By Antony Osango Simbowo
The contribution of scientific discoveries to human socio-economic growth and development over the last few centuries is enormous. It is because of scientific findings that human beings can, for example, now live in well-built structures and eat well-processed foods, a great advancement from the days when they used to live in caves and eat wild fruit.
In Africa and the Third World, many areas of science such as Nuclear Science, Space Science and Genetic Engineering, and the scientists in those fields, are still crassly fast asleep. Lack of research infrastructure is greatly impeding the progress of science, and thus development, in the developing world. Agriculture, being the cornerstone of many developing countries, deserves more attention in the Third World scientific policy environment.
While growth prospects in the developing world’s agricultural sector have been mainly primed on development policy interventions where the supply system is the main consideration, more effort is needed for this crucial sector to be placed under compensatory policy interventions where grants and subsidies will be offered to farmers to increase their production.
It is quite appalling to note that in the U.S.A. for example, where only a paltry 4% of the population work in the agricultural sector, there is more than enough food production to feed the entire nation while in the Third World, and especially Africa, about 80% work in the agricultural sector yet there are prevalent food shortages and hunger.
Similarly, it is worth noting that the Asian Tiger economies, such as Taiwan and Singapore, have little natural resource endowment and yet are global technological and development powerhouses; contrast this with Africa and much of the Third World, where there exists massive natural resource endowments but the people are plagued with crushing poverty, frequent famine and hunger and unprecedented high-unemployment levels. Scientific research and the implementation of research findings comes to the fore here.
The neglect of traditional African crops and the subsequent adoption of exotic foods has greatly weakened the fight against food insecurity in the developing world. This is due to the fact that most of these adopted temperate crops are used to a cold environment with the resulting congruent seasonal variations and thus not well adapted to the tropical climate. This has made them highly susceptible and prone to the effects of the harsh environmental conditions in the tropics.
On the other hand, traditional African and Third World crops are often much more tolerant to these harsh conditions, in which they have survived for years. Research done by luminary scholars such as Kenya’s Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, an a pioneer olericulturist, and Dr. Peter Maundu, in conjunction with other scientists at the Kenya Forestry Research Institute (KEFRI), the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), World Agroforestry Centre, the Vegetable Research Centre-Tanzania, and the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) among others, has found that many of the traditional African crops (ATCs) have superior genetic qualities as well as higher nutritional value as compared to the favoured exotic crops like cabbages and maize. These research findings are currently being used to promote the cultivation and consumption of traditional African crops in Africa and the Third World. This in totality is a pointer to the role of scientific research in Africa and the Third World’s development agenda.
Similarly, some Third World crops, such as cassava, and some ATCs have been found to contain high levels of anti-nutrients such as cyanide-based compounds and nitrates. Scientific research methodologies like genetic engineering can be used to manipulate the DNA of these crops such that the genes promoting the production of the harmful compounds are deleted or blocked from their systems. This will go a long way in improving food security, especially in arid parts of the developing world, where perennial failure of exotic crops due to the harsh tropical environmental conditions – which can be survived by indigenous African and Third World crops – cause famine and hunger.
The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) protocols requiring member countries to put into place frameworks for the conservation of their ecological biodiversities is commendable. In Kenya, a collaborative project called ‘Seeds for Life,’ begun in the year 2000 and extending up to 2010 by KALRO (former KARI), KEFRI, the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), has been instrumental in the preservation of the local plant seed biodiversity.
Currently, the project has conserved slightly over ten thousand different plant seeds ex-situ (away from the natural habitat). The project is under the tutelage of, among others, my mentoring professors, Dr. William Omondi, a Principal Scientist at KEFRI, and Dr. Joseph Ahenda, the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) Regional Manager for Western Kenya. Dr. Ahenda is also the Kenyan Representative, and the only African Representative out of two others, on the Executive Board of the Europe on based International Seed Trade Association (ISTA), the seed trade regulatory body for Africa, Asia and Europe.
As indicated before, the major problem faced by Third World scientists has been the lack of adequate funding from their governments and the corporate sector. This, coupled with the issues of bio-piracy and the adulteration of their research interests by the mostly foreign funding organizations, has inadvertently made much of the developing world’s scientific research generally irrelevant to their development aspirations.
Many Third World researchers have often yearned to do research on local and indigenous crops, but this has been a problem as their funding partners’ interests have been mainly focused on studying and promoting the temperate plants, which originate from and are grown in the funding countries.
The vital issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), in as far as scientific inventions and innovations and indigenous knowledge are concerned, has also barely been broached. This has created problems for Third World researchers and innovators who, having been unable to patent their research findings, can barely make a good living through their normally meagre earnings.
Many have therefore preferred to emigrate to the developed world where they get better remuneration and well-equipped research infrastructure. Those who have decided to stay on, like the Kenyan geneticist Dr. Onim (of the ‘Maseno Double Cobber’ maize variety fame), have had to contend with the low returns from their findings. Other eminent African scholars, such as Professor Patrick Ayiecho, seeing ‘no money’ in the developing world’s scientific fields, have decided to try out their hands in the murk of politics.
This has thus left the developing world’s scientific hopes cannibalized at the altar of monetary gains. A salient example is the research done at the Kenya Sugar Research Foundation to create favourable conditions for the production of sugar cane seeds. Many of the scientists involved regrettably retired from the project without any productive research findings.
The Asian Tiger economies, including such countries as Taiwan, China, South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, put investment on scientific research and technological adoption at the core of their development agenda. These came famously to be known as the ‘Five Year Plans.’ Their insightful strategy paid off as many of them are today heavy exporters not only of food products but also of electronic technology, even managing to compete at a favourable Balance of Payment level with the highly developed countries (HDCs). The rest of the developing world, and more so Africa, can use their example as an economic blueprint for spurring growth.
Science, being an advantage to socio-economic growth and development, should be given a high priority by Africa and the Third World. Only then will they be able to keep pace with economic trends the world over. Otherwise, with the current intellectual brain-drain and lack of good policies on scientific research, Intellectual Property Rights and scientific adoption and implementations, they will continue to wallow in the plague of abject poverty and rot in the quagmire of scientific and technological ineptitude and the resulting low standards of living, which has yoked their citizens to poverty and poor health for several decades.
About the Author:
Antony F. O. Osango Simbowo is presently applying to transfer his MSc. Botany (Genetics option) and MSc. Horticulture (Pomology) admissions credentials in Maseno University School of Agriculture and Food Security to Purdue University Ph.D Horticulture program premised on the advise of my mentor Professor George Ouma Oindo (Mississippi State University Ph.D Horticulture (Pomology) graduate) and presently of the University of Nairobi in Kenya and Professor Julius Omondi Nyabundi (University of California, Davis Ph.D graduate of horticulture) and the current Vice Chancellor at Maseno University worldwide (view www.maseno.ac.ke).