For many Americans and Europeans, Africa is the charity continent—a hopeless land of starving people who need handouts merely to survive.
Sometimes it seems as though our main imports from the West are pity and sympathy.
As a farmer in Kenya, I’ve always been struck by this odd state of affairs. I don’t see Africa as a basket case of despair, but rather as a breadbasket of opportunity. Our climate is warm and our soil is fertile. We ought to grow more than enough food to feed ourselves.
Yet we don’t. Our food production falls even as our population grows. Millions of African children, women and men suffer from hunger and malnourishment while African farmers continue to lag behind in the use of strategies to break this pattern of food insecurity and bring about a “green revolution” for Africa.
What we need more than anything else is access to the 21st-century science and technology solutions that farmers in many other countries take for granted.
I’m a small-scale farmer, just like 80 percent of Kenya’s farmers. I grow maize on five of my 25 acres. Another three acres are improved pasture. Vegetables, trees, free-range grazing, livestock barns, and homestead occupy the rest of my farm.
I enjoy farming because it contributes to my family’s nutritional and economic security. Throughout the year, we can take carbohydrates, proteins, and vitamins from our own land. We also sell a portion of our crops as well as milk and eggs from our livestock.
This self-sufficiency provides me with a sense of satisfaction that few other professions can match.
It’s more than personal, though. My farm also contributes to our country’s food security. The people in our village and region need what we grow. So do people I’ll never meet. Because of the East African Community’s latest regional integration protocol, my food can wind up in Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.
Yet we’re also beset with challenges. We lack an infrastructure of roads and rails that any truly vibrant trading economy depends upon. Storage facilities are inadequate. Farming equipment is either non-existent, inadequate or is too old.
Our farming problems are a manifestation of climate change. We cannot plant on time as the rains are no longer predictable and the ever-present attacks by crop pests and diseases, coupled with unpredictable climate lead to regular post-harvest losses. The majority of our farmers are poorly educated. Extension services are poorly spread or non-existent, hence failure to disseminate new knowledge. Taxes are too high.
To borrow a recent statement by Dr. Speciosa Kazibwe, past Vice-President of Uganda and former Minister of Agriculture, Animal Industry, and Fisheries, Africa’s problems emanate from the continent’s huge diversity and leadership problems. African governments have failed to recognize and embrace science and technology. They have failed to invest at least 10% of their national budgets in agriculture as per the Maputo Declaration of Agriculture and Food Security made in 2003!
Chief among our problems is a failure to embrace biotechnology. For farmers in many countries, the genetic modification of seeds has become a conventional part of agriculture. In recent years, they’ve seen record-setting harvests.
Some people seem to think that African farmers are just too slow to adopt new technologies. This is not true. In the African countries that have permitted biotechnology in agriculture—Burkina Faso and South Africa, for instance—farmers have rushed to take up these new tools.
The problem lies elsewhere, with governments that have resisted approving safe and healthy crops. They have taken too much direction from Europe and its unthinking opposition to GM crops, and their reluctance has seeped down to the level of research institutions and agricultural extension workers. They have not promoted these technologies the way they could.
In Kenya, we suffer from a ban on the importation of GM foods since November 2012—an irrational prohibition grounded in scientific illiteracy. We continue to host field trials of GM cotton, cassava, sweet potatoes, sorghum and maize (corn), but our government has given no indication of when it will permit the commercial dissemination of GM seeds. For years, we’ve waited, and there’s no telling when our wait will end.
Farmers like me would love to use this technology, if only it were permitted. Many of us have met farmers from other countries who have used it. Even those who don’t share these personal connections have heard the stories. They are all interested in this technology. Once they see it with their own eyes—weed-free fields and crops that resist the infestation of pests—they’ll want it for themselves.
Farming everywhere involves challenges, from daily weather patterns to long-term climate change. Yet Africa’s refusal to embrace new technology is a challenge that we have imposed upon ourselves. It is an additional burden, heaped upon all of the ones that we already confront.
I refuse to lose hope: One day, farmers across Africa will enjoy the best seeds the world can offer. Before that happens, however, we must stand up and demand them.
Africa doesn’t need more handouts. It needs a hand up, so that it can help itself rather than rely on the generosity of others.
Gilbert Arap Bor grows maize, vegetables and dairy cows on a small-scale farm of 25 acres in Kapseret, Kenya and teaches at the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, Eldoret campus. Mr. Bor is the 2011 Kleckner Trade & Technology Advancement Award recipient and a member of the Truth About Trade & Technology Global Farmer Network (www.truthabouttrade.org).