Why investing in scientific research in Africa is essential – Robin Buruchara

10 July, 2013 by (comments)

With Africa Agriculture Science Week in Ghana fast approaching, here’s an opinion piece to set the scene, from CIAT’s Africa Coordinator, Robin Buruchara. Robin has been well-placed to witness the impact of investments in agricultural research in Africa over the years, and shares his views on why it should continue. This article was first published in This is Africa, produced by the UK’s Financial Times. Over to Robin:

Robin Buruchara, CIAT

Putting the science into African agriculture

“One of the most exciting things I’ve seen is how investing in agricultural science in Africa can have huge economic ripple effects.

Smallholder agriculture is the engine of the African economy: it puts food in people’s stomachs and money in their pockets. But while you hear a lot about the importance of agricultural inputs like seed, fertiliser, and equipment, scientific research often falls under the radar. This work – taking place behind the scenes, in laboratories and experimental plots across the continent – ensures the use of other inputs is efficient, judicious and effective. It is the fuel for the engine of growth.

I’ve spent the majority of my career in bean research. Beans are a vital source of protein and essential nutrients such as iron and zinc, and in sub-Saharan Africa they’re an increasingly important source of income. They are grown by millions of smallholder farmers on the continent – but often the crops under-perform.

Investing in science to develop “improved” beans in Africa has involved breeding them to make them more resilient to drought, or disease, or simply ensuring they produce higher yields, to help them fulfill their potential.

That’s not just a hunch. In Ethiopia, improved white beans are the building blocks of an emerging industry that’s currently worth USD$50m a year; they’re considered “white gold” by those producing and processing them. The beans are now listed on the country’s commodity exchange, and are exported to lucrative markets in Europe. The foundation is smallholder farmers growing beans that have been improved through scientific research.

But strong science requires strong scientists – in Africa, for Africa, and from Africa. Over the last twenty years or so, an international network of bean experts called the Pan-Africa Bean Research Alliance, or PABRA, has trained and mentored hundreds of African scientists – men and women – to develop superior beans. With the support of donors like the Canadian International Development Agency, Swiss Development Corporation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, many have received doctorates and are now supervising other researchers to do the same. All share the same passion for boosting bean productivity and improving the market opportunities for a staple crop that many of them have eaten every day since they were children.

These scientists, working in the universities and national research organisations of 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, together with the bean research program of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, have produced beans specifically adapted to different environments in the region. One of those was the Oromia region in Ethiopia, where the white bean is now doing so well.

We’re seeing similar successes in other countries. In Zambia and Uganda for example, emerging bean-processing industries similar to that in Ethiopia are growing daily. In Rwanda, improved climbing beans – developed by scientists at the Rwanda Agriculture Board to suit the country’s hilly terrain – have proven so successful that bean has been transformed from a subsistence crop to a cash crop, and the country has become a net bean exporter.

Around 8 million smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are now growing beans improved by scientists in the PABRA network. Each time we visit their farms, one has a new roof, or a new mobile phone, or has earned enough money to send their children to school. Maybe – if we’re lucky – some of them might become bean scientists too.

So when people talk about Africa ‘rising’, I don’t need to be convinced: I’ve seen it with my own eyes in the bean fields and bean markets across the continent. But we are reaping the rewards today for work we started nearly two decades ago – work that began with a strong commitment to science.

If Africa is to keep on rising, if we are to reward the hard work of farmers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and make sure there is always plenty fuel in the engine of the African economy, we have to continue investing in scientific research. If we do, then I believe the sky’s the limit.”

Dr Robin Buruchara
Regional Research Coordinator – Africa
International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)
Nairobi, Kenya.

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CIAT will be at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week in Accra, Ghana, next week. For the latest on the event, follow the AASW Blog and Twitter feed #AASW6.

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