Dr Olalekan Akinbo, Director of the African Union Development Agency Center of Excellence in Science, Technology and Innovation (now known as AUDA-NEPAD), and tonde ajaja Why agricultural innovation is critical for Africa to achieve Agenda 2063
exist In the case of the African Union Development Agency (now known as AUDA-NEPAD), Nigeria hosted a six-day writing workshop and policy dialogue on genome editing technologies to increase agricultural productivity on the continent, could you elaborate on this A move?
The motivation behind the initiative is the need to increase crop productivity and economic growth on the continent. For background information, agriculture is a prevalent activity in Africa that contributes significantly to the continent’s economy. But we realize that crop yields per capita in Africa are poor and could be better. There is a difference between potential benefits and actual benefits. Potential yield is what a crop can produce based on its capacity, while actual yield is what you get from harvesting. But to have an optimal rate of return is to make that potential rate of return a reality. Problems arise when the actual yield of a crop is lower than its potential yield. Genome editing can help solve this problem by increasing actual yields to optimal levels. The technology works by helping plants to maximize their inherent characteristics and characteristics. With existing technology, we can explore the DNA of plants. So genome editing is a technique that uses information in a plant’s DNA to activate its dormant properties, which will help it stay healthy and increase productivity. For simplicity, assume that Mr. A’s father is tall and his mother is short, but he is of average height. At the same time, he has traits that can make him taller or shorter. If he wants to grow taller, the technology looks at the personality repository, or DNA, and picks out the inactive personality that should make him grow taller, and activates it. This means that the character is already in you but not activated. This modern technology will liven it up.
Some people tend to confuse genome editing with GMOs, what’s the difference?
They are not the same principle. GMOs can use DNA information from another plant and animal to help form another crop. But GEd is not external; what you need is already in the factory. You’re just using information from inside the plant to help it manifest a defect it can’t activate on its own. There’s what we call redundant DNA, so this technology can make the necessary DNA come alive.
When is the initiative scheduled to go into effect so African countries can deploy it?
It’s a futuristic plan. This is an initiative, not a project. Projects come and go, and it often looks like an external initiative funded by someone outside. That’s why the route we’re taking is to have the various member states of the African Union work with AUDA-NEPAD to promote it. So it’s not a top-down approach, it’s the opposite. To your question; currently, only five countries have research level stuff. The only country that is seeing results in the field right now is Kenya, as they have approved genome-edited maize for unrestricted field trials. In Burkina Faso, they have rice, but it’s still in the lab. In Ghana, they have sweet potatoes, but they haven’t gone to the field yet. In Ethiopia they have teff which is the main crop there. It’s in the lab, not ready to go to the field. In Nigeria, they have cassava, and they are improving cassava to produce starch, but it is still in the laboratory stage. In South Africa, they also have cassava, but it’s still in the lab. In Uganda, they also have cassava, but it’s still in the lab. So it was African scientists who used the resources available in their labs to carry out this research. So, it is not GMO. We need to make this distinction. Currently, there are no GEd products on the market. The closest thing is maize from Kenya. However, the ultimate goal is to commercialize these products, which are critical to food security and wealth creation on the continent.
Member States of the African Union adopted the 2063 Agenda in 2015. How important is agriculture to achieving some of the Agenda’s goals, including job creation, zero hunger and poverty eradication?
Agriculture will play a key role in achieving Agenda 2063. In the Malabo Declaration, it was agreed that one percent of each country’s gross domestic product should be used for the agricultural development of their respective countries. One of the pillars of Agenda 2063 is Zero Hunger, so that no one goes hungry on the continent, Africa has a strong agricultural economy and we have the potential to grow our own food. We have fertile soil, uncultivated land, and each country is famous for its specific crops. The potential to use agriculture to achieve zero hunger is here, but we can use technology to accelerate it, and the continent will be a better place for it. For example, it will take at least 15 years for every farmer to grow a cassava variety. It starts with a torrent station. Today, when you plant a cassava seed, you can propagate them using tissue culture. So we can use technology to speed things up as much as we want.
How important are communication strategies and policy dialogue?
The first part of the meeting was to develop a genome editing communication strategy with various stakeholders. When you have the right and proper communication with your stakeholders and everyone gets the right information, it’s easier to realize the vision collectively and individually. Therefore, AUDA-NEPAD is supporting all countries to have the right tools to communicate science so that every stakeholder understands the benefits. The second part is the policy dialogue, which is critical. We brought together six countries; Burkina Faso, Ghana, Ethiopia, Zambia, Eswatini and Nigeria which hosted the event. Nigeria is the host because of its role in the technology and the enabling environment it has created; policies, regulations, guidelines and scientists working on the technology. Among other institutions, the National Root Crops Institute is working on genome-edited cassava. Their scientists are trained, they have capabilities and laboratories. Likewise, much of the work is done in other countries. We apply fertilizers and pesticides to increase productivity, but in the case of this technology, we can reduce external intervention and help plants use their own characteristics to improve their health and productivity. Just to emphasize, this is not imported; it is our scientists who work on this technology. When you use your best minds to create benefits for your people, you will see the benefits. Another advantage is that scientists on the continent will interact with themselves rather than working in isolation. We have the same template for this initiative, and that’s the nature of policy dialogue. We will take these different inputs and opinions from across the continent, coordinate them and move forward.
What are the effective tools to ensure the commercialization of this technology?
Having a triangle is important to implement the plan. The first part is about scientists committed to innovation. But the benefits of being part three will be elusive if the political environment for part two is not right. If the two complement each other, it means an improved life. What we’re after is to have the tools to facilitate the communication and lead by the respective countries, the relevant government agencies so they can get hold of it and ensure its implementation. If the initiative is developed by domestic experts, it will be easier for them to adopt and promote it. As an agency of the AU, we will support them in developing tools to help them communicate with the right stakeholders accordingly.