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Agriculture

Africa Recognizes Role of Science and Technology

2007 will be Africa’s year for building up science and technology. African science ministers have backed a set of measures to promote science and technology across the continent, four of which will be recommended for endorsement in January 2007 during the African Union (AU) summit of heads of African states on Science, Technology and Research for Africa's Development. The ministers, who met in Cairo, Egypt, will ask the heads of state to create a Pan-African Intellectual Property Organisation, and to designate 2007 as a year for science, technology and innovation in Africa.

Respective countries will apportion at least one per cent of their GDP to promote research, development and innovation strategies. The AU summit will be asked to express support for South-South cooperation in science, technology and innovation, enhance the role of such cooperation in international partnerships, and move towards harmonizing national and regional regulations that promote the application and safe use of biotechnology.

Organized by the AU Commission on behalf of the African Ministerial Council on Science and Technology (AMCOST), the conference was attended by representatives from 26 AU member states, agencies, international and continental government and NGOs, and the diaspora. 

This comes in the wake of yet another meeting in Kampala, Uganda, that brought together 120 scientists from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas to share their experience on the latest research and innovative initiatives with agricultural researchers and development partners. 

The meeting, dubbed Innovation Africa Symposium was organized by the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT, Colombia), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI, the division of International Service for National Agricultural Research, Ethiopia), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI, Africa), the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction (IIRR, Kenya) and the NGO PROLINNOVA (Promoting Local Innovation, Netherlands). 

In the 4th Africa Resource Bank meeting organized by Inter Region Economic Network at Naivasha last November, delegates from South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya underscored the need to breed a generation of scientists and engineers; deregulate the technological industry to allow more payers; remove taxation from technological related products and improve the technological infrastructure. 

With Africa’s population expected to increase from 923 million to 1.3 billion by 2020, agricultural technology development and transfer become crucial. Farmers, who form the bulk of this population, will only be able to improve their productivity and livelihoods if they have access to technology. 

The solution to Africa’s challenges “will depend mainly on the degree to which African countries align their development policies and governance structures with the imperatives of technological innovation,” notes a report by the High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology. 

Many African countries lack explicit national science and innovation policies. Some policies were developed in the 1970s or 1980s and do not reflect the realities of a rapidly globalizing world and national imperatives of the new millennium, notes Africa’s Science and Technology Consolidated Plan of Action (2005). 

“In the developed and newly industrializing countries, there is ample evidence to suggest that economic advances are results of technological and organizational innovations. Globally, science and technology are recognized as drivers of increased wealth and improved standards of living,” notes Taku Fundira, a researcher with Trade Law Center for Southern Africa (TRALAC). 

With African farmers exposed to vagaries of weather, pests, diseases and higher than average loss of harvest, science and technology are handy tools. At least 10 percent of the continent’s productivity is lost on or off farm. This is mainly because subsistence farming communities either lack appropriate technologies or available technologies for processing roots and tubers hence limiting crops such as cassava from reaching their full potential as sources of food, feed, starch derived products and oil.In Kitui district of Kenya’s Eastern Province, tonnes of mangoes go to waste every year as the locals lack appropriate technologies to increase their shelf life or add value to them in the form of making fruit juice.  

For farmers to earn a living, information on market prices is critical. In Machakos district, farmers are reaping the fruits of technological diffusion. From their Farmers Knowledge Centre, they are able to learn farming methods and crop protection techniques from the internet. In addition, through cell phones handed to farmer groups by Safaricom, they are able to inquire market prices hence knowing where to buy or sell their produce. In Uganda, this information gap is being bridged by Information Technology for African Rural Development (ICTARD). 

“There has definitely been an increase in access to agricultural information provided by Uganda National Farmers Federation (UNFFE), as well as telephone-based market services,” says Hellen Karamagi, Farmers Information Communication Management (FICOM) Programme Coordinator. 

Agriculture is the most important sector in terms of developing initiatives for increased efficiency and growth in the Zambian economy. While it accounts for 21.7% of the GDP, it engages approximately 85% of the work force. The vast majority of farmers rely on rainfall to water their crops. When this is not the case, they water their crops manually. The process is often very labor intensive as water is drawn from shallow wells using a rope and bucket. Irrigation is set up informally by individual farmers with very little capital. The process is often spontaneous and unsystematic due to lack of knowledge and access to available technologies.  

One viable option to increase productivity in a cheap but highly effective manner is the implementation of the treadle pump. This pump has already been implemented in several areas in Africa including Zambia itself to great effect. It is relatively inexpensive and offers large returns on the initial investment for farmers. It costs approximately 75 percent less than commercial pumps of comparable flow rate capacity. Using it, farmers in Senegal were able to reduce the cost per cubic meter of water for irrigation by 50 percent. The pump can be manufactured using local materials, in local metal shops. The technology has made it possible to reduce irrigation time from 12 to 4 person hours/day, while allowing farmers to increase their plot size by about 40 percent. 

Recognizing science and technology "is a golden opportunity for establishing a knowledge-based African society," says Hassan Abdel Aal Moawad, a professor of microbial biotechnology at Cairo's National Research Centre in Egypt Moawad, and former president of Alexandria's Mubarak City for Scientific Research and Technology Applications.



By Kennedy Omenda
Freelance journalist


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