Journalism's Role in Educating Africa About What it Eats

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

This is the second in a two-part series of my visit to Africa Harvest in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former journalist, says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues—let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. “No one knows who Bill [Gates] is in Africa,” lamented Kamanga. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest and most influential funders of agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa. (See Filling a Need for African-Based Reporting on Agriculture).

"You can’t have a revolution in Africa if people aren’t briefed,” says Kamanga, referring to the call for a Green Revolution in Africa by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent.

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Building Knowledge About Biotechnology in Africa

This is the first of a two-part series to Africa Harvest, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

In our Nourishing the Planet project we’re looking at how farmers and researchers all over the world are combining high-tech and low-tech agricultural practices to help alleviate hunger and poverty. One place they’re trying to do this is at Africa Harvest/Biotech Foundation International. The organization’s mission is “to use science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well-being and sustainable rural development.”

And while the biotechnology component of their mission may be controversial to some, Africa Harvest is determined that Africa will not be left behind when it comes to the development—and use— of the technology by African researchers and farmers. As a result, the organization is focusing on breeding African crops for Africans. “If you want to make a difference on this continent,” says Daniel Kamanga, communications director for Africa Harvest, “you have to look at African crops.” These include staples such as banana, cassava, and sorghum, which are all important sources of nutrients for millions of Africans.

But these are also crops that are heavily impacted by diseases and pests. Bananas, for example, are susceptible to sigatoka virus, fusarium, weevils, nematodes, and others. To combat these problems, Florence Wambugu, the CEO of Africa Harvest and a scientist who formerly worked with Monsanto, helped develop Tissue Culture Banana (TC banana). Banana diseases are often spread through “unclean” planting material. But TC banana technology allows scientists to use biotechnology for the “rapid and large scale multiplication” of disease free bananas—a single shoot can produce 2,000 individual banana plantlets.

Africa Harvest is also working on biofortifying sorghum with Vitamin A, creating “golden sorghum.” 

“But of course, there remains the thorny issue of control—among the biggest stumbling blocks for sharing any technology across countries and regions. Biotechnology has so far been largely owned by the private sector.” So, in addition to researching crop production, Africa Harvest is also working to improve capacity building for scientists all over Africa. “If we’re going to have GMOs on the continent,” says Kamanga, “we want scientists who know how to do it.” Along with that, Africa Harvest is working to strengthen regulatory systems for biotechnology.

And how does Africa Harvest respond to criticism about the development and use of biotechnology in agriculture? According to Kamanga, it’s an “old debate” and one that takes place in 5-star hotels, not in farmers’ fields. The issue now, he says, is how we make the best use of this technology.

More of Your Responses Are In

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

For the past few months, we’ve been collecting information about agricultural innovations from all over the world (survey in English and French). We shared the initial responses in September and even more responses in November, but continue to receive interesting information and recommendations from farmers, NGOs, research groups, and policymakers in a multitude of countries. Below are a few tidbits we’d like to share.

The following projects, already featured on the Nourishing the Planet blog, have recently provided information for our survey, further describing their agricultural innovations and helping us as we seek to define innovations that best nourish people as well as the world in our upcoming report, State of the World 2011.

From our friends at the Developing Innovations in School Cultivation project in the Mukono District, Uganda: Describing the innovation as spreading a “passion for producing local foods to the next generation,” Edward Mukiibi helped flesh out the details of his project by filling out the survey after Danielle’s visit. You can read more here: Cultivating a Passion for Agriculture, Conversations with Farmers: Discussing the School Garden with a DISC Project Student, and How to Keep Kids “Down on the Farm.”

From Never Ending Food in Lilongwe, Malawi: The Nordins are educating others about permaculture and growing indigenous crops to increase income and improve food security. You can read about Danielle’s visit to their home and farm here: Malawi’s Real “Miracle” and Sweeping Change.

Please continue to share your agriculture innovations with us. We look forward to featuring your success stories on our blog and in Nourishing the Planet. Stay tuned for more updates from the survey—maybe next time it will be your innovation we highlight!

Innovation of the Week: Investing in Better Food Storage in Africa

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Cow peas are an important staple in Western Africa, providing protein to millions of people. Unlike maize, cow peas are indigenous to the region and have adapted to local growing conditions, making them an ideal source of food.

Making sure that the crops make it from the field to farmers’ bowls (or bols), however, is a real challenge in Niger and other countries (see Innovation of the Week: Reducing Food Waste). Cow peas only grow a few months a year and storing large amounts of the crop can be difficult because of pests. But that’s changing, thanks to a storage bag developed by Purdue University. The bags, called Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage, or PICS, are hermetically sealed, preventing oxygen and pests from contaminating the cowpeas. According to Purdue President Martin C. Jischke, “The method is simple, safe, inexpensive and very effective, which means that getting the right information to these people will reap tremendous benefits.”

With support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the PICS project hopes to reach 28,000 villages in not only Niger, but Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Chad, and Togo by 2011. And while many farmers are at first skeptical the large storage bags will protect cow peas throughout the year, seeing is believing— in each village bags are filled with cowpeas and then 4 to 6 months later PICS has an Open-the-Bag event, allowing the farmers to see that the cowpeas are undamaged and ready-to-eat. In addition to protecting the cowpea from pests, the PICS bags also save farmers money on expensive pesticides.

Stay tuned for more on PICS bags when we head to Western Africa in a few months.

In Botswana, Cultivating an Interest in Agriculture and Conservation

Cross posted from Nourishing the Planet.

Mokolodi Wildlife Reserve used to be known more for raising livestock than protecting wildlife. But after years of ranching degraded the land, the owner decided to devote the area to protecting elephants, giraffes, impala, kudu, crocodiles, hippos, ostrich, warthogs, and various other animals and birds. But the reserve hasn’t stopped raising food.

In addition to teaching students and the community about conserving and protecting wildlife and the environment, they’re also educating students about permaculture. By growing indigenous vegetables, recycling water for irrigation, and using organic fertilizers—including elephant dung—the Reserve’s Education Center is demonstrating how to grow nutritious food with very little water or chemical inputs. (See Malawi’s Real “Miracle” and Emphasizing Malawi’s Indigenous Vegetables as Crops.)

I met with Tuelo Lekgowe and his wife, Moho Sehtomo, who are managing the permaculture garden at Mokolodi. Tuelo explained that the organically grown spinach, tomatoes, onions, lettuce, green peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, coriander and other crops raised at the garden are used to feed the school groups who come regularly to learn about not only animals, but also sustainable agriculture. Tuelo and Moho use the garden as a classroom, teaching students about composting, intercropping, water harvesting, and organic agriculture practices. The garden also supplies food for the Education Center and Mokolodi’s restaurant, feeding the hundreds of students and tourists who visit the non-profit reserve each week.

The Mokolodi Reserve is another example of how agriculture and wildlife conservation can go hand-in hand.

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