The politics of food technology innovation for Africa

Biotech policy expert Calestous Juma believes educating Africa’s leaders about the role of technology in agriculture is key to helping the continent reap the benefits of innovation.

How ingenuity will feed the world.
Calestous Juma

As a boy growing up on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kenya, Harvard international development professor Calestous Juma noticed a thing or two about innovations designed to bring more food into his community. He noticed, for instance, that the fishermen were always tinkering with new ways to trap fish while his father, a carpenter, would build the traps. He also noticed that his grandmother, a peanut grower, and other farmers who grew traditional crops such as sweet potatoes struggled with ways to increase production beyond simply planting the best quality seeds and tubers.

… the application of science and technology to agriculture requires extensive coordination across many actors and sectors. It is essentially a political process, and political leadership is essential.”
— Calestous Juma

That childhood curiosity helped lead Juma down a path to prominence as an international authority on applying science and technology to sustainable development, including work with the United Nations (UN) and the African Union. Now he is looking ahead to intensifying food production sustainably. “The rising concern over the impact of climate change on agriculture will significantly shape the way Africa approaches agriculture,” Juma says. “It is no longer possible to rely on folk knowledge as the key guide for farming.”

Lessons for Africa’s leadership

As part of his work, Juma advises high-level leaders, especially African presidents, on the role of technology in agriculture. “I am guided by the view that the application of science and technology to agriculture requires extensive coordination across many actors and sectors,” he says. “It is essentially a political process, and political leadership is essential. For this reason, I have been working closely with the African Union and have chaired a number of high-level panels to guide presidents on biotechnology in particular and science and technology in general.”

The African Union heads of state and government, in fact, recently adopted a new 10-year vision of science, technology and innovation—including eradication of hunger and ensuring food and nutrition security as one of the six designated pillars—based on the report of a panel that Juma co-chaired at the request of the African Union.

Although most African nations have eyed biotechnology warily, Juma believes that educating countries about genetically modified crops is important as more evidence becomes available about the technology’s safety and potential benefits. A recent report from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), for example, suggests that “there is growing public opposition to GM crops in Africa that is best described as a fear of the unknown.”

“Policy-making is a learning process, and so I take an educational approach to the issue,” says Juma. “I also think local stakeholders are key in acceptance of new technologies. It is for this reason that our 2008 report to African presidents, ‘Freedom to Innovate,’ focused on getting African scientists engaged in biotechnology research. The task is more complex, and ultimately products speak louder than words.”

Juma adds that he believes “much of the diplomatic mischief against biotechnology in Africa was spread through the UN. Africa has many restrictive laws on biotechnology which will need to be revised or repealed,” he says.

From conservation to agriculture

Juma likes to say he entered agriculture by accident. But that’s not exactly true. He has always been drawn to the intersection of innovation and development. After joining the Environment Liaison Centre International in Nairobi as a young researcher in 1979, Juma developed an interest in genetic resource conservation and studied long-term sustainability for plants of all kinds, including food crops.

“I felt that we needed to access the genetic material of crops to make them better, and if we didn’t start collecting the material from traditional African plants, it would be lost worldwide,” he says. “That drove me to working in conservation for agriculture reasons.”

Juma went on to earn his doctorate in science and technology policy from the University of Sussex in England in 1987. He worked on all aspects of agricultural innovation and soon began investigating the then-new field of biotechnology, because he saw it as a generic or platform technology that could be applied across a wide range of fields, including industry, environmental management and agriculture.

Expanding technology usage

But according to Juma, biotechnology alone won’t bridge the food gap in Africa. Because agriculture accounts for some 35 percent of gross domestic product in Africa, improvements in infrastructure are crucial to the continent’s development, he says. “It is not possible to create functioning markets without the ability to move goods, services and ideas,” says Juma, who chronicles his ideas on infrastructure and innovation in his book, “The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa” (Oxford University Press, 2011).

“Africa will be able to feed itself in a generation provided it can invest in infrastructure, higher [level] technical training and promote regional trade,” he says. “By learning to trade regionally, Africa will also increase its chances to play a bigger role in international food trade.” Energy, transportation, irrigation and telecommunication improvements are all essential, he says.

Juma also says he’s hopeful that the creation of university-level farm schools, similar to the land-grant, agriculture- and science-focused universities developed in the United States in the 1800s, will improve the knowledge base of African farmers—especially women—through higher education. Women are responsible for 70 percent of food production in Africa, according to Juma, yet have little capacity to improve their access to resources. A pioneering example of rural education for female farmers is African Rural University, the first African university dedicated to training women, established in 2011 in the Kibaale district of western Uganda.

Emerging technologies can also play a role in fostering Africa’s agricultural transformation, Juma contends. “I am interested, for example, in the application of geographical information and unmanned vehicles in African agriculture,” he says. “Another area that interests me is the use of advances in genomics in plant breeding … a continuation of my work in agricultural biotechnology.”

But ultimately, says Juma, he prefers a role in which he can help explain to Africa’s leaders the importance of science and technology, rather than advocating for one kind of innovation over another. Policy-making, he says, is a learning process.

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist and writer based in Maryland. She reports on food, the environment and sustainable business for publications such as Slate, Scientific American, Nature, Yale e360, and The Guardian. She is a fellow for socio-environmental understanding at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center ( in Annapolis, Md.

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