March 11, 2009
Written by Duncan Mboya
Tired of not seeing action, African scientists have issued a
stern warning to their governments: adopt modern technologies in
agricultural production or forget about reducing poverty and
disease in your midst.
The warning comes barely seven years to the Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) deadline, whose goal one is to halve
the number of those immersed in poverty and hunger eradication
“Africa is a struggling continent with low agricultural yields
compared to any part of the world hence making it impossible to
achieve the goal,” said the Chairman of the
International Service for the
Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) Dr. Clive
Amplifying James sentiments, Kenya’s agriculture secretary Dr.
Wilson Songa cautioned African policy makers and stakeholders to
stop thinking that Africa can produce enough food through
organic technology alone in solving the food insecurity in the
“We must adopt all the available technologies if we have to feed
our people and have surplus for export,” he says.
Dr James observes that due to Africa’s unique wants, there is
need to incorporate both conventional and new technologies to
reverse the current hunger trends.
James observes that even though biotechnology has a major stake
in increasing food productivity and security in the world, other
techniques of producing food are equally important.
The slow pace at which African countries are adopting
biotechnology is raising concern among the scientific community
who cite it as one of the major drawbacks towards food
“Lack of political will and slow deliberation on biosafety
legislation is the main stumbling block towards realizing
Africa’s agricultural potential,” says Dr James.
He hailed Kenya’s move in putting biosafety law in place adding
that the move makes Kenya the leading country in East African
region to adopt the technology.
To date only Egypt, Zambia, South Africa, Burkina Faso, Mali and
Kenya are the only African countries to have fully operational
law on biotechnology.
Scientists’ argue that with the commercialization of
biotechnology, poverty can be a thing of the past in many
countries in sub Saharan Africa.
They claim that in the past 12 years that the technology has
been in use, farmer’s income has increased by 34 billion
Farmers in South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, China and India are
now reaping the benefits of the technology, indicating that
Kenya and other countries could also benefit,” James adds.
Studies done in India and South Africa show cotton and maize
farmers, majority of them women from India and South Africa have
benefited greatly after their governments adopted biotechnology.
Of the 4,000 families in villages where the Baccellelus
Thurengiensis (Bt) cotton are grown, majority of those whose
quality of life has improved are women.
Farmers’ income as increased by 220 US dollars, with yields
increasing by 31 per cent. “Prenatal attendance, school
enrolment and vaccination of children have improved compared to
days before the introduction of the bt crops,” he says.
With close to 80 percent of the work on African farms being done
by women, scientists believe the biotechnology will have more
impact on them than any other sections of the population.
New biotechnology products that are likely to emerge in the near
future have the potential of turning around the agricultural
landscape in Africa.
With right policy guidelines in place, the key beneficiaries are
expected to be women. Scientists say the first drought tolerant
maize that will be unveiled in the United States of America in
2011 is expected to make a major shift in agricultural
revolution in areas that are deemed unfit for agricultural
According to Kenya’s Secretary for National Council of Science
and Technology (NCST) Prof. Shaukat Abdulrazak embracing
biotechnology requires doing things differently and turning
impossibilities to possibilities.
Prof. Abdulrazak says Kenya has developed guidelines to handle
genetically modified requests.
He says that a renewed global effort that would enable countries
prepares national biosafety and harmonized regional guidelines
and regulations in using biotechnology is a bold move towards
implementing the MDGs.
The Director of West Africa Biosciences Network (WABNet) Prof.
Diran Makinde observes that countries within the same
agro-ecological zone need to harmonize their biotechnology
policies and also do a joint research to enable them save money
He notes that the fact that Africa has few experts on biosafety
and biotechnology that are capable of developing policy and
laws, it is advisable that neighbouring countries team up and
borrow from each other.
“Let countries that have not started work on biosafety
regulations study share with countries that are already ahead in
this area,” he adds.
He told African governments to stop borrowing funds from donors
for the construction of laboratories when such laboratories
exist in neighbouring countries.
“AU leaders must significantly increase public investments in
biotechnology research and development. Failure to do so will
impair the continent’s capacity to stay connected to global
advances in biotechnology and to transfer, adapt and exploit
life sciences knowledge for the benefit of all citizens,” he
Prof. Makinde observes that Africa needs to develop its own
scientific capacity to assess biotechnology-related risks
through national, regional, and continental institutions.
Governments should therefore seek to advance in improving
regional cooperation in science and technology in the use of
biotechnology by facilitating the approval of trials done by
“It is true that a country like Kenya is ahead in the
biotechnology development in the East African region. It will be
better if neighbouring countries borrowed ideas from them rather
than start from scratch,’ he says.