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Science, only option to improve food security in Africa, says Ugandan PM

Whether or not Africa will be able to maximise her potential in food production will depend to a large extent on the ability of countries to adopt science, technology and innovation. And if the continent can fully maximise her agricultural capacity, then she has to position herself to take advantage of new and emerging technologies.

Ruhakana Ruganda
Ugandan Prime Minster and Leader of Government Business, Dr. Ruhakana Ruganda, speaking during the conference

This was the consensus at the end of the three-day High-level Conference on Application of Science, Technology and Innovation in Harnessing African Agricultural Transformation, which held recently in Kampala, Uganda.

About 100 African agricultural experts and scientists, government delegations including policy makers, technocrats and Parliamentarians as well as representatives of civil society organisations, international organisations, the UN systems, academia as well as the media, attended the conference, held from Wednesday September 26 to Friday, September 29, 2017.

It was jointly organised by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation of Uganda and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) on the theme: “Integrating the path in Africa’s agricultural transformation”.

The conference was formerly closed by the Ugandan Prime Minster and Leader of Government Business, Dr. Ruhakana Rugunda, with a speech that highlighted the importance of science in turning the fortunes of Africa’s agriculture around from its abysmal performance, even though a little more than two thirds of the population is involved in agriculture.

“It is a shame,” he said, “that 60 to 70% of the people are involved in agriculture and yet we do not produce enough to feed Africa, and look for food from Europe and America where only 2% of the people are involved in agriculture, and are producing more than enough for them and export some to Africa.”

Currently, the continent imports over $35 billion food products, most of which can be produced locally.

Therefore, Dr. Ruganda urged African nations to embrace science as the only option to improve the continent’s food production, and commended participants for identifying the adoption of science and technology as the mechanism that will ensure sustainable production for small holder farmers.

He was happy with the acknowledgement by participants that scientific mechanisms could support small holder farmers build the needed resilience to climate change impacts, saying, “This is critical because small holder farmers form the continent’s main source of food, employment and even income.”

The Ugandan Prime Minister said the need for Africa to integrate modern biotechnology as one of the scientific processes for food security and economic growth was long overdue. He noted: “It’s now more than 20 years since GMOs were commercialised and records indicate that using this science and innovation in agriculture has had unblemished results of safe use and consumption.”

GMOs or genetically modified organisms are the products of the scientific process that rearranges genes or DNAs and add new ones to stimulate disease resistance, productivity and other desired qualities in crops and livestock.

Dr. Ruganda stressed that Africa could utilise this scientific process that transforms agriculture, “to feed our people, promote economic growth, fight against poverty and enhance sustainable use of our natural resources and the environment.”

He noted that Africa was lagging behind in using science and technology because of inadequacies in communicating the role of technology and innovation in agricultural transformation. “We have made many advances in research discoveries, but they end up in publications, sometimes in cupboards, sometimes in lecture rooms… we need to harness these valuable information that will empower our people, our farmers, our governments,” Dr. Ruganda added.

He urged policy makers and implementers to translate the innovation in scientific discussions into useful information that can help change the quality of lives of our people and promote production especially in food security.

Dr. Ruganda was also quick to acknowledge the progress that African governments have made so far in addressing related issues and announced that Uganda was about to pass her National Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill into law following final discussions to fine-tune it. The Bill is expected to be passed sometime this week and, once it becomes Law, it will provide a framework for Ugandan scientists to innovate and apply the relevant mechanisms to improve the country’s agricultural production.

Re-echoing similar sentiments about the Ugandan Biosafety and Biotechnology Bill, the Permanent Secretary of Uganda’s Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MoSTI), David Obong, touched on the importance of the deliberations and outcomes for his country, saying, “The conference was timely as it has coincided with the period of the passage of our Bill.”

He said that his Ministry has established a Directorate with separate Departments on Biosafety and Biotechnology as well as Bio-economy as part of the institutional arrangements for effective functioning.  Mr. Obong was also optimistic that “it is through science and technology that Africa can make use of her vast land resources and be able to feed her growing population.”

Earlier, the Deputy Executive Secretary of Uganda’s National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST), Dr. Belay Getachew, presented details of the conference communique. Among other things, it admitted the constraints in Africa’s agriculture as including poor yields, poor harvests, inadequate sustainable funding sources and the different stages in which countries are in adopting and applying science and technology.

The communique recognised the crucial role of the private sector, women and the youth in transforming Africa’s agriculture. It called for evidenced-based decisions for the sector and for urgent strategic communication in the delivery of science, technology and innovation information.

The communique further recommended that African nations should take measures to increase funding for research, invest in intellectual property in GMOs and address human resources capital. Additionally, the High Level Conference on Application of Science, Technology and Innovation in Harnessing African Agricultural Transformation, should be made an annual affair.

Clearly, the conference has succeeded in creating a dialogue platform that can facilitate effective utilisation of science, technology and innovation to transform Africa’s agriculture and enhance food security. This was the objective of the organisers of the conference, during which experts presented and discussed topics including: “The state of agriculture in Africa,” “Integrating modern biotechnology into Africa’s agriculture for food security,” The role of communication in demystifying adoption of science, technology and innovation for development,” and “Winning public and political support to advances in science, technology and innovation in the age of ‘Alternative Facts.’”

Others were “Inspiring a climate for change to enhance food security,” “Fostering evidence based biosafety regulations and policies for transformational change in Africa’s agriculture,” “Regional approaches to biotech adoption and trade in Africa,” and ‘Strengthening intellectual property in the global bio-economy.”

As part of the conference activities, the Open Forum on Agriculture Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB) celebrated its 10th anniversary and formally gave awards to winners under its first ever annual media awards contest on biotechnology for African journalists. The overall winner was Omolara Afolayan of TVC News, Nigeria.

By Ama Kudom-Agyemang

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