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August 25, 2008

Florence Wambugu unabashedly champions GM technology despite controversy

by Brenda Kageni

Although she had always wanted to pursue a career that would have an impact on the local community, Dr Florence Wambugu also had a passion for science. As a child, she made concoctions from ash and other ingredients to help protect her mother’s crops from pest attack. They may not have always worked but she knew she could not just sit and watch the bugs destroy their shamba (small holding.)

Later she got a job at the Kenya Agricultural Institute (Kari) at the Muguga Research Station and fell in love with the lab. Biotechnology, in particular, grabbed her attention. Her pioneering work in the use of tissue culture while at Kari helped propagate thousands of splits from a single pyrethrum plant, as opposed to the six or so possible via ‘traditional’ propagation. This opened her eyes to the possibilities that biotechnology offered.

The Pyrethrum Board of Kenya has now adopted tissue culture pyrethrum.

Biotechnology, henceforth, became to Florence a tool to help find solutions for local people, and especially if those solutions could help in crop protection.

“I believe in science that makes a difference. Science that makes agriculture profitable for farmers.” Broadly defined, biotechnology is the manipulation of living organisms to produce goods and services useful to humans.

Dr Wambugu has been involved in various outreach activities to farmers and especially through her organisation, Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International. She founded the organisation in 2002 as a way of using science and technology – especially biotechnology – to help the poor in Africa achieve food security, economic well being and sustainable rural development. The company has grown into a multi-million dollar organisation, from an initial four people to nearly 40 people, with operational offices in Kenya, South Africa and the USA.

Her decade-long work to genetically modify crops to make them withstand pests bore fruit when in 2000 she came up with Sub-Sahara Africa’s first genetically modified crop — a sweet potato that is bigger, richer in nutrients, resistant to disease, and yields double the regular plant.

Next, Wambugu embarked on tissue-culture banana, a project that has earned her acclaim among local farmers in Kenya. When she realised that the cost of bananas was going up as the sucker-propagated banana population diminished due to neglect and disease, she set out to develop seedlings that were disease resistant and that could yield more than double the previous yield in half the time.

Tissue culture banana projects have caught up in Central and Eastern Provinces and are becoming a major commercial venture. “It has not only guaranteed household food security but also made income for farmers.”

Her organisation, along with others like Kari and Technoserve, has been focusing on empowering farmers, helping develop good agronomy practice (good seed, good input and proper management) and in marketing of the products. They were able to subside costs to enable farmers purchase more seeds and were able to work with micro-credit institutions like Equity and K-REP to access credit to farmers.

Wambugu has won many local and international awards, the latest being the Yara prize for 2008, which she will be awarded on August 29 in Norway. The award recognises her significant work in food security in Kenya and beyond, especially in helping small-scale farmers to improve their food quality, production and access to markets.

“The award is something to motivate me and Africa Harvest. It is about something I have pursued all through — to be able to alleviate hunger, poverty and malnutrition through a green revolution.”

The Yara Prize is an annual recognition of significant contributions to the reduction of hunger and poverty in Africa, as key contribution to the fulfilment of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.

Other awards Wambugu has won include the Eve Woman Award 2004 awarded to her in recognition of her work in science and technology; the 2002-2003 Golden Web Award for her work on how biotechnology could help alleviate poverty and hunger and the Planet African Award. In 2002, she was appointed to the board of the Bill & Melissa Gate’s Foundation’s Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative and won the International Biographical Centre Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to biotechnology.

In 2001 Forbes Magazine, December issue, named Wambugu as one of the 15 people around the globe who will “reinvent the future”. In 2000, she won the World Bank Award for global development. She has also written a book, Modifying Africa: How biotecnology can benefit the poor and hungry.

However, Wambugu says her greatest achievement is seeing the changes on the ground. “Whenever I meet a group of jubilant farmers and they tell me that they do not have to depend on food aid anymore, that makes my life.”

Florence was born and brought up in Nyeri and attended Kabare Girls’ School in Kirinyaga. She says she was greatly inspired by her then headmistress Prof Micere Mugo. She later joined the University of Nairobi for a Bachelor of Science degree in Botany and was later to pursue Msc in pathology in 1984 and a PhD in plant virology from the university of Bath in the UK in 1988.

In 1991, USAID sponsored Wambugu to go to the US for three years to continue with research on genetic engineering. But while there her 14-year-old marriage broke up, and she has had to bring up her three children alone since their teenage.

After working for several years as a scientist, Wambugu finally decided to follow her dream and start a foundation that would bridge the gap between science and reality on the ground — poor communities that still have problems accessing food.

“Twenty per cent of our population is food insecure. I decided not to pursue science for the sake of science, but that I would make a difference for the African communities,” Wambugu says. She adds: “The parcel of land may not get bigger but the people can produce more on it.”

Wambugu believes agriculture is the single most stable resource to get Africa out of poverty. “Science and technology can help the farmers do better, produce more. That way we can change the country,” she explains. “Look at Brazil. With no minerals or oil, just agriculture, they have transformed their economy. They even use sugarcane to power their cars.”

The challenges have been many. She is a woman in a highly technical and male-dominated field. That meant she had to travel abroad with her family often for study and research.

Africa Harvest being a non-profit organisation depends on donor funding for its projects. Though getting financing has not always been easy, Wambugu says she has received a lot of support from organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation, Crop Life International, DuPont, Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation and the Government of Kenya, with which she is now involved in developing trees for firewood and electricity poles, and to act as water-catchment areas.

One of the greatest hurdles Wambungu has had to grapple with, however, is the lack of policies for “orphan crops” such as sweet potatoes, cassavas, bananas and sorghum. She also cites the lack of information and awareness on genetic engineered crops as a major hurdle.

“Most people opposing genetic engineering just want to ensure the food is safe. Biotechnology needs to show that it is producing products that are impacting people’s lives, like the farmers can say of the bananas. The biotechnology law is not to prevent but to introduce safety measures, to ensure we are doing things right,” she says.

Wambugu believes the debate about organic foods is purely psychological. “The plant does not differentiate where the nitrogen in NPK (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium) fertiliser came from, whether it is organic or inorganic. To the plant it is just nitrogen. Everything you create will have controversy. The world, however, is going on with GM.”

One of her projects, a genetically bio-fortified sorghum, when completed has the potential to impact 300 million people in Africa. The sorghum is nutritionally enhanced and drought tolerant so it can be grown in the semi-arid regions.

For poor people who eat one meal a day mainly comprising of starch, such a GM food rich in vitamins and proteins in addition to starch helps fight malnutrition.

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