Why is agricultural research important? Why African Governments need to support it

Surely without research and an enquiring mind, it is impossible to make much discovery.

Many innovations come out of research, and an environment that allows free thinking, debates, enquiries of all sorts and all accompanied by requisite resources. Whether it is the Wright brothers with the aircraft or Thomas Edison with the ever enduring light bulb or Richard Branson with his Virgin Enterprises or Norman Borlaug with Asia's green revolution that saved billions from starvation, an enabling environment needs to be in place. If we do not support research in Africa we shall continue to blame those who do, for imposing ideas and innovations on us. Look at our food situation. We are the only part of the world which has yet to figure out how to feed its people, yet we are the fastest growing population globally.

We cannot guarantee most Africans a decent meal everyday of their lives. When famine hits and there is wide-spread hunger, we start desperately to look for not just non GMO maize but for white maize, particularly here in Kenya where white maize is synonymous with LIFE itself. Unfortunately those other parts of the world from which we seek to import the "white maize" invest in research. We import from parts of the world where maize [corn] is grown for livestock, and where they have invested heavily in research to come up with high yielding, disease free and water efficient nutritious varieties. Europe and North America do not go out begging for food when they have had a bad harvest. They also have facilities to store food for years, and their food reserves are actually in form of food. Many new houses built now have to incorporate a food bank that can guarantee feeding a particular family for months. I have visited India, Vietnam, Brazil and Columbia, countries on the Asian and Latin American continents, respectively and their research systems are fairly elaborate with major government funding. Now that African Governments have pledged to support Agriculture and food security and to eradicate hunger by 2025, we truly need to see support for strategies that will lead us to the realization of those goals. For example we need to see the Maputo Declaration of 2003 being honoured.

If one googles Maputo Declaration on African Agriculture {www.nepad.org}, one will find it. It was held in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique in July of 2003. The Declaration is amazingly elaborate. My kudos to the drafters, as it is obvious they are truly gifted in writing. The part on agriculture and food security that concerns us reads:

“Recognizing that it is Africa’s responsibility to reinvigorate its food and agriculture sector for the economic prosperity and welfare of its people,

Resolve to:

  1. REVITALIZE the agricultural sector including livestock, forestry and fisheries through special policies and strategies targeted at small scale and traditional farmers in rural areas and the creation of enabling conditions for private sector participation, with emphasis on human capacity development and the removal of constraints to agricultural production and marketing, including soil fertility, poor water management, inadequate infrastructure, pests and diseases;
  3. IMPLEMENT, as a matter of urgency, the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) and flagship projects and evolving Action Plans for agricultural development, at the national, regional and continental levels. To this end, we agree to adopt sound policies for agricultural and rural development, and commit ourselves to allocating at least 10% of national budgetary resources for their implementation within five years;
  5. CALL UPON the African Union Commission, the Steering Committee of NEPAD, the FAO and other partners to continue their cooperation providing effective support to African countries and the RECs in the implementation of the CAADP;
  7. ENGAGE in consultations at national and regional levels with civil society organizations and other key stakeholders, including the small-scale and traditional farmers, private sector, women and youth associations, etc., aimed at promoting their active participation in all aspects of agricultural and food production;
  9. ENSURE, through collaborative efforts at the national and regional levels, the preparation of bankable projects under CAADP for the mobilization of resources for investment in agricultural growth and rural development;
  11. ENSURE the establishment of regional food reserve systems, including food stocks, linked to Africa’s own production, and the development of policies and strategies under the African Union and the RECs, to fight hunger and poverty in Africa;
  13. ACCELERATE the process of establishing the African Investment Bank, as provided for in the Constitutive Act of the African Union, which should give priority to investment in agricultural production;
  15. INTENSIFY cooperation with our development partners to address the effect of their subsidies, to ensure their support to market access for Africa’s exports, and to realize the African Union’s vision of a prosperous and viable agricultural sector as envisaged under the NEPAD framework and Millennium Development Goals”

There have been many meetings including Heads of State summits within the interim; however, a landmark one was held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, in June 2014, 11 years after the Maputo meeting. The meeting was titled:

African Union (AU) Malabo Declaration on Agriculture and Postharvest Losses

The climax of the 2014 AU Year of Agriculture and Food Security was marked during the 23rd Ordinary Session of the AU Assembly in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, from 26-27 June 2014 during which AU Heads of State and Government adopted the Malabo Declaration on Accelerated Agricultural Growth and Transformation for Shared Prosperity and Improved Livelihoods. As part of the recent commitments, the AU Heads of State and Government committed to ending hunger by 2025 and to achieve this they further resolved to halve the current levels of post-harvest losses by the year 2025. Addressing post-harvest losses points to a realization of how much Africa loses along the value chain, which is often speculated as we do not have any empirical assessment to help us state with certainty how much is lost and where.

We know though that right from planting, through harvesting, storage, transporting and processing, a lot is lost. Even during food preparation and consumption, a lot is lost. Not only is the food lost, nutrients too. When food is improperly handled when left over, there are losses associated by it making people sick who then lose valuable hours of work, and through the food itself being thrown away. So, addressing post-harvest losses is both unique and crucial.

It is important to remind that in 2014 January, an assessment report was released to show that only 10 of the 54 African countries had met their CAADP pledges consistently ten years after inception. This is a discouraging statistic, to say the least.

The first trip I have made outside of Kenya this year was at the invitation of Dr. Rhoda Tumusiime, Africa Union Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture and to attend a pre Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa. This year’s summit was to approve implementation strategies that had been agreed on at previous meetings.

As we move forward, it is important to realize that all stakeholders matter, including the private sector and especially as we address food safety, value addition and postharvest storage and transporting foods to where they are needed. There is need to remember to keep nutrients intact during these processes or to replace the ones that are lost, to ensure the nutritive value of processed foods for consumers who cannot produce their own food. Traditional African diets never comprised of just a single food item. It is diverse, rich, healthy, fibre rich, with little sugar and contains hardly any refined salt. Can we go back to that? I am not sure. But clearly overreliance on just maize by Kenyans does not help our nutritional status; no wonder our children are so malnourished.

Therefore, if African governments wish to ensure sound health and nutrition for their people through food security, they should put major resources towards research, training and programs that are designed to achieve this goal. On the Agriculture side, they should revisit the Maputo Declaration, and on CAADP, they should get back to what they pledged to do. Further, they should make nutrition an integral part of the food systems and a lot of work is already ongoing on nutrition programming and advocacy in most countries; all that is needed is resources and linkages to existing programs and policies that are relevant. I personally applaud what has been achieved so far. It is highly commendable and clearly we have come a long way.

Now we need to see tangible resources go towards the well articulated pledges. For example, Kenya has already committed a lot of money towards Aflatoxin control. This is a highly commendable gesture, given that aflatoxicosis has killed many Kenyans in the recent past.

Let us also remember this is the International Year of Woman Empowerment as declared by the African Union in 2014. It is understandable as African women play a key role in feeding their families. Let us celebrate them this year, and indeed every year and every day. More so, let us avail them resources to do more with less strain on their bodies. They deserve that.

Good luck to all of us.

Ruth Oniang’o