Africa looking to strategic partnerships to boost food security

By Joshua Raymond Muhumuza

October 1, 2018

As world hunger rose for the third consecutive year, it’s become increasingly clear that Africa, which faces the biggest food security challenge in present time, will need more strategic partnerships to unlock its food security potential.

Nearly one in every nine people — the majority of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa — go to bed hungry every night, according to the latest report from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Available data points to climate variability as one of the major contributing factors to this worrying statistic. The intricate relationship between climate change and food security culminates into a major challenge that has rattled individuals, organizations and governments alike for decades.

So significant is this challenge that the UN lists ending hunger, achieving food and nutrition security and promoting sustainable agriculture by 2030 second among its 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

It is a daunting challenge made worse by an exploding global population set to hit 9.7 billion by 2050. Nonetheless, governments and other stakeholders worldwide are drawing inspiration from the fact that despite the increases of the past three years, hunger overall has been reduced by almost half in the past two decades. This has been made possible through deliberate efforts to increase agricultural production with minimal environmental impacts.

Expanding the agricultural sector to include contemporary science, technology and innovations (STIs) is pivotal to increasing production and food security and promoting economic growth in Africa. However, realizing this aspiration greatly depends on leveraging the capabilities of the diverse actors within the sector to build stronger partnerships and increased accountability for greater impact.

Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) paradigms around the world are rapidly evolving, with new technologies constantly emerging and making the agricultural sector more knowledge-intensive and innovation-driven. In addition, the role of the private sector in agricultural R&D is increasingly more prominent, with public-private partnerships (PPPs) being touted as an ideal model for accelerating technology transfer, commercialization, and delivery of research outputs to end-users for optimal effect. Ground-breaking partnerships between the public and private sectors are especially important for attracting investments and financing agricultural solutions in developing nations.

To drive this research agenda, scientists across the globe are increasingly coming together in collaborative partnerships to share resources toward ensuring that the world will be able to feed its growing population.

They include the Community Network for African Vector-Borne Plant Viruses (CONNECTED), which was launched in Africa in May under the auspices of the University of Bristol. It aims to build a sustainable network of multi-disciplinary international scientists to solve devastating crop diseases.

Elsewhere, the Cornell Alliance for Science, a global communications and training initiative, is working with partners worldwide to promote access to agricultural innovations, especially to smallholder farmers in developing countries.

For instance, through its flagship Global Leadership Fellow Program, the Alliance brings together forward-looking champions who are committed to its mission. In a 12-week training program, the Fellows are equipped with basic skills and practical tools required to address some of the biggest social and political hurdles hindering access to agricultural innovations. Such Fellows have gone on to become thought leaders and change agents in their home countries and globally.

The 2018 Global Leadership Fellows with Cornell CALS Dean Kathryn Boor.

This past August, global science leaders congregated in Durban, South Africa, for the inaugural Bio Africa convention. The conference provided opportunities to build capacity and drum up support for increased investment in and support for Africa’s growing biotech industry. The networks built there are intended to enrich the implementation of past and existing Africa-led initiatives for growth and sustainable development, especially in the bio-economy sector.

While food is a topic that easily sparks interest, concerns around some agricultural technologies bring unique dynamics to this area. A July 25 ruling by the European Court of Justice imposed exacting regulatory restrictions on the use of gene editing in crop improvement. This adds to existing regulatory stalemates — mostly in Europe and Africa —blocking the use of modern agricultural technologies to deliver important crops to the world’s most vulnerable people.

In Uganda, for instance, genetically modified blight-resistant potatoes and biofortified and bacterial wilt-resistant banana remain locked up in confined field trials due to the absence of an enabling regulatory environment to commercialize these crops. Other research is on-going, using genetic engineering to breed virus-resistant cassava, insect-resistant and drought-tolerant maize, and nitrogen use-efficient rice, among other key food security crops.

Global politics will largely determine whether agricultural STIs can contribute to ending hunger by 2030, per the United Nation’s SDGs. Cognizant of the constraints new breeding technologies are facing to deliver impact, initiatives like Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC) have been established to support the stewardship process to ensure that key agricultural technologies reach the people who need them most.

This is achieved by raising awareness of agricultural innovations, including biotechnology, to facilitate balanced, fact-based, and objective discourse in Uganda and beyond. Elsewhere, the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB) and International Service for Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), to mention but a few, are championing the same cause at regional and global levels.

As gentle calls to action, such initiatives complement the millions of voices highlighting the global food challenge and imploring all humanity to spring to action to ensure that everyone has a seat at the (dining) table.

Policy coherence and coordination among different actors to end hunger remains key to delivering much-needed solutions to global food and nutrition security. To end hunger, targeted steps must be taken to help people access the tools they need to create agricultural prosperity and progress. But we can’t just hope and pray, we have to take action — and Africa seems to be beginning to do just that.

Joshua Raymond Muhumuza is an outreach officer with the Uganda Biosciences Information Center. A version of this article originally appeared on the Cabot Institute blog.