New AATF boss blames ignorance for slow uptake of ag biotech

By Nkechi Isaac

December 3, 2021

Dr. Canisius Kanangire, the newly appointed executive director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), was recently in Nigeria to recognize the nation for being a continental leader in the adoption and deployment of biotechnology. Kanangire, who holds a doctorate in aquatic sciences, brings more than 35 years of leadership experience, most recently serving as executive secretary of the African Ministers’ Council on Water (AMCOW).

In this exclusive interview with the Alliance for Science, he discusses how farming is changing in Africa, blames ignorance for the slow uptake of agricultural biotechnology, outlines his plans for advancing biotech on the continent and highlights the progress being made with the introduction of genetically modified (GM) cowpea, maize and other crops.

Where do you see Africa in the next 10 years, in terms of adopting new technologies?

I grew up in a farming family [in Rwanda] and they farmed with their hands, hoes and cutlass. The area they could cultivate was not so much, because it depended on the number of family members and how strong they could be during the farming season.

Also, they were not applying all the inputs required and the seeds were not as improved as they are today. The yields were quite erratic. The farmer was a prisoner of environmental variability. Today, we know that you can control many of those challenges.

Now, more than before, farmers are thinking beyond subsistence farming. They now know that farming can bring some money into their pockets, improve their house, the education of their children and the way they live at home. That was not so 30 years ago. That change in mindset, looking at agriculture as a business, is very important. We can ride on that to build capacity so that it becomes what it should be: an income-generating venture or activity.

The second thing is that I see more wealthy people and intellectuals investing in agriculture and that will be different from when it was only left to poor people who could only cultivate a piece of land to feed their families.

Third, which I can see even in my own country, is the coming of youth into agriculture. It has not been easy for them because of the stiff competition and the requirement of long experience to get a job. Those who can get some land are doing it. How does this make things different? They think of renting a tractor, understand the need to apply fertilizer, use pesticides, good seeds, control lack of water by going into irrigation farming, etc. In my country, young people take [nutrient-rich] water from the marshes to spray on their vegetables to improve yields. Also, they are venturing into commodities in demand in other countries which can yield more money for them — not just for the local markets.

With the involvement of the youth, these technologies will be in more demand by farmers of another generation, different from those who fear adopting biotechnology.

I think that if we have this readiness at the farmers’ level — which is growing and will grow more as we build their capacity — and we have the technologies that we are scouting and making available for them, policies will follow to create demand and an enabling environment. In two decades or less, we can make a difference and countries living on food aid will slowly get to self-sufficiency for key commodities.

The potential of using technology to improve agriculture in Africa has not been fully explored because governments seem to be slow in embracing change. What can AATF do to influence policy changes?

Influencing policy change and [supporting] sub-Saharan Africa in creating the enabling environment needed to embrace these technologies is one of our preoccupations. We are addressing it in civil formus. First off, we have an advocacy program that supports policymakers’ revival of dead policies and makes them open to adoption and use of technologies — not necessarily GMOs but all technologies. But we are advocating for GMOs because they propose the solution to issues that cannot be solved quickly via conventional methods.

We are taking too much time to solve a problem that is crucial for our population. The reason for this delay is the absence of scientific data and misinformation, either by ignorance or by other motivation. We are bringing the data, the knowledge and the approach we used to get that data to prove that the methodology we used to get that data is certified to be applied anywhere.

Another thing I can do is be more aggressive about strategic dialogue on policies on agricultural technology in Africa. We are bringing the technocrats from government institutions, private sector, universities, etc., together to discuss technology related to agriculture in Africa. The objective is to bring them to the same understanding of the need to adopt the new technologies. When they discuss with each other and talk about results, they can see how much they need to update their understanding and take decisions to make their countries better. That way, we can create a critical mass of people who understand the problem the same way and who can call for the transformation of agriculture on the African continent. That forum will be meeting at least twice-yearly.

The change we want will not be implemented if ministers do not take part in it. So, we have created a platform that will be bringing ministers together to discuss these processes. We call it the Ministerial Panel on Agricultural Technology. When I go around to discuss with ministers, I tell them to be ready to share with others, to work with them, so that we can move forward together in the same direction.

[AATF will also host] an exhibition where farmers will be invited to come to see what farmers in other parts of Africa are doing. There will be diffusion of ideas on the production of crops and animal husbandry, display statistics on the use of fertilizers, pesticides, improved seeds and how you can get to self-sufficiency in terms of meeting your family’s basic needs and keep enough money for more equipment, seeds and making the whole thing a true business. This third component will also be a capacity-building opportunity at the level of those who understand better when they see — the farmers. Also, we will probably emphasize the ‘seeing is believing’ principle by taking them to the field to see that, indeed, technology can make a change.

Seeing Nigeria’s success with GM cowpea, what is the plan to help farmers in other countries, like Ghana, Malawi, Burkina Faso, etc., with this technology?

That is quite tricky. They are a bit slower because some have not prepared the same institutional framework available in [Nigeria]. For Ghana, we are moving [forward]. In Burkina Faso and Malawi, a breakthrough is on its way. I have spoken to a minister in Malawi and I hope that there is that willingness to easily adopt cowpea and other transgenic products in that country.

In Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda and others, tests are ongoing.  I promised to visit all these countries in January-February [2022] to see where we still have roadblocks to the trajectory and, together, see how to remove them. In the end, if we have 10 or 15 [African] countries adopt the technologies, it is a win for us.

We have decided to create a platform to bring together ministers to discuss these issues and how they relate to the food security issues that we have. If this works, we will have the chance to get, for example, a minister in Nigeria to sit with another from another African country. This discourse will bring a new understanding. Sometimes, we have fears — unjustified fears — and you need someone who has conquered the communication, miscommunication, misinformation, etc., to come up with a certain decision to change the way people perceive some things and help them understand.

How will GM TELA maize help farmers?

Maize is one of the key crops farmed on African soil. It is very vulnerable to several challenges we have. When there is drought, you can lose it all. Recently, stem borers have reduced the yield and, in the last couple of years, the fall armyworm has devastated many fields. Having a drought-resistant variety of maize that can be insect-resistant will certainly give you more yield from your activities. The new maize variety is also faster at maturing.

This is very critical for many countries. South Africa has adopted it and is enjoying the technologies. The environment benefits as well because you spray less of the pesticides. We expect that this will be another breakthrough product that will change the income generated by farmers involved in the maize value chain and reduce the importation of maize flour. Maize, like soybean, is the foundation of animal feeds. More production of maize will change many sub-sectors in the agricultural sector.

AATF is developing another product, nitrogen- and water-efficient salinity- tolerant NEWEST rice. What’s the update on that?

NEWEST rice is close to wide commercialization. We are testing in many countries, including Nigeria. Currently, we are moving towards [getting more] approval and commercialization. We believe that we will get more support from different development partners to help us put it on the market shortly.

Editor’s  note: This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.