Money for shiny new rope?

by Jeremy Cherfas on September 27, 2011

You might think that when Africa’s “most important, but neglected native crops” get $40 million of support we would be all over the story like a rash. So why weren’t we? 1 Mostly it is because it is really hard to find anything positive to say, and we don’t want to sound like nay-sayers.

The gist of the “commitment” Improving Africa’s Neglected Food Crops, which the Clinton Global Initiative ascribes to NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development,2 is that private companies and public bodies have teamed up to build, among other things, a biotechnology centre in Ghana. According to UC Davis, the centre:

[W]ill sequence the genome — an organism’s entire collection of genes — for each species and make that information freely available to scientists around the world. That information will then be applied, using the most advanced breeding techniques and technologies, to develop new varieties of crops that are more nutritious, produce higher yields and are more tolerant of environmental stresses, such as drought.

The proposed centre may even be the same one referred to in a SciDev.net piece, although that one “will focus research on cassava, cocoyam, sweet potato and yam”.

Either way, I have to ask whether complete genome sequences are what poor African farmers really need right now. I realize that genomes are groovy, and very scientific, and will undoubtedly deliver great improvements in five years. Right now, though, here’s a small idea of what actual smallholder farmers want. Yesterday morning — I promise — Nduse Mailu left this comment to a post from March 2007:

i stumbled on this blog abd it seems quite awesome to a farmer like me.i currently have about 500 trees and i am in the process of increasing to 4000 and i am seeking guidance on whether to continue growing kienyenji style that is planting seeds from my own fruits or profesionaly that is buying guide me please and to Victor how are your trees doing what are ur challenges if any?

As it happens, the announcement of the new project singles out a tree for special mention.

[T]he consortium has already begun to sequence the (sic) Faidherbia albida, a type of acacia tree that can be used for improving soil nitrogen content and preventing erosion. The tree also has edible seeds and, unlike most trees, sheds its leaves during the rainy season so that it can be grown among field crops without shading them.

Right now, then, what do you suppose Mr Mailu needs? The sequence of Faidherbia albida (aka African winterthorn) with a promise of great improvements to come? Or a reliable supply of seedlings of good enough provenance and the knowledge to get the most out of them?3

I have no desire to stop Ghana and the rest of Africa developing the skills to sequence whatever they want, although I do question the cost effectiveness of doing the sequencing that way. But why is it even possible to talk of raising $40 million for that when farmers like Mr Mailu are posting comments here looking for very simple advice?

Here’s one possible reason.

“In order to really solve problems, and to get people to join, you have to break them down to their most transparent and simple pieces.”

So says Rajiv Shah, “the young gun fixing USAID” in an interview he gave Fortune magazine. And that idea — simplify, simplify, simplify — Shah got from his mentor Bill Gates, who said:

“The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity.”

Uh-huh.

Now, you can take two approaches to the kind of complexity that faces Mr Mailu and millions like him. You could say that providing comprehensive extension services to millions of poor farmers is impossibly complex because the farmers all live in different places and have different farming systems and need different advice. How much simpler to sequence orphan crops.

Or you could say that sequencing orphan crops is unutterably complex, because each crop is likely to be different and to require different tweaks to its genome to enhance its performance in different places, and in the end you’re going to need massive investments in extension services to get the improved crops out to the farmers and ensure that they know how to make good use of them. How much simpler to offer farmers good practical advice now.

How complex is that?

Footnotes:
  1. It isn’t just because hard information is surprisingly difficult to find, although UC Davis might want to fix the link on one press release. Likewise, it would be really handy if The Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) actually linked to the “commitments” delivered at it’s jamboree last week. Colouring them blue and underlining them is apparently of no significance. And it isn’t just because, like our friends at Crops for the Future, we can’t figure out what some of these crops actually are. []
  2. Find it there if you can. []
  3. Here‘s a start. []

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