As Africa grapples with realities of its swelling population, one of the challenges that warrant solicited attention is the strain on food security. The continent has had the fastest growth among all others in the recent past. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, more than half of the anticipated global population growth by 2050 is projected to be in Africa. At stake is the underlying need to end poverty and hunger, one of the goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
To achieve this goal, we need modern tools in our agricultural systems. Bioscience offers a variety of cutting-edge technologies able to sustainably produce more food and improve people’s health and wellbeing. With my experience in biosciences spanning over 35 years, I can confidently say that biotechnologies lie at the heart of agricultural innovations envisioned to steer Africa to the next level. Take for example improved cassava varieties whose development I was part of. While working as a plant molecular breeder at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), together with other scientists, we developed varieties that were four times more productive than their traditional counterparts. Cassava is an important food security crop that can help tackle food insecurity and malnutrition challenges afflicting Africa’s smallholder farmers. The big question is: How do we ensure that we preserve new improved varieties for the future while constantly improving them to meet upcoming challenges?
As the region continues to develop legislation needed to regulate modern bioscience tools, one thing must remain clear. For Africa to fully maximize on expected benefits, it must work towards owning some of these cutting-edge technologies. Therefore, capacity building is critical for our scientists to explicitly understand the latest tools that bioscience offers. It is for this reason that, BecA-ILRI Hub recognizes capacity building as an important aspect in empowering African institutions to harness innovations for regional impacts in improved agricultural productivity, income generation , and food and nutritional security.
To achieve impact from efforts in delivering better food and health solutions for the continent, researchers must endeavor to work on priority challenges facing Africa’s agriculture, and those prioritized by their respective national governments. Secondly, they must create a network for exchange of information and ideas. The BecA-ILRI Hub, is strategically poised to build networks that will contribute to the increased impact of biosciences on agricultural research in Africa. Specifically, a concept dubbed “Communities of Practice,” is geared towards expanding a network of visiting scientists and alumni who return to their home institutions and continue working with the Hub, and fellow alumni from different countries, in joint research programs and in the delivery of innovations. These research activities are based on their countries’ agricultural research agendas. Therefore, investing in research that addresses issues of national importance and building scientist networks is the way to go in making bioscience a formidable force to drive Africa’s future.
However, molding a food secure, healthy and resource-rich Africa through bioscience tools is not a walk in the park. Even as African governments begin to recognize the importance of bioscience in their economies, underneath lies a big problem – limited resources to advance this cause. I strongly appeal to our governments to tackle this problem head-on since the backstopping to great innovations rests with them. It should be clear in our minds that no other continent will do research for us, we should do it ourselves. All African governments should also brazenly enact laws that embrace and support the growth of biotechnologies. The entire continent should emulate efforts put by countries like South Africa, Burkina Faso, Egypt and Sudan, which were the first adopters of agricultural biotechnology. In addition, science communicators should intensify their efforts to make sure existing gaps between researchers and policy makers are bridged for creation of a more favorable policy environment.
Lastly, scientists must begin to capitalize on modern advancement in communications to give bioscience a bigger niche. The world is a global village and information flows so fast that any science discovery in any part of the world can be accessed instantaneously, as it unfolds. Success stories in bioscience research in other continents can be widely publicized and amplified in Africa through both mass and new media. This is instrumental in inculcating positive attitudes on the role of biosciences in advancing humanity. Therefore, the interplay between biosciences and the digital age we are living presents a smooth path on which the former can travel to become Africa’s staple for success.
A myriad of challenges comprising food insecurity, human and animal diseases, and environmental degradation is threatening a progressive African society. Solutions to the challenges squarely lie on bioscience tools. The future of Africa is bright with innovations in biosciences.
Dr. Mignouna is the Director of the BecA-ILRI Hub.