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The African Agricultural Technology Foundation

Striga infested maize in Uganda

The need for Africa to access new and better technologies has been identified as being central to the continent's agricultural revival. Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, documents from NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development) and multilateral policies and plans all place emphasis on the need for Africa to seek technological interventions that will improve production systems, agricultural trade and commerce, and stimulate broader and more equitable economic growth on a sustainable basis. The recently launched African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), based in Nairobi, Kenya, aims to provide this access. Where lack of funding and poor access to modern technology have been a major constraint, the foundation is now starting work, focusing on promoting farmers' access to technologies.

Technology in Africa has, to a large extent, been dominated by multinational corporations looking for large profits. Without the means to buy the technologies they offer, farmers have retained old farming techniques and the result has been a less productive agricultural sector. And with the cautious approach to use of biotechnology in agriculture, farmers have also been unable to benefit from these technologies. Thus many African farming systems face low yields, high crop losses, and high production costs.

AATF aims to change that. The organisation intends to negotiate the transfer of technologies from the holders to the subsistence farmers loyalty-free. This involves the negotiation of intellectual property rights (IPR) with the technology developers, something that the farmers could not afford to do. In the past, issues relating to IPR and high transaction costs have prevented farmers accessing technologies that they might be able to adapt and use.

To achieve this, the foundation plans to enter into contractual agreements with existing institutions who will manage the deployment of these technologies, for example private and national research institutes. Some see this as a new phase for Africa that might compare with the Green Revolution in Asia in the 1970s.

Partnerships are key
The director of the new foundation, Mpoko Bokanga, is a food scientist with a wealth of experience promoting technology in Africa. He believes novel partnerships are key to the success of AATF. Partnerships will include laboratories in Africa and around the world, farmer and trade organisations and the private sector. Bokanga is clear that duplication will be avoided through these partnerships. "We will work with partners so as not to duplicate good work that is being done. We will facilitate innovative linkages and bring to Africa tools and technologies that could not otherwise have been accessed by farmers and used to improve African agriculture," he says.

Bokanga has also recently announced plans to work with another newly founded organization, the Network for the Genetic Improvement of Cowpea in Africa, which is based in West Africa. This is a consortium of breeders, molecular biologists, entomologists, economists and IPR specialists. Their aim is to promote access to modern cowpea technologies, for example better seeds, negotiating licences, and linking producers with markets.

Handing over to Bokanga, the outgoing implementing director Eugene Terry said "The plight of Africa's resource-poor farmers is all too real and the evidence of continuing food insecurity, hunger and poverty is incontrovertible." He compared the work ahead to a marathon rather than a sprint, and added "I do hope that we can bring a sense of urgency to the tasks before us because Africa's hungry children need to be fed in order to play their role."

AATF has already begun fast-track action in four of eight priority areas: Striga control in cereals, insect-resistant maize for Africa, pro-vitamin A enhancement in maize and rice, and cowpea production and utilisation. The Striga control work, for example, brings together a private company, BASF, who own the technology (a herbicide-coated maize seed); an international centre, CIMMYT, who have validated the technology for Africa; and AATF, whose role is to make sure the technology is both available and affordable to smallholder farmers.

For more information see AATF
Article submitted by James Kimani Chege.

AATF is the result of more than two years of consultations between African, North American and European stakeholders, looking for ways to contribute to food security in sub-Saharan Africa. Financial support for start-up was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, the US Agency for International Development and the UK's Department for International Development.

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1st November 2004