Mobilizing biosciences for agricultural development – it takes more than technology

The key to experiencing impact from agricultural research in Africa lies in the wider adoption and uptake of technologies developed. This can be achieved by local scientists working closely with farmers to develop the products that they need.

This was the view at the center of a lively discussion that followed the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub presentation on “Mobilizing biosciences for Africa’s development”. The presentation was part of a side event at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week, being hosted by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the Government of Ghana from 15–20 July 2013.

According to the participants in a round table discussion comprising a range of stakeholders in agriculture including policy makers; researchers; academicians; administrators; members of the private sector; and communication experts, farmers are more likely to accept bioscience innovations when they are involved in the planning of research activities by way of innovation platforms and if the technology responds to specified needs that they have expressed.

Small holder farms in Africa are key contributors to food security and economic development. These farmers who occupy land of less than two hectares produce at least 90% of the food and account for a large percent of the continent’s GDP. They however face numerous challenges including their vulnerability to the highly variable and changing climate conditions. It has been estimated that yields of the continent’s major staples (rice, maize and wheat) will decline by up to 14 percent, 22 percent, and 5 percent, respectively, as a result of climate change by 2050. Degradation of soil and water resources, diminishing parcels of land available for farming and high incidences of crop and livestock pests and diseases also severely limit small holder farmer production potential.

Over the years, great strides in research have been made to alleviate these constraints. Using highly advanced biotechnology, national, regional and international research organizations have developed drought tolerant, disease resistant varieties of crops. Improved, high yielding varieties of major staples including early maturing, drought tolerant and high yielding New Rice for Africa (NERICA) have been successfully developed. Vaccines are available for livestock diseases such as rinderpest which was previously considered a scourge for herders across Asia, Europe and Africa, decimating entire herds. Yet overall, the impact of the numerous research achievements is yet be felt in Africa.

According to Prof Mandy Rukuni, a keynote speaker at a separate side event organized by FARA on Capacity Strengthening for Agricultural Innovation, if scientists want their knowledge to impact farmers, they need to empower the farmers to interact with the information they are offering and allow them co-create the technologies.

“Knowledge only exists at the point of action,” says Rukuni, “before that it is mere information.”

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