Meet Dr Florence Wambugu, a plant pathologist reshaping food production

Africa Harvest Biotechnology Foundation International (Africa Harvest) CEO Florence Wambugu during the interview at her office in Nairobi on May 16, 2023.

Photo credit: Lucy Wanjiru I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Dr Florence Wambugu's zeal to contribute to a food-secure country started decades ago when she farmed alongside her mother in their rural home in Nyeri County.
  • Her impact on farming  households has since been felt far and wide across the African continent.

Dr Florence Wambugu’s face breaks into a delighted grin when I ask her how Kenya can feed itself without food imports.

Enabling farmers to transform from peasants to rich growers, who produce enough for their families and surplus to sell, has been her work for more than 30 years. And her passion to contribute to a food-secure country started decades ago when she farmed alongside her mother in their rural home in Nyeri County.

The sight of disease and pest-infested crops withering away shrunk her heart. “I’d wonder: ‘how will I stop this?’”
The curiosity ended up with her trying to find a solution. “I’d think of my own way of mixing things to make a pesticide,” she says.

Fast forward, the little girl has transitioned from a traditional crop protector to a revered professional in Africa’s agriculture sector. She is now a trained plant pathologist who founded Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International in 2002.

“The work of a plant pathologist is to ensure crops are protected from diseases and pests.”

Through her organisation, she has introduced improved seeds of high-value but neglected crops to farmers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. The varieties of green gram, millet, pigeon peas, sorghum, ground nuts, cassava, beans, sweet potatoes, and bananas with drought tolerant and low disease- and pest-prone features.

In birthing Africa Harvest, Dr Wambugu had seen many impactful findings by diverse research institutions go to waste because of lack of implementation. She wanted to bridge the gap to see farmers flourish.

She detests the temptation of “glorifying poverty among farmers using low-yielding varieties”. Her mission is to lift farmers from poverty to richness. “With the new varieties, we have seen the farmers increase their banana and cassava yields from five to 45 kilogrammes,” she elaborates with a sense of pride.

Modern farming

Her organisation goes beyond introducing new varieties to training the farmers in modern farming and linking them to profitable markets.

Japhet Kibaara, a small-scale turned large-scale sorghum farmer in Tharaka Nithi, is grateful to Africa Harvest for transforming his farming and enabling him to educate his children.

“When they came here in 2018, I had only one acre under sorghum. I didn’t know the proper way of using fertiliser or pesticide. But after they taught me conservation agriculture, how to maintain soil fertility and keep off pests and diseases, I improved my farming and my yields were encouraging,” he says.

“They also solved a market challenge and introduced us to a buyer. With a ready market and more knowledge of better farming, I expanded my sorghum farming to 10 acres.”

He is happy that through the proceeds, his eldest child has finished university, while three are in college and the lastborn is in Form Four. His wish though is that Africa Harvest maintain regular farm visits for more training in emerging farming technologies.

In the meantime, Dr Wambugu wants to do away with the myth that Kenya is only food-secure when there is plenty of maize. “This has to be challenged. We have to diversify. Uganda, for instance, produces plenty of bananas and sweet potatoes.”

But farmers would have been denied her power of change had it not been for her late mother who had placed a prophecy years ago on the same.

“I had been admitted to Kabare Girls’ High School and we had only one cow. And so the clan had to decide who, between my brothers and me, was to get the priority. And my mother stood by me,” says Dr Wambugu, the sixth born in a family of 10: four sisters and six brothers.

“She convinced everybody. She said something I will never forget, [that] ‘I see this girl getting an education and returning to make a change in the community. She will make a difference in our country,’ and so as I left the village, that conversation kept ringing in my head.

“That was a huge sacrifice. There is no way I’d disappear into America or Britain.”

In 1991, she obtained her doctorate in virology from the University of Bath, England, and worked at a US-based biotechnology company as a postdoctoral research associate in genetic engineering. She worked at the firm for seven years before resigning and returning to Kenya to start Africa Harvest.

Dr Rose Gidado, a Nigerian biotechnologist who has worked with Dr Wambugu for more than 20 years, says her impact on lives in thousands of farming households in East, West, and Southern Africa.

“She is hardworking and a go-getter. You cannot work with her if you’re not hardworking. And anything she puts her hand on is blessed,” Dr Gidado says.

Indeed, her work speaks for itself. She has multiple awards to her name, including the 2000 Global Development Network Award under the science and technology category, Yara Prize (2008), and Eve Woman of the Year (2004).

In 2015, Scientific American Worldview named her one of the world’s top 100 most influential people in biotechnology.
Back to my question on Kenya feeding itself without food imports, she explains: “It’s unsustainable to depend on imports. A country depending on imported food cannot grow.

“Let us first invest in high-yielding varieties and bring in investors to put money into irrigation systems and soil fertility, that is make fertiliser cheaper by producing it locally. Then educate farmers on how to store the surplus harvest to avoid losses.

“Then increase mechanisation in ploughing and processing the harvests. For instance, instead of farmers doing manual shelling of groundnuts, they use a machine.

“Companies import because they cannot get timely delivery of adequate and quality supply of required volumes. If we organise farmers into groups and train them in producing huge volumes of adequate produce, we will reduce imports like rice; 80 per cent of rice consumed in Kenya is imported.”