African governments urged to reduce dependence on foreign funding for biotech

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

August 31, 2018

African governments and industry are being urged to increase their own investments in biotechnology as a sure way to reduce the continent’s $50 billion annual food import bill and build public acceptance of the plant breeding tool.

Stakeholders in Africa’s agricultural sector are concerned that too much of the continent’s funding for science and technology research in general, and agricultural biotechnology in particular, is provided by foreign donors. African nations should be spending their own funds on tools that have a demonstrated capacity to eradicate food insecurity, they argue.

“Africa cannot run away from making investments in technologies, particularly technologies that solve the basic needs… and the problem of hunger,” Onyekachi Francis Nwanko, program officer at the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), told Alliance for Science in an interview.

But international entities say their support for biotechnology and Africa’s agricultural sector is also intended to help build a more resilient food system on the continent. “The US involvement in food related issues focuses on the long term on developing Africa’s agric infrastructure and agric sector,” Peter Haas, deputy assistant secretary for trade policy and negotiations at the US State Department, explained. “We are spending about a billion dollars a year to try and bring resilience into the system and to improve the agricultural environment.”

Some 13 African countries, including Nigeria, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, are currently working on biotech crops, taking steps that range from passing enabling legislation and establishing biosafety institutions to conducting field trial research. Many of these initiatives are funded by donor agencies, foreign foundations and foreign governments — circumstances that Nwanko says must change.

“Despite the success of biotechnology, unfortunately most of the biotechnology development ongoing around Africa is not being driven by Africans themselves, in terms of the funding,” he noted. “Despite all the [supportive] declarations, most of the governments seem to be paying lip service to it and they are not really investing in these kinds of technology. And no society will develop without investing in technology.”

Nwanko said indigenous private firms in Africa also have a crucial role to play in helping promote the technology. “When I say increased investment, it doesn’t have to be from the public sector alone. The private sector in Africa will also have to get involved in biotechnology,” he explained.

In Ghana, for example, efforts to commercialize genetically modified (Bt) cotton resistant to the bollworm, which can damage up to 80 percent of a farmer’s crop, stalled in 2016 after international financiers withdrew funding. Scientists at the Savannah Agric Research Institute (SARI) have repeatedly called on government to intervene with fresh funding to help revive the ailing cotton industry, but that has not happened. When recently asked about the project, Deputy Minister for Agriculture George Oduro said, “GMO is a government policy. We were trying to introduce it into Ghana in 2012 or 2013. But as I speak to you now, it’s not a policy,” he said.

Farmers in Ghana are equally worried about the stalled progress on Bt cotton. “If you want to fold your arms and expect that the scientists will do everything free for us, that means you will not make any headway,” Adams Nasiru Mohammed, chairman of the Northern Farmers Association of Ghana, told the Alliance for Science in a recent interview. “Because they will not have the needed resources to work. And that is why we are even suffering, because government is paying very little attention to the research institutions.”

Nwanko is confident local investment in the biotechnology will help reduce the continent’s annual food import bill, which is currently inching towards $50 billion, while also making the technology more acceptable on the continent. “There are a lot of reasons why Africans are not investing in biotech,” he noted. “But if African stakeholders decided to drive this and begin to invest in this sector and domesticate it and make it an Africa thing, then in the near future we will stop importing. This is the right time for us to increase investment in research and development and biotech for us to thrive.”

He added: “African investment is key and it is an area we need to focus on… If the governments make these investments, it will make it easy (to promote biotechnology). Because the farmers and scientists will not have to spend unnecessary energy to promote it. In fact, it should be the government promoting biotechnology. That’s how it’s supposed to be, not the other way around.”

In an interview with Alliance for Science, Haas emphasized that although the US provides funding for biotech in Africa “we don’t seek to impugn upon the sovereignty of any African country. It’s up to the countries to decide on what they want to do, and part of that is making sure that you have good biosafety [regulations] in place.”

Haas said America is supporting African farmers to help them access the kind of agricultural technology they have indicated they need and want on their farms.

“The other thing we want to point out is that it’s not just Americans who want this technology in Africa. It’s African farmers who want it,” Haas said. “We have seen this in South Africa and also in Kenya, where they are doing trials on [GM] maize… where the farmers desperately want to use it because they want something that will increase their yield while using fewer resources. So I don’t think it’s fair [to claim] that this is something that the US wants to impose on Africa.”