Reflections on 2014 World Food Prize Mavis Owureku-Asare

We profile Mavis Owureku-Asare, a brilliant young food scientist and development conscious professional, whom I have come to know over the past 3 years and whose energy I admire. We last met at the 2014 Borlaug Dialogue and here we carry her reflections of the dialogue…comment by Ruth Oniang'o, Editor in-Chief, AJFAND.

Name: Mavis Owureku-Asare
Position: Research Scientist (Food Science)
Institution: Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute - Ghana Atomic Energy Commission
Address: Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Instittute-GAEC, P.O.Box LG 80, Legon, Ghana.

Mavis Owureku-Asare is a specialist in food preservation and post-harvest management of fresh agricultural produce. She is a Research Scientific Officer at the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute - Ghana Atomic Energy Commission. She earned her BSc in Nutrition and Food Science and MPhil in Food Science both from the University of Ghana.

She worked on marketing systems and quality of fruits and vegetables in Ghana, with support from Ghana Private-Public Partnership - Food Development Program; supported by the Michigan State University. Currently her research focuses on “Production and optimization of solar dried tomato to reduce post-harvest losses in Ghana.” With her outstanding leadership skills, she founded the Coalition of Food Experts in Ghana, a network of food professionals and scientists. She volunteers for Moringa community of Ghana where the youth, particularly young girls in Breman-Baako and its environs are trained in simple food preservation techniques. She is also a patron for the Girls Girls Leadership Initiative, an NGO which trains and equip young girls by enhancing their knowledge and strengthening leadership capacity for community service.

As a fellow of the African Women in Agriculture Research and Development (AWARD), she has formally and informally mentored a number of young women research scientists. Her current PhD research focuses on alternative tomato processing techniques, which can be adopted by small holder farmers and processors. “I am optimizing dried tomato products by using solar energy to enhance the drying process. I believe in agricultural research and development that positively impacts the lives of women, who are front-runners in tomato cultivation and marketing. They play a vital role in implementing new strategies that will help them improve return on their harvests. Setting up community-based processing centers is the best way to integrate processing activities in the production and management of fresh produce. Given the chance, women can contribute substantially to the development of the food processing industry in Ghana and across Africa”. In 2012, Mrs. Owureku-Asare as a Norman E. Borlaug fellow conducted research into different drying technologies for processing tomato at the Department of Food Science, Louisiana State University. This fellowship helped her to build on her knowledge and expertise in the product development of tomato.

Reflections on 2014 World Food Prize "Borlaug Dialogue" international symposium
This year’s Borlaug Dialogue International symposium re-echoed the greatest challenge in human history; can we sustainably feed 9.5 billion people in 2050?” I believe the answer from Dr. Borlaug will be YES WE CAN! Dr. Borlaug believed in the youth and He envisioned the youth becoming the force behind cutting edge research findings and radical approaches to help enhance global food security. Even though this is a huge challenge, He still has hope that the solutions lies in the hands of the new generation of young scientists who like himself dedicate their lives work to this cause. As a Borlaug fellow, I am motivated by his belief in the youth as engines of innovation and the future leaders who will be providing solutions to the future food security challenge. On the occasion of Dr. Borlaug’s 100th birthday, this vision is even more relevant now than ever as the challenges confronting our world seem to be bigger than it was when He was alive.

I am always excited to be part of the World Food Prize event and this year, the speeches and discussions were very insightful. It is inherent that African small holder farmers take advantage of mobile phone technologies and innovations to enhance production. The use of mobile phones can be used to track weather patterns, cost of items such as seed and fertilizers and also to help to fix the prices of commodities. Africa has all it takes to be the food basket of the world, if only we would move a step ahead and incorporate technological innovations to enhance productivity.

I was particularly impressed with presentation by Dr. Emma Mugerwa Naluyima, a young small holder farmer herself, from Uganda, who seeks to encourage the youth to go into agriculture. “If the youth are to be attracted into agriculture we need to make agriculture sexy” as she put it. She sure does make farming worth going into. She proposes a model of integrated farming and energy production systems, which is very practical and innovative. This system reconfigures production systems to optimize production as she effectively maximizes the use of a one acre farm she owns in a sustainable way. This one acre which is divided into quarters, has one quarter for raising cattle and pigs, another quarter for growing vegetables and trees, has a fish farming, a biogas plant which uses droppings from the livestock she owns for generating gas for domestic use and the last quarter has her house where she lives with her husband and 2 young children. Innovations like this appeal to the youth and this model can be promoted in my country Ghana and throughout Africa to encourage the youth to go into farming. It was an eye opening and a wake-up call for small holder farmers to utilize the small lands they operate judiciously. I take this back to my country and hope to promote this model. As a Patron of the 4H club in Ghana, this model is worth transferring to the youth in the agricultural program we run in Ghana. There are small pieces of lands that small holder farmers can put to good use through this model to enhance food production and generate income. Dr Emma is a practicing veterinarian as well.

The important role of women small holders play in feeding Africa and the need to support them could not have been overemphasized. If women farmers had equal opportunities and access to resources like men, they would increase food production by to up 30%. Women small holder farmers can be assisted through provision to small machinery, processing equipment, access to loans and adoption of new emerging technologies. Once again the focus was on Africa, and as West Africa contends with the ebola outbreak, worries of food shortages are obvious as farmers cannot access their farms over scares of contracting ebola. The short term need for food and long term implications for agriculture production are immense. This could set back the advancements made in eradiating hunger and reducing poverty in these countries. Agricultural programs could collapse and more food will have to be imported into the affected areas. The very survival of nations worst hit: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea hang in the balance and this could spread across the continent if an antidote is not found to curtail this epidemic. The current ebola epidemic reminds us all that whatever happens on one part of the planet affects the other. This epidemic is not only “Africa’s problem” , it is the “world’s problem” because the longer we look unconcerned, the impact of hunger, deaths, unproductivity and poverty in affected areas in Africa would escalate and impact other parts of the world. Economies will be affected and this could heavily impact global efforts to meet the food challenge. In H.E Ernest Bai Koroma (President of Sierra Leone)’s address, he appealed for formidable partnerships and concerted efforts to end this epidemic. It is time for us to think globally in our quest to increase global food production by 60% to feed the 5 billion mouths by 2050. We can no longer work independently. We need effective partnerships that will pull all resources and efforts together to ensure that we win this battle.

Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, President and Chief Executive of the World Food Prize Foundation is truly making Dr. Borlaug proud! His commitment towards the World Food Prize Foundation and distinguished work to keep Dr. Borlaug’s legacy alive is commendable. I surely look forward to another successful Borlaug Dialogue International symposium.

Mavis and Amb. Quinn in October 2014 at the Borlaug dialogue in Des Moines, IOWA, USA.