The “Help Feed Africa” mantra that, with good intentions, once dominated aid and development to the continent, shifted decades ago to “Help Africa Feed Africa.”
Droughts, disease, famine and unrest had wreaked havoc on many African countries. And while emergency aid was vital, going forward, Africa needed to somehow be sustainable and try new approaches to feed itself.
A multi-faceted effort was needed, and that included technology. Researchers believed drought- and pest-tolerant crops, typically developed for large farms in wealthier nations, could likewise be adapted for small farmers.
But could costs be kept in check? How benevolent would crop technology development companies be in helping farmers adopt western-based science? Would they educate African farmers about properly applying crop protection to prevent the kind of overuse that has led to herbicide-resistant crops in North America?
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These are mostly still unanswered questions. Some companies did rally around efforts such as vitamin A-rich golden rice, but public education was a problem. Anti-technology advocates succeeded once again in convincing the public – Africans, this time – that science would harm them.
But it didn’t. In time, Africa started warming up to new technology. Some countries approved biotech crops on a trial basis, looking towards the possibility of better food security, particularly as climate change started taking hold.
Population growth estimates for Africa started changing too. Unfortunately, though, the news is worrisome.
As Dr. Joe Cornelius, CEO of Bill and Melinda Gates Agricultural Innovations says, Africa is now at an inflection point. He told the publication Agri-Pulse that by the turn of this century – which seems like a long time from now, at least according to the calendar – it’s estimated Africans will account for around 40 per cent of the global population.
That’s up from less than 20 per cent today and just 10 per cent half a century ago.
And as the world population balance goes, that’s a quick shift. Cornelius says once again, an enormous effort will be needed to feed Africa.
African farmers, who typically have only a few acres, will need to bolster production. And now, the spotlight is being recast. Crop innovations are once again a huge focus.
Bill Gates has often said he favours technology to help solve agricultural problems. You might expect him to say that, given his background. And so it’s not unexpected that we’d hear the same from CEO Cornelius.
He says new technology can help Africa “leapfrog” towards more efficient and sustainable production.
“Just as the sophistication of today’s mobile phones are a result of multiple technologies converging to overtake the use of landlines, so too are advanced agricultural innovations reaching a level of maturity with potentially profound implications for the continent’s food security,” he told Agri-Pulse.
It’s not all pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Cornelius pointed to Nigeria’s adoption of pod borer-resistant cowpea, which uses biotechnology to help the crop naturally fend off one of its most pervasive pests. He says other crop innovations are in the works to improve plants’ natural biological processes through genetic improvement.
Risk is always present and always a criticism of technology. Society though accepts more risk when it’s in crisis. For Africa, it looks like that scenario could indeed unfold.