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October 01, 2007

Norman Borlaug, Josephine Okot on need for, prospects of an African green revolution

by Chido Makunike

Norman E. Borlaug was awarded the 1970 NobelPeace Prize for genetic research that helped dramatically improved cereal yields in Asia thirty to forty years ago, in what is now referred to as the green revolution. Josephine Okot is the founder of Victoria Seed Company, a Ugandan agro-dealer which has been credited with helping make more widely available various yield-improving inputs to farmers.

Both Borlaug and Okot have featured prominently in recent efforts to spur agricultural productivity increases in Africa roughly modeled on the green revolution methods used several decades ago in Asia, and built on Borlaug's genetic research with cereals. The two were recently jointly interviewed by Riz Khan of Al Jazeera News.

Khan began the interview by asking why Africa had not had its own green revolution; why it has taken so much longer than everywhere else for agricultural productivity to keep up with the food needs.

Borlaug replied that he thought the lack of infrastructure was a major constraint. He said the differing agendas of the respective colonial powers in Asia and Africa accounted for the basic initial differring patterns of infrastructural development between the two continents, and that this had repercussions on agricultural development. His example was that in Africa the railroads were developed mainly for the purpose of extracting and moving minerals to markets, whereas in India, home of the original green revolution, railroad patterns were determined by the desire to develop agro-industrial crops like cotton.

Khan asked why post-colonial Africa didn't then move on and develop the infrastructure required to spur agricultural and other development. Borlaug dodged the question by re-iterating his earlier point about how differing patterns of colonial exploitation in Asia and Africa accounted for the differences in infrastructural development.

Turning to Okot, Khan flattered her with praise about the renown she has gained as head of Victoria Seed Company since she formed it in 2004. He said she was a "new breed of entrepreneur" who was "breaking ground with African tradition by being willing to take risks, being willing to move forward," and he wondered how she had been able to achieve this feat.

Al Jazeera was began as a news service to offers a more holistic perspective of the Middle East story than "the bad, evil, violent Arab" perspective the world is fed by the leading international purveyors of news. In recent years it has grown to attempt to cover the rest of the commonly stereotyped world. The basic premise of Khan's question, that risk-taking is intrinsically un-African, suggests that Al Jazeera has a very long way to go to distinguishing itself as doing a better job of understanding and covering the majority of the world that is not Western than the likes of CNN, the BBC and other "traditional" media do!

To her credit, Okot did not allow Khan's back-handed praise of her business success to go to her head and cloud her judgment about his implied slur. She protested that it was incorrect for Khan to imply that it was "African tradition " to avoid risk. Okot said it was instead the case that African entrepreneurs operated in environments that made it particularly difficult to take risk.

Khan then asked Okot how much her seed company had contributed to the African green revolution and "helped to change the way agriculture is done." Okot gently smiled at the naivete of the question, pointing out for Khan's benefit that "Africa is huge" and that she did not claim her Ugandan company had a continental impact. She did offer that Victoria had an annual turnover of about $2 million, and about 25% share of the Ugandan seed market. She went on to say that she felt her success could not just be measured in tangible benefits, but in acting as a role model for other entrepreneurs.

Khan asked if Africa's post-colonial leaders had done enough to create the conditions for agricultural growth.

Borlaug reiterated Okot's point that Africa is a big continent, and that it was not possible to speak of it in the generalised sort of way Khan's question implied. Borlaug then spent some time explaining an essential difference between the first green revolution and the one that is now being proposed in Africa: In Asia the green revolution was initially confined to India and Pakistan, only moving to China and other countries several years later. In Africa what is being discussed is a general continent-wide process, which throws up vastly different challenges.

Okot gave credit to the Ugandan government for policies friendly to agricultural modernization, which she said made it easier for entrepreneurs like her to operate. She gave the example of deliberate government policy to make various inputs and new technology more readily available to farmers. But she said much more needed to be done, such as the reduction of business operating costs and taxes.

Khan asked Okot if she agreed with "the perception that African leadership is lacking" in providing conditions conducive to growth. She replied "yes," but then went on to partially let that poor leadership off the hook, by citing unworkable conditions sometimes imposed on aid by donors ("development partners" in today's politically correct parlance). She criticised the fact that the donors work with government bureaucrats on policy issues, but shun working with the private sector "who are the wealth creators." She concluded her answer by admitting that poor leadership was an issue, "but sometimes it's not entirely their fault."

Turning to Borlaug, Khan asked what steps needed to be taken across Africa to facilitate agricultural growth. Perhaps feeling somewhat chastened by his guests' reminders that Africa being a huge landmass of many different countries presented many unique challenges, Khan felt moved to add, "and I do accept, as you say, that Africa is a continent; a collection of countries."

Borlaug once again answered, "it's difficult when you talk about a continent," before mentioning the importance of putting physical infrastructure in place before other kinds of progress could be made.

Okot was asked what role technology in general had played in assisting her efforts. Keeping in mind the strong opposition from some quarters to genetic engineering, Khan asked, "Why would you not use GM seeds? Why wouldn't that help?"

Okot unequivocally replied that she would have no hesitation in availing GM seeds to farmers. But she then explained that they currently face far more basic challenges to production than the type of seed they plant. Some of these are the lack of access to fertiliser, being dependent on rain-fed farming, and the poor road and other infrastructure that makes it difficult for them to get their produce to market. She said GM seeds were just one of a range of available technologies, but that it was important to address other more basic issues first before worrying about GM versus non-GM seed. Okot said for now, technology is most helpful by producing high-yielding hybrid conventional seed, and through the provision of disease-free planting material through the use of techniques like tissue culture.

Borlaug joined in to say the first productivity improvements must be based on "traditional scientific techniques" like tissue culture and conventional seed hybridisation. He described the new biotechnological techniques that have received the most attention and raised the most controversy as merely the icing on the cake of more ordinary underlying improvements that were first necessary. He made the point that whether the seed is conventional or GM, good agronomic practices were necessary for the optimum expression of the seed's potential. Borlaug said the newly available gene transfer techniques did not make traditional plant breeding obsolete.

Khan closed the interview by asking his guests whether they really felt the African green revolution "is here." The confident, articulate Okot attempted to answer but ended up waffling. The essence of her somewhat long-winded answer was that she thought that while the will for an African green revolution now existed, it remained to be seen whether conditions were in place to implement it. She did not give the impression she was confident that those conditions are in fact in place yet.

The interview could have have been more in-depth with a questioner with a better grasp of agricultural issues and a more sophisticated knowledge of Africa. Many more questions to do with why news of an attempt at a green revolution in Africa has not been met with universal acclaim begged to be asked.

But whatever criticisms of the interviewer can be made, Borlaug and Okot did well with what they were given to work with. While there were no great new agricultural insights to emerge from the interview, perhaps the repeated statements by Borlaug and Okot of the huge challenges in place for Africa to arrest declining agricultural productivity, let alone institute a continent-wide yield revolution, were the most sobering.

To watch the video of the interview...

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