Kenya Among African Countries Shifting Focus to Biotechnology
Poor agricultural yields and rising food insecurity in sub – Saharan Africa has brought into sharp focus the role of modern agricultural technology in human development.
Heightening food insecurity in Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe and several other African countries of the region has stimulated political and public attention on genetic engineering in general and on the potential benefits and risks of genetically modified foods (GMs).
In the recent past, over 10 African countries were facing a major food crisis with more than 38 million threatened with hunger and starvation due to a number of interrelated factors like rapid decline in food production as a result of bad agricultural policies; sever drought, poor infrastructure, poor investments in agricultural research.
Overall agricultural production in Eastern, Western and Central Africa has been sluggish in growth. According to a recent estimates by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), agricultural production is estimated to fall more drastically in Eastern and Southern Africa since adverse weather like floods affects food production hence more than 600, 000 people in Malawi are prone to severe famine.
In Angola, emergency food aid is needed for over 1.3 million internally displaced people and the region has at least 25% of the World’s undernourished people. Millions of African pregnant mothers and children especially under the age of 6 years die every year as a result of hunger, majority suffer from malnutrition, including protein-energy malnutrition (PEM) and a lack of micronutrients.
PEM deficiency is manifested in stunting and causes poor cognitive development and low educational achievement. Sub Saharan Africa is now the largest recipient of food aid with approximately 1.3 million people in Eritrea, 5.2 in Ethiopia, 1.5 million in Kenya and 2.0 million in Sudan required food aid in the year 2004.
Food security assessments conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) is the year 2004 showed that that more than 70% of households in Malawi and Zambia had no cereal seeds while Zimbabwe more than 94% of farmers had no seeds. But food insecurity is not simply caused by failure of agriculture to produce enough food, but also by many structural inadequacies that make it difficult for households to have access to food.
Demand for and accessibility to food is influenced by a variety of factors including income levels, population growth and movements, infrastructure, lifestyles and preferences and human resources development.
Increasing environmental degradation in Sub-Saharan Africa is the order of the day food, insecurity has also deepened poverty, increasing cases of tuberculosis, malaria and HIV/Aids epidemics, while other parts of the World are experiencing growing levels of food security, high rates of economic growth, better standards of living, low mortality rate which is attributable to scientific and technological advances.
Advances in modern technology have made it possible to produce new, improved, safer and less expensive drugs, food additives, industrial enzymes, oil eating and other pollution degrading microbes are a few of the goods that can be developed using this technology.
To meet increasing demand for food and enlarge the basis for its security in Sub- Saharan Africa, productivity increases is therefore vital. “Biotechnology could contribute significantly to the achievement of the objectives of the convention on Biological Diversity and the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals.
However, it must be developed judiciously, and used with adequate and transparent safety measures,” said former United Nation Secretary- General Kofi Annan.
According to an expert from Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Dr. Simon Gichuki, modern agricultural biotechnology has opened a wide range of possibilities of identifying, isolating, selecting and transferring genes from one organism into another to improve on quality, yielding and resistant to pest and diseases.
“Tissue Culture (TC) has done marvelous in terms of food security; an estimated 300,000 Kenyan rural families rely on banana to provide them with a regular cash income. The importance of banana in tackling the problems of poverty, food security and malnutrition in Kenya is therefore clear with this technology,” said Africa Harvest Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Florence Wambugu. In her speech during a recently concluded all Africa Congress on Biotechnology here in Nairobi, the CEO highlighted the plight of the vast majority of people whose lives hung in the balance if TC is not adopted in all the developing countries to save their dwindling economy.
She however elaborated on what her ten year of much dedication on TC in Kenya has done to the farmers adding that it has helped them recover from the setback in banana yields that occurred during the mid- 1990s. The area under banana, which had declined to around 46,000 ha at the end of 1996, had risen drastically and was estimated to be around 82,000 ha by the end of 2006.
This increase in banana orchards is equivalent to an additional net income of Ksh.5508 accruing to the banana growers (Acharya and Alton Mackey, 2007).
Acharya and Alton Mackey (2007) have estimated the direct economic impact of TC bananas, taking the area under TC bananas as 4288 (5.22% of the total banana area) and the difference in net income between TC and non- TC banana is Ksh224, 526 per ha noting that the additional income that accrued to TC bananas growers is around Ksh.963 million being an indirect impact of Ksh. 5508 million results in a total economic impact of Ksh. 6471 million.
At family level, a TC banana plantation is an important asset, since it provides food security and put to an end ‘begging culture’ when there is a drought to the area. Malnutrition has decreased to those who have adopted TC and the families’ diets have become more diverse since the income from selling bananas can be used to buy other types of food.
Groups benefits arising from the TC banana project are many including social cohesion and the group can present a collective voice for the community improvement, access to additional development activities is much easier, the groups can access credit, and use the money to buy plantlets or other inputs, vast knowledge, has enhanced their status in the society, have developed new business and entrepreneurial attitudes.
The Africa Harvest CEO further said that the technical impact of TC banana is that there is availability of large quantities of clean and superior planting materials which has enabled them to participate in reclaiming their old banana orchards and reduce losses due to pests and diseases.
She however attributes this success to the enormous support they got from the Ministry of Agriculture, KARI, JKUAT TechnoServe, ISAAA, BTA, GTL and ATL.Moreover TC banana has a positive impact to gender balancing since in earlier time, banana was considered as a ‘woman’ crop since 89% of banana orchard was taken care of by women but currently due to a huge income that has accompanied TC banana, 30% of the new groups are women while 70% is men.
According to the chairman of Africa Harvest Dr. Kanayo Nwaze, Africa Biotified Sorghum (ABS) is one of the 43 projects that seek to tackle one of the 14 major scientific challenges which if solved, could lead to important advances in preventing, treating, and curing diseases like HIV/Aids, malaria and many more disease that are affecting the developing countries.
The initiative is supported by a US$450 million commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) as well as two funding committees: US$27.1 million from the Wellcome Trust and US$4.5 million from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
Dr. Kanayo further puts that he is optimistic that the ABS project will contribute to the overall goal of creating ‘deliverable technologies’ and health tools that are effective, inexpensive to produce, easy to distribute and simple to use in developing countries.
Apart from the infrastructure and scientific capacity, the ABS project through thr Public Acceptance and Communication (PAC) program, has contributed to a better understanding of biotechnology issues in Africa. The project is assisting in strengthening the existing consensus on controversial ethical, environmental, legal and political issues pertaining to genetically modified (GM) crops.
It provides a tangible opportunity to put into action commitments made to biotechnology through pan-African forums for such as the African Union and the New partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), which aims at helping countries engage in dialogue and strengthen national and regional biotechnology strategies.
Dr Stella Makokha, KARI says development of stem borer resistant maize using Bt maize, development of GM herbicide resistance in maize to combat the Striga weed, field trials on sweet potatoes resistant to viruses development of maize streak viruses-resistant maize varieties which they have done in conjunction with ISAAA and ICIPE has been a success since many farmers have tried it and are jubilant with the results got. Networks within institutions that deal with biotechnology: ABSF, ABNETA, KARI, ILRI, ISAAA and CIP.
She however emphasize that low government funding has been a major setback hence called for at least 1% of GDP since other countries like Asian Tigers and EU countries which are doing very well allocate 4% of their GDP to biotechnologies.
Limited facilities for research and communication, low experience in commercialization of technologies, little knowledge to the end users about technologies being developed, less emphasis on animal on biotechnology research, conflicting policies- importation of old clothes can stifle the cotton industry once cotton production increases; are also some of the challenges that are affecting biotechnologies.
Other crops that the scientists have improved on are; maize, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rubber, rice, cassava, coffee, mushroom, grain and legumes, cow pea, tobacco.
The global scientists vowed not to rest irrespective of a chain of challenges the face and are currently currying out research on industrial crops especially bio-fuel production, untapped desirable drought and disease resistance genes, TC of high value crops like vanilla, livestock disease control measures, improvement of livestock breeds for environmental stress and improve the nutritive value of foods.
Kenya’s assistant Minister for Higher Education Science and Technology, Kilemi Mwiria, told Africa Science News Service that the parliament is in its last stages of passing biotechnology bills to guard these scientific innovations and adopt them adding that the government is also committed to make sure that her citizens don’t sleep while hungry and that it will support scientists in fighting poverty, diseases and malnutrition.
He urged the developing countries to burry begging culture and embrace these biotechnological findings that if applied can make them self sufficient.
Dr. Kilemi further said that developing countries should come out of paranoid state and embrace biotech since majority of people in these countries don’t seek traditional medicine men but instead seek medical attention from these scientists (doctors) hence warned that this is the safe technology that is used in crops and animals to increase their yielding abilities.
The legislator called for the members of the parliament to stop giving hand outs to their constituents but instead empower them with the knowledge of biotechnologies which can improve on their living standards
He advised scientists to make their scientific, technology finding reports and write books in a simpler way so that everybody can understand their benefits without problems.