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Neglect of agriculture has been a defining feature of Africa's economic policy over the last four decades. The future is more promising. Today Africa has become a major destination of agricultural foreign direct investment.
For example, Grow Africa, a consortium of foreign firms, has pledged to invest $3.5 billion in eight African countries. Grow Africa, seeded at the World Economic Forum, operates under the political guidance of the African Union with the technical support of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) agency.
Fostering sustainable agriculture in Africa will require significant investment in infrastructure, technical training (especially for women), creation of regional markets and the use of new technologies.
New challenges such as climate change and diversification of food sources demand the use of available technologies. New farm methods such as genetic modification, however, continue to generate considerable debate.
When GM crops were first commercially released in 1996, critics argued that they would only benefit industrialized countries. In 2012 emerging economies overtook industrialized countries as the main adopters of GM crops.
According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, from 1996 to 2011 transgenic crops added $98.2-billion to the value of global agricultural output, over 50 per cent of which accrued to emerging economies.
The use of transgenic crops has reduced the use of active pesticide ingredients by nearly 473 million kg. It also reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 23.1 billion kilograms, the equivalent of taking 10.2 million cars off the road.
Without transgenic crops, the world would have needed another 108.7 million hectares of land for the same level of output. The benefits to biological diversity from this technology have therefore been invaluable. On the economic front, nearly 15 million farmers and their families, estimated at 50 million people, have benefited from the adoption of transgenic crops.
But not all the regions of the world are reaping the full benefits of agricultural biotechnology. Of the 28 countries growing transgenic crops, only four (South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt, and Sudan) are in Africa.
Despite the initial slow pace of biotechnology adoption, the leapfrogging that occurred in mobile phones is on the verge of repeating itself in agricultural biotechnology. This is a result of the increasing capacity among African countries to absorb existing biotechnologies and use them to solve local problems.
Two examples underscore this point. In Nigeria scientists have developed a pest-resistant variety of the blackeyed pea, a subspecies of the cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), to control the insect Maruca vitrata. The pest destroys nearly $300-million worth of the crop annually. Pesticides worth $500-million are imported annually to control the pest. Africa grows 96 per cent of the 5.4 million tonnes consumed worldwide annually.
To solve the problem, scientists at the Institute for Agricultural Research at Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria have developed a transgenic blackeyed pea variety using insecticide genes from the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium.
Another example is the spread of Xanthomonas wilt, a bacterial disease that attacks bananas. It is estimated that the disease costs the Great Lakes Region about $500-million annually, predominantly in Uganda. Ugandan researchers are working on a transgenic banana using genes extracted from sweet pepper (Capsicum annuum) to control Xanthomonas. Ugandan scientists have also developed Golden Bananas with enhanced Vitamin A content.
Such new technologies are not silver bullets and need to be integrated into wider socio-economic systems. Their adoption, however, is currently hampered by restrictive regulations and inefficiencies in Africa's agricultural innovation systems. Much of the teaching in Africa is done in universities that do little research. At the same time, research in carried out in agricultural stations that do not do teaching. The two activities are hardly linked to farmers.
Improving the system will require bringing research, teaching and farm outreach under one roof. A way to achieve this is to create a new generation of agricultural research universities. Such universities need to be part of a wider system of innovation that includes improving interactions between academia, government, business and farmers.
There are two possible ways to help foster agricultural innovation. One is to add research functions to existing agricultural universities and strengthen their linkages to farming communities directly.
The second is to add academic programs to the research activities of the existing national agricultural research institutions (NARIs). Connecting NARIs to farmers in the private sector through extension services and commercialization projects would result in agricultural entrepreneurship.
Creating such institutions will also help maximize the support from new international partnerships seeking to scale up agricultural innovation.
Examples of such partnerships include collaborative efforts of the International Development Research Centre, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and McGill University to help promote the wider adoption of existing technologies.
Addressing the world's agricultural challenges requires us to rely more on evidence and foresight. As John F. Kennedy noted: "Too often we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought." We must think ahead.
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of Innovation for Economic Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. Follow him on Twitter at @calestous.