Dr Canisius Kanangire is the Executive Director of AATF, an organisation that provides farmers in Africa with practical technology solutions to overcome farm productivity constraints. AATF and the Ministry of Agriculture recently launched the inaugural African Conference on Agricultural Technologies (ACAT), a platform that aims to advance African agricultural technology transfer to increase food productivity. Dr Kanangire spoke to Steve Otieno about how the new platform will transform the use of agricultural technologies on the continent.
ACAT will focus exclusively on what science, technology and innovation (STI) can do to drive the transformation of agricultural production and food systems on the continent. We already know that agricultural technologies can play a key role in transforming food systems, but for a long time, there have been few platforms dedicated exclusively to them. Agricultural science and technology stakeholders have much to celebrate about their contribution to agricultural transformation.
These same stakeholders also face unique challenges that act as barriers to access, delivery and uptake of innovative initiatives developed both locally and internationally. ACAT provides a much-needed platform to celebrate science, highlight these challenges, and share knowledge and experience on the most effective approaches to scaling up the best of science and technology innovation in agriculture in different countries and policy contexts. This year's ACAT is rightly themed 'Agricultural Resilience Through Innovation'.
Could you tell us some of the challenges to agricultural production that these technologies and innovations aim to address?
Without a doubt, the effect of climate variability on farmers' livelihoods is a key challenge. Climate change and the variability it brings means that farmers are faced with inadequate and unpredictable rainfall worsened by the growing resistance of pests and diseases to existing control measures. There are a number of very useful seed-based and non-seed-based technologies that help farmers navigate some of these challenges. In addition to climate-induced crop losses, we are faced with the reality that more than 30 per cent of farm produce in Sub-Saharan Africa is often lost to poor post-harvest handling and evidence suggests that it is much higher for some value chains. The enabling environment required to support the development and utilisation of innovative technologies is also a matter of concern. Without the right policies, laws, regulations, systems and institutions there will be limited implementation and scaling-up of technology adoption.
Being in the driver’s seat of this important platform pushing for access, development, dissemination, and commercialization of agricultural technologies, what worries you?
Allow me to highlight two.
Agricultural productivity in Africa is lower than in any other part of the world yet the majority of Africans depend on agriculture for livelihoods, the sector is critical to the economies of all African countries. The road to optimum agricultural productivity on the continent seems to be packed with obstacles ranging from declining fertile lands to the impact of climate change, environmental pollution, noxious weeds and pests and the larger support system including extension services, markets and so forth.
We also know that there are several great technologies that can at least reduce the pain of farmers and yet our pace of review and release does not match the urgency of the problem.
These are the conversations we aim to catalyze through ACAT. We will draw more players to drive attention towards policy matters, mobilize commitment and partnerships, and unlock resources for science, technology, and innovation for agriculture on the continent.
What are some of these technologies?
In recent years, we have seen technological advancement towards enhancing the productivity of key staple crops including maize, rice, cowpeas, cassava, potatoes and bananas. What has clearly emerged is that with technology use, there is a significant difference in crop performance and farmer gains. Through genetic modification, cowpea, a key staple and commercial crop for most of West Africa, was developed to resist infestation by a destructive insect pest, the pod borer Maruca Vitrata, that causes up to 80 per cent loss of the crop. The pod-borer-resistant cowpea was released to farmers in Nigeria in 2019 for cultivation and farmers report up to five times higher yield than the conventional varieties that are vulnerable to the pest. Another technology for Maize farmers helps to tackle the Striga weed.
Striga is a major problem for maize farmers in East Africa, causing crop losses of up to 50 to 80 per cent. Farmers, especially in the East Africa region, can use herbicide-coated seeds that kill the devastating Striga weed and assure a better harvest. These seed varieties, known as StrigAway maize seed, have been shown to protect farmers’ yields, with remarkable results in regions most affected by the weed.
Losses of maize to insects such as stem borers and fall armyworm could be a thing of the past soon in Kenya, Nigeria, Ethiopia and Mozambique as smallholder farmers join their counterparts in South Africa in planting insect-resistant Bt maize hybrids. Bt maize will help farmers safeguard yields and product quality.
In Kenya, stemborers reduce maize production by an average of 13 per cent or 400,000 tonnes of maize, equivalent to the normal yearly amount of maize imported by Kenya. This damage is valued at more than USD 90 million. The loss can increase to 100 per cent during drought years or when measures are not taken to manage the pest appropriately. If solutions are not put in place quickly, projections estimate that Fall Army Worm could destroy up to 20 million metric tons of maize in Africa each year. This is enough to feed 100 million people.
Digitalization is a key development that is fast proving itself a useful partner of smallholder farmers spurring the creation of viable agribusiness opportunities across the region. A recent example is the AATF's initiative called Agridrive App which supports cassava farmers in parts of Nigeria to access mechanisation services.
Critics have termed conferences as talk shops that sometimes do not yield the desired fruits. How different will ACAT be?
ACAT will showcase and demonstrate the contribution of STI to agriculture while seeking actionable solutions to challenges facing the agriculture sector on the continent to drive change and foster growth. The key word is actionable. There are enough examples of what is working and what is not working which will be balanced by experiences from other continents to allow for rich and informed discussions that will help guide decisions and actions. ACAT will be discussing therefore practical issues and options.
Key decision-makers will be present, including farmers and those who act on their behalf. The peer group dialogues will ensure they shine a light on what is critical to the specific sectors and these will feed into other discussions at the conference and in future agriculture-related engagements.
We aim for practical, doable solutions noting the urgency of the issues at hand. Let me welcome all to this inaugural ACAT so that we can shape the discussions that need to be taking place therein and help focus action on what will make a difference to the continent's agricultural endeavours.