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8 June 2016Africa

Freeing Africa from hunger

Africa is spending billions of dollars importing foods such as maize, rice and wheat. Many countries are over-producing while African countries are investing in importing foods that they could potentially produce themselves, under the right circumstances.

As an innovative organisation which helps improve agriculture on the African continent, Africa Harvest sees the importance of intellectual property as it pursues its mission to free Africa from hunger, poverty and malnutrition.

“The missing element—compared to countries like North America, or England—is that they have really sound technology. Not technology alone, but investment in agriculture per se,” says Dr Florence Wambugu, founder of Africa Harvest.

Africa Harvest applies innovative technologies and institutional approaches to improve the livelihoods of rural communities. Directing its efforts primarily towards smallholder farmers, the organisation focuses on agricultural development through science and technology.

The main focus, as explained by Dr Wambugu, is on seeds.

“The seed is the carrier of technology, whether it is just by normal agriculture or genetically modified. The seed is the focus of technology.

“Without good seed, even if you bring all the other elements, you don’t progress,” she says.

However, other elements such as mechanisation, fertiliser, knowledge and good policies are all important to revolutionise agriculture.

Africa Harvest stresses the need for investments in its projects and agriculture in general. In order to increase productivity, investment must be made in all aspects including seed, fertiliser and mechanisation.

Dr Wambugu emphasises the importance of different sectors coming together in the bigger picture.

“We need non-governmental organisations, government extension, and large and small scale companies. We need many players. That’s why we have been focusing on that gap to help increase productivity.”

Tech transfer—the process of transferring skills, knowledge, technologies, methods and samples of manufacturing and facilities among governments, universities and other organisations—is essential for Africa Harvest.

“We have scientists from Africa who go for training abroad to learn about genetic transformation and breeding, among other things, and when they return to Africa they will transfer the knowledge.

“Africa Harvest actively negotiates with other parties to make sure that it develops products which it is free to market, use and share.”

“Human beings are the carriers of technology. People from South Africa have gone to do it in Burkina Faso, while Nigerians come to Kenya,” Dr Wambugu explains.

Dr Wambugu explains many countries are practising tech transfer, and that it is essential to progress. She says Africa has “great potential to become a massive producer”, but it must use tech transfer to help.

“China for instance has learned a lot from the US, and then applied what it has learned in China,” she adds.

Africa Harvest is currently involved in Kenya, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso and, to a certain extent, Uganda. The organisation has worked on bananas in Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi and Malawi. In Nigeria and Kenya it has worked on improving sorghum, a genus of plants in the grass family.

She adds: “South Africa has sufficient rain besides the current drought. Nigeria is also investing [in technology], although it has been challenging because most of the income has been acquired from petrol and the petrol dollar has declined due to the low price of oil.

“Egypt is far ahead of the other countries, as they have invested a lot in technology and irrigation. Kenya on the other hand is doing well but is still importing big quantities of foods.”

True innovation calls for originality, a quality that Africa Harvest has promoted well in its recent projects.

The organisation is developing a seed system for improved beans which contain higher amounts of iron, in countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi, to help improve anaemia. In Kenya, it is also working towards developing a system to distribute sweet potatoes that are high in vitamin E to improve nutritional benefits.

“Our projects are highly innovative because these systems don’t exist elsewhere,” Dr Wambugu says.

“We have been innovative because we are doing things that others are not doing. We are creating models of success on delivery of products to the farmers. We are the pioneers in Africa for the work on nutrition and environmental sorghum with vitamin E.”

Dr Wambugu explains that the work on nutrition is highly related to IP.

“IP matters are extremely important. We work with companies that are informed on the matter. That way we can transfer to farmers with clear information and avoid IP issues.

“IP can actually block access but so far we have not encountered any situation in which we have not been free to operate.”

Africa Harvest actively negotiates with other parties to make sure that it develops products which it is free to market, use and share while it continues its mission of reducing rural poverty, and food and nutrition insecurity, through improved agricultural systems.

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