Going bananas: fighting hunger with Africa Harvest

Posted: 20 November 2008

Author: Neena Bhandari

Developed countries like Australia must transfer advancements in science and technology, especially biotechnology, to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic independence and sustainable rural development, urges Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International's Chief Executive Officer, Florence Wambugu.

There are 800 million hungry people across the world and 25 per cent or 200 million plus are in sub-Saharan Africa alone. "Africa urgently needs agricultural biotechnology, including transgenic crops, to improve food production," said Wambugu, while addressing a biotechnology conference in Melbourne in October, organised by AusBiotech, Australia's national biotechnology industry association.

As one of nine children growing up on a small farm in Kenya, Wambugu understands that African farmers need more tools to fight plant diseases and overcome other barriers to increase crop production. Unlike other girls in Africa, she was fortunate to have been encouraged by her mother to study. "My mother was an inspiration and I believed if I studied, I would make a difference in the community," said the renowned agricultural plant pathologist, who has a specialisation in virology and genetic engineering.

After graduating in botany from the University of Nairobi, she moved to the United States to do a Masters in Plant Pathology from North Dakota State University and then completed a doctorate in plant virology, biotechnology, from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

Dr Florence Wambungu teaching women how to bake banana cake
Dr Florence Wambungu teaching women how to bake banana cake
Dr Florence Wambungu, CEO, Africa Havest, teaching women how to bake banana cake. Photo credit: Africa HarvestWFS
She returned to Kenya, and committed herself to working towards improving yields and nutrients in staple foods such as banana, cassava, rice, yam, maize, sweet potato and sorghum. "Women in Africa suffer from poor nutrition and iron deficiency. They can't buy tablets to supplement these deficiencies. But by adding iron, vitamin A, zinc, which are very important for the immune system especially as there is an epidemic of HIV/AIDS, to staple foods they can get the required nutrients," said Wambugu.

Garden vegetables

"Sweet potato and other subsistence crops are grown in the backyard. You just dig, wash and eat it raw. There is also a custom in Africa, whereby we gift seedlings to each other, which in other words means sharing the disease. I thought if we immunised the sweet potato seed, we could still share the crop and keep the cultural practice," she added.

According to Wambugu, a supporter of genetically modified technology, the way to help the poor is to use technologies that are seed-based. "In Africa, 80 per cent people grow their own food and eat straight from the backyard or farm. Putting the technology in the seed also makes it user-friendly for uneducated farmers. However, technology is not a silver bullet, it is not enough alone," she said.

Six years ago, she launched Africa Harvest, bringing together people from all along the value chain - scientists, farming communities and businesses. "I found either people were too much involved in science or were working at the grassroots with no knowledge of science and technology. The two had to match to help the poor. Science can have legs and can walk on the ground and help poor," she said.

"I feel women are the carriers of change. They are inquisitive, they learn and are receptive, and carry the burden of food and disease. Earlier, in our communication programme, focusing on biotech outreach gatherings, there would be 80 women and 20 men. Women always come first but when the money begins to flow in men come too and the groups become more balanced. However, men try to disenfranchise women when the business takes off," she added.

"By imparting training in good farming practices and innovative marketing, thousands of farmers have moved from earning US$1 to US$4 to 5 a day,"informed Wambugu, who is urging the Kenyan government to move banana from a small crop to formulating a banana policy that will reap maximum benefits for farmers and the country.

Nutritious bananas

The ubiquitous banana may be a luxury fruit in developed countries, but in many countries of Africa, it is a staple food and the main source of nutrition. For example, Ugandans are the largest consumers of bananas in the world, eating on an average nearly one kilogramme per person per day.

But the current yield of banana in Africa is only 27 per cent, with 73 per cent lost: 30 per cent lost to pests and diseases; 24 per cent, to poor varieties and unclean plantlets; 20 per cent, to poor agronomic practices; 11 per cent, to depletion of soil nutrients; and 15 per cent, to unreliable and inadequate rainfall.

According to Wambugu, who has been involved with outreach to farmers using the tissue culture banana technology for more than a decade, while the current average yield of banana production in East Africa is 6.33 tonnes per hectare, the average potential yield can be 23.51 tonnes per hectare.

Africa Harvest Nairobi staff
Africa Harvest Nairobi staff
Africa Harvest Nairobi staff congratulate Dr Florence Wambungu on receiving the Yara award. Photo credit: Africa HarvestWFS
She recently received the 2008 Yara Prize - established by Yara International, the world's leading supplier of plant nutrients in the form of mineral fertilisers - in recognition of her work in introducing tissue culture bananas in Kenya. Tissue culture exploits the regenerative properties of shoot tips, allowing up to 2,000 plantlets to be produced from a single shoot in six months. In addition to improving plant characteristics, the techniques also prevent the transmission of fungi, bacteria and pests from parent to child plants.

The annual Yara prize is given in recognition of significant contributions to the reduction of hunger and poverty in Africa, as a key contribution to the fulfillment of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals and its call for an African green revolution.

Wambugu dedicated the award to her late mother, Elizabeth Wangui, "and many other mothers who have helped their girl-child realise their dreams" and donated part of the proceedings from the award "to support women groups develop capacity building in value-addition and processing to expand rural enterprises and create jobs".

In Malawi, 400,000 hectares of banana are devastated by bunch-top virus (BTV) that results in the loss of income for about 50,000 smallholder farmers. BTV devastated banana orchards in Queensland (Australia) in 1930s and was eliminated thereafter. Technology for BTV control exists in Australia that can help Malawi and other African countries," said Wambugu.

A team of Queensland University of Technology researchers, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will spend the next three years identifying and diagnosing the different viruses infecting East African Highland bananas with the ultimate aim to micropropagate varieties of bananas that are both high in micronutrient content and disease-free.

The QUT and Africa Harvest partnership entails technology transfer and human capacity building alongside high-tech research and development. Wambugu said, "Virus diagnostics and facilities being developed will impact other crops that require more or less the same technology."

Urging Australia to transfer appropriate technologies to Africa, she quoted the example of countries like Argentina, India, China, which are growing economies and coming out of poverty by using advanced science to boost production. However, she cautioned, "Don't just come there to make the buck, but a formula to explore the market opportunities together for the benefit of the larger community." - Women's Feature Service, New Delhi