Opinion: Innovation key to unlocking Africa’s horticultural potential

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Opinion: Innovation key to unlocking Africa’s horticultural potential

By Harvard Kennedy School Practice of International Development professor Calestous Juma

African agriculture is at the crossroads. Persistent food shortages are now being compounded by new threats arising from climate change. But Africa faces three major opportunities that can help transform its agriculture to be a force for economic growth.

First, advances in science, technology, and engineering worldwide offer Africa new tools needed to promote sustainable agriculture.

Second, efforts to create regional markets will provide new incentives for agricultural production and trade.

Third, a new generation of African leaders is helping the continent to focus on long-term economic transformation. Agriculture needs to be viewed as a knowledge-based entrepreneurial activity.

Economic collaboration

The emergence of Africa’s Regional Economic Communities (RECs) provides a unique opportunity to promote innovation in African agriculture in a more systematic and coordinated way.

The launching of the East African Common Market in July 2010 represented a significant milestone in the steady process of deepening Africa’s economic integration. It is a trend that complements similar efforts in other parts of Africa. It also underscores the determination among African leaders to expand prospects for prosperity by creating space for economic growth and technological innovation.

Agricultural productivity, entrepreneurship, and value addition foster productivity in rural-based economies. In many poor countries, however, farmers, small and medium-sized enterprises, and research centers do not interact in ways that accelerate the move beyond low value-added subsistence sustainable agriculture.

Strengthening rural innovation systems, developing effective clusters that can add value to unprocessed raw materials, and promoting value chains across such diverse sectors as horticulture, food processing and packaging, food storage and transportation, food safety, distribution systems, and exports are all central to moving beyond.

Africa is largely an agricultural economy, with the majority of the population deriving their income from farming. Food security, agricultural development, and economic growth are intertwined. Improving Africa’s agricultural performance will require deliberate policy efforts to bring higher technical education, especially in universities, to the service of agriculture and the economy.

It is important to focus on how to improve the productivity of agricultural workers, most of whom are women, through technological innovation.

Scientific advances

Biotechnology has the promise of leading to increased food security and sustainable forestry practices, as well as improving health in developing countries by enhancing food nutrition. In agriculture, biotechnology has enabled the genetic alteration of crops, improved soil productivity, and enhanced natural weed and pest control. Unfortunately, such potential has largely remained untapped by African countries.

Tissue culture of bananas has had a great impact on the economy of East African countries since the mid-1990s. Because of its susceptibility to disease, bananas have always been a double-edged sword for the African economies like that of Uganda, which consumes a per capita average of one kilogram per day.

For example, when the Black Sigatoka fungus arrived in East Africa in the 1970s, banana productivity decreased as much as 40%. Tissue culture experimentation allowed for quick generation of healthy plants and was met with great success. Since 1995, Kenyan banana production has more than doubled, from 400,000 to over one million tons in 2004, with average yield increasing from 10 tons per hectare to 30–50 tons.

Marker-assisted selection helps identify plant genome sections linked to genes that affect desirable traits, which allows for the quicker formation of new varieties. This technique has been used not only to introduce high-quality protein genes in maize but also to breed drought-tolerant plant varieties.

In order to take full advantage of the many potentials of biotechnology in agriculture, Africa should consider whether aversion to and over regulation of GM production are warranted.

Nanotechnology has the potential to revolutionize agriculture with new tools such as the molecular treatment of diseases, rapid disease detection, and enhancement of the ability of plants to absorb nutrients.

Smart sensors and new delivery systems will help to combat viruses and other crop pathogens. Increased pesticide and herbicide effectiveness as well as the creation of filters for pollution create more environmentally friendly agriculture process.

Entrepreneurship matters

The creation and spread of value-added food processing enterprises could help African farmers retain a higher portion of the profits from the materials they produce. Food processing could also help reduce the threat of hunger by increasing the number of protein and vitamin-rich products provided by the local market, as well as improve local incomes by tapping into international markets to get much needed export revenues from agriculture.

Fostering entrepreneurship and facilitating private sector development has to be highest on the agenda to promote the autonomy and support needed to translate opportunity into prosperity. This has to be seen as an investment in itself, with carefully tailored incentives and risk-sharing approaches supported by government.

It is not enough for governments to simply reduce the cost of doing business. Fostering agricultural renewal will require governments to function as active facilitators of technological learning. Government actions will need to reflect the entrepreneurial character of the farming community; they too will need to be entrepreneurial.

This is a summarized excerpt from Professor Juma’s New Harvest - book updates are available on Twitter @Calestous.


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