first science and environment journalist at the Daily Nation. Prof Juma later joined the Nairobi-based Environment Liaison Centre International (ELCI) as a founder and editor of trilingual quarterly magazine, Ecoforum.
He later received an MSc in Science, Technology and Industrialisation and a Doctor of Philosophy in Science and Technology Policy from the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. He has written widely on science, technology and sustainable development.
From 1996 to 2011, he says, genetically modified crops “saved nearly 473 million kilogrammes of active pesticide ingredients. It also reduced 23.1 billion kilogrammes of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of taking 10.2 million cars off the road.
Without transgenic crops, the world would have needed another 108.7 million hectares of land (420,000 square miles — roughly the area of Ethiopia) for the same level of output,” he said. Transgenic crops contain genetic material into which DNA from an unrelated organism has been artificially inserted.
“The benefits to biological diversity from the technology have, therefore, been invaluable. On the economic front, nearly 15 million farmers and their families, estimated at 50 million people, have benefited from the adoption of transgenic crops.”
However, of the 28 countries growing transgenic crops today, only four are in Africa—South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan, noted Prof Juma.
He cites several examples of important transgenic plant science innovations in Africa. In Nigeria, Ahmadu Bello, a scientist at Nigeria’s University, has developed a transgenic black-eyed pea variety using insecticide genes from a bacterium, Bacillus thuringiensis.
Not only are drought-resistant black-eyed peas important in local diets, but also they are a major export. Currently Africa grows 96 per cent of the 5.4 million tonnes consumed worldwide each year.
In Uganda, scientists are deploying biotechnology to deal with the problem of Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that ruins bananas and costs Africa’s Great Lakes Region an estimated Sh4 billion annually, largely in Uganda.
Using genes from a species of sweet pepper, Ugandan researchers are developing a transgenic banana that resists the disease.
Kenyan scientists, meanwhile, are also enhancing the micronutrient content of bananas as well as two other staples of sorghum and cassava.
“The techniques mastered in these proof-of-concept states can be extended to a wide range of indigenous African crops. This would not only help Africa broaden its food base using improved indigenous crops, but it would have the potential to contribute to global nutritional requirements,” said Prof Juma.
Delays in subjecting these products for testing and approval for commercial use are due in part to “technological intolerance,” he said, “much of which has been handed down by European anti-biotechnology activism. This opposition, however vexatious, amounts to petty political mischief.”
Prof Juma cited the 1878 essay by Robert Louis Stevenson, A Plea for Gas Lamps, in which the author of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde demonised electricity, saying that the “urban star now shines out nightly, horrible, unearthly, obnoxious to the human eye; a lamp for a nightmare! Such a light as this should shine only on murders and public crime or along the corridors of lunatic asylums, a horror to heighten horror.”
The same sort of wild opposition today confronts biotechnology, Prof Juma said.
“Today, given the growing human population, the problem is to feed people. However, opposition to new technologies may cast a dark shadow over the prospects of feeding the world,” he says.
Also, ministers responsible for agricultural research should champion efforts to upgrade research institutions so that they can serve as new centres of agricultural innovation.
“Such political leadership will make it possible for institutions such as McGill University to be part of new and vibrant opportunities to leverage the world’s vast scientific and technical knowledge and put it to practical use in Africa. Technological opportunities such as online courses and broadband Internet make it easier to create new agricultural learning communities, ” Prof Juma says.
In 2011, Prof Juma published an influential book, The New Harvest in which he proposes a route by which Africa could feed itself within a generation — a clear prescription for transforming sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture and, by doing so, its economy.
The strategy calls on governments to make African agricultural expansion central to decision making about infrastructure (energy, transportation, irrigation and telecommunications), technical education, entrepreneurship and regional economic integration.
Today Prof Juma co-chairs the High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation of the African Union.
The panel will present its report for consideration by African presidents.
It contents will serve a blueprint for Africa’s technological transformation over the next decade.