Q&A: Scientific African is showcasing R&D for impact

By Stephanie Achieng’

In March 2018 in Kigali, Rwanda, the Scientific African, a new peer-reviewed, open access scientific journal dedicated to African research was launched. In December 2018, the maiden issue of the journal was published.

The journal received its 500th submission last month (19 February).

In an exclusive interview with SciDev.Net after such a feat for a new journal, Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, its editor-in-chief, discussed the strides made so far and plans the journal has to actively disseminate its published articles and make them impactful.

Why should African scientists publish in the Scientific African?

Publishing research in the Scientific African journal by African scientists is very important for them, for the continent and for the development of science in Africa. Together, we are developing a brand which will be a testimony of the excellence of science in Africa.

“This is the place for scientists who want to create the Africa we want to stand up and be counted.”

Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, Scientific African

The journal looks out for scientific solutions to address challenges on the continent. This is the place for scientists who want to create the Africa we want to stand up and be counted. The editorial culture we have is ensuring excellence and relevance. Our editors are excellent scientists in their own capacities who are dedicated to developing science on the continent and using science to find solutions for Africa.

These dedicated people understand the context of Africa and the issues relevant to the continent and work on them with passion. Together, the editors are working hard to help the journal achieve more for Africa.

How is the journal highlighting research that finds local solutions to local problems?

The journal is giving a platform to research in Africa, on Africa, about Africa and with relevance to Africa. Manuscripts have been received from researchers on the continent and outside the continent who are Africans and non-Africans.

The interest is in the scientific merit and the relevance of the work to Africa in getting the Africa we want and also achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

How is the journal expanding access to African researchers largely lacking platforms to showcase their research?

Scientific African is giving a modern and visible platform to Africa researchers across the continent. The journal is truly expanding access to African researchers. The journal has received submissions from authors in about two thirds of the continent in less than one year since it was launched.

This speaks volumes. It shows that many researchers on the continent have now found a home to publish their research.

In what ways is the journal ensuring that articles published in it reach a wider audience?

I do not envisage that research articles published in Scientific African will join many others that end up stocked in only scientific journals. And not envisaging something does not mean that it cannot happen.

I do not envisage such a situation because the journal has programmes in place to highlight its articles to ensure that this does not happen.

The innovation that Scientific African brings to the table is following through after publishing its articles.  The journal believes that the success of research lies in its ability to influence and change society for the better. For example, after the first issue was published, Scientific African Magazine was also published that disseminated the research outputs in forms such as questions and answers with authors, news on key articles and interaction with society on what they think of the publication and how it will help them. The journal will seek more opportunities for highlighting impact.

What plans does the journal have to actively disseminate the findings specifically to policymakers?

In addition to the publication of Scientific African Magazine, Next Einstein Forum — the owner of the journal — and co-publisher Elsevier, have other means to ensure that articles published in the journal reach policymakers and other key audiences.

These include active and wide dissemination of the publications through social media platforms such as Twitter.  The Next Einstein Forum also has effective means of engaging decision-makers on the continent and they will be carrying the work published in Scientific African to decision-makers at the continental and national levels during their engagements.

“The journal believes that the success of research lies in its ability to influence and change society for the better.”

Benjamin Apraku Gyampoh, Scientific African

The team at Scientific African recognises that sustained efforts are required to get outputs from the journal to catch the attention of policymakers and to contribute to evidence-based decision-making.

What have been the greatest challenges the journal has encountered thus far?

The Next Einstein Forum has put in their best in realising the vision of Scientific African. Editors have worked extremely hard. Reviewers have been thorough. So generally there have not been great challenges on the side of the journal.

But we would like to get better. I use this opportunity to thank our editors and reviewers for their dedication, diligence and for identifying with the vision of Scientific African.

I would like to encourage more scientists to be interested in becoming reviewers. Reviewing is a responsibility scientists owe to each other in driving growth in the scientific community.

Are you convinced that this journal is promoting scientific excellence and partnerships in Africa?

I am very convinced that this journal is promoting scientific excellence and partnerships in Africa. Scientists are getting to know what each other is doing at different parts of the continent. Even among editors in the same section, people are getting to know each other now.

With the help of the scientists themselves and the mass media, Scientific African will continue to promote scientific excellence and partnerships in Africa.

Q&As are edited for length and clarity.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

This article by Stephanie Achieng’ was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

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Biofortification: Combatting malnutrition

Vitamin A Orange Sweet Potato, Uganda
Vitamin A orange sweet potato in Uganda (photo: HarvestPlus)

Developing more nutritious crops through biofortification is providing much needed nutrients and helping to provide better quality diets for rural communities

Nearly 2 billion people suffer from iron deficiency, while one-quarter of the world’s people are at risk from insufficient dietary zinc or vitamin A. Eating a more varied diet provides a greater intake of micronutrients, but this may not be possible for many poor families. However, by using a process called biofortification to improve the nutrient value of specific staple crops, scientists can help farmers grow more nutritious food using the same land and resources.

Biofortification uses biotechnology, conventional plant breeding or agronomy to improve nutritional quality of food. Examples include boosting iron in rice, sweet potato, cassava and legumes; vitamin A in cassava and maize; zinc in wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize; and protein in sorghum and cassava. The method is already well-established around the world – about 20 million people have access to enriched beans, rice, wheat, pearl millet, maize, sweet potato and cassava. By 2030, more than 1 billion people could be eating biofortified crops. For farmers with limited ability to produce more crops, growing biofortified crops on the same land could have a highly beneficial effect on health.

A dedicated approach

Getting biofortified food onto the world’s dinner plates has been a long journey, requiring flexibility, persistence and dedication. Dr Howarth Bouis and the team at HarvestPlus have led the way and were recently awarded the 2016 World Food Prize for their efforts over 20 years. HarvestPlus has played a key role in developing and distributing biofortified crops and in educating a range of stakeholders about the advantages of crops that are higher in zinc, iron and vitamin A.

Biofortified crops have so far been released in 30 countries and tests are underway in 25 more. “The crops have been tried, tested and proven effective in improving nutrition for people in developing countries,” states Dr Bouis. “The huge job now is getting the farmers to take them up and getting the consumers to eat them.”

Like consumers everywhere, farmers and their families can be cautious about trying new varieties. Persuading them to do so requires targeted information campaigns and time for results to be seen and word to get around. An added complexity is that some biofortified crops look and taste different. But this is not the case in zinc and iron-rich crops, such as beans. In Rwanda, 10 varieties of iron-rich beans have been released, and they are the same in appearance and taste as beans currently on the market. The beans have higher yields as well as higher iron content and researchers hope that they will become the preferred product.

Other crops such as cassava, maize and sweet potato do take on a different taste and appearance when fortified with vitamin A, with the crops turning from white to orange. Communities need the chance to learn about the new products before they decide to grow them or buy them, so information activities must target both farmers and consumers.

Engaging women

In many countries, women are key to improving nutrition and health in their families. For communities to accept the new biofortified crops, women must be engaged at every stage of the process. For example, local people may be employed to spread the word, sometimes holding blindfolded tastings where women are asked which sweet potato or other food they prefer, and whether or not they would buy the enriched product for the sake of their family’s health. If the price is the same and they like the taste – and the word is that the crops are well accepted – women choose the vitamin A-enriched food for their family.

In Namwenda, in eastern Uganda, a group of women wearing distinctive orange t-shirts are spreading the word about nutritious crops, good hygiene and sanitation practices. Known as Mama Ndhisa, the women deliver their messages through activities such as community meetings and visits to local villagers, using pictorial story cards and other aids. The name Mama Ndhisa reflects community affection for these mothers and for the vitamin A-rich orange sweet potatoes they promote.

All the women take part with the support of their husbands. They are held in high regard, explains Aloysius Olweny, Namwenda’s sub-county chief. “Take note of the ladies who are participating, because they are exemplary,” he says. “They also teach others about nutrition … they are moving forward to motivate these people.” Olweny states that encouraging men to support their wives was important for the success of the information campaign. “Men want to be involved in cash crop growing and things like that, but when they see the improvement in income, in health with fewer diseases, they get motivated to help their wife.”

Support from leaders at all levels

For a country to embrace biofortified crops, there needs to be support at every level – locally, as in Namwenda in Uganda, as well as nationally, regionally and internationally.

The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition has urged policymakers to adopt biofortification as one element of a nutrient-sensitive national agricultural research and investment strategy. “Policymakers have a key role to play in tackling hidden hunger,” says Sir John Beddington, Global Panel co-chair. “Biofortification complements the existing mix of micronutrient interventions available to governments.”

In the Global Panel report, Biofortification: An Agricultural Investment for Nutrition, micronutrient malnutrition is shown to be associated with the rapidly growing problem of obesity and non-communicable diseases. The authors state that low-quality diets based heavily on highly processed, nutrient-poor foods lie at the core of the problem. “When biofortified crops are combined with interventions that promote dietary diversification, real progress can be made to benefit millions of households. In Nigeria for instance, with the strengthened regulatory and legal framework and infrastructural support, Nigerian multiplication programmes are expected to allow 80 million Nigerians to have access to more-nutritious diets in the coming four years,” the report said.

The Global Panel emphasises that biofortification should not be looked at in isolation. “Policymakers should not see it as an alternative to other nutrition-enhancing interventions, but consider it as one component of a suite of complementary strategies to reduce micronutrient deficiencies,” the Panel said.

Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and former Nigerian Minister for Agriculture, has called for an end to malnutrition in Africa, saying that the continent has all it needs to win in agriculture. Speaking at the seventh African Agricultural Science Week in June 2016 in Rwanda, he noted that Africa spends €30 billion each year on importing food, a figure that is projected to grow to €98 billion by 2025. “Africa is importing what it should be producing, creating poverty within Africa and exporting jobs outside of Africa,” he said. Any shock to global food production would affect prices in Africa, especially in rural areas, so investing in agriculture makes economic and security sense.

Adesina noted successes in Rwanda, which has drastically reduced malnutrition, and in Senegal, which is on the way to becoming self-sufficient in rice. “And with technologies from science, we can do even more,” he said. New iron-enriched beans, orange-fleshed sweet potato, high-lysine maize and vitamin A-rich cassava are already improving crop yields and nutrition.

Food security emergency in Southern Africa

In Southern Africa, FAO estimates that nearly 40 million people will be affected by food insecurity in 2017. The chilling figure reflects high levels of unemployment and under-employment, which are exacerbated by the most severe drought in 35 years, which scientists are linking to the El Niño weather event. Most people in the region eat food they grow themselves. Chimimba David Phiri, FAO Subregional Coordinator for Southern Africa, said that “Assisting them to do this will provide life-saving support in a region where at least 70% of people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.”

As drought continues, prices for maize and other crops have risen. FAO officials warn that 23 million people need urgent support to grow enough food to feed themselves, or they will be dependent on humanitarian assistance until the middle of 2018. Farmers must be able to plant by October 2016. “Failure to do so will result in another reduced harvest in March 2017, severely affecting food and nutrition security and livelihoods in the region,” FAO said.

Agricultural experts say a good harvest is necessary in March 2017 to help families escape the country’s food crisis. “We have had two bad [growing] seasons, and a lot of farmers do not have adequate seeds,” said Phiri. “We need to support the farmers to have the seed that they need for them to grow this season, and also to avoid a problem of having continued humanitarian support.”

In Zimbabwe, many children do not get enough to eat. The United Nations Children’s Fund warned in March 2016 that the country is facing its worst child malnutrition rates in 15 years, with rural areas particularly at risk. FAO is helping the country’s farmers affected by the drought.

Last month, the agency began giving biofortified maize and bean seeds to farmers. Those seeds are designed to produce crops high in valuable nutrients. Initially, the seed programme is targeting about 127,000 small farm households in eight areas. Over time, it will spread to other parts of the country. Farmer Mirriam Chagweja said she is glad she planted the new seeds in her fields in Silobela, about 300 km south-west of Harare. In February 2016 she planted fortified maize and beans, using seeds provided by the UK Department for International Development. Chagweja said she got more beans from these seeds than from the other kinds of beans. “I would encourage others to go on board and join,” she said.

Looking to the future

Trials continue with new biofortified crops and varieties. WHO lists a range of current biofortification trials, including vitamin A-enriched maize for mothers and infants in a range of locations, vitamin A-enriched cassava for Nigerian preschool children and pearl millet enriched with both zinc and iron to boost cognitive ability and immunity to infections in Indian babies. While biofortification and genetic modification are different processes, groups such as HarvestPlus are keeping an eye on developments. To date, HarvestPlus has used only conventional breeding techniques, and not genetic modification, to develop its 150 varieties of 12 different nutrient-enriched crops. This has allowed them to get their crops into use as quickly as possible, in as many countries as possible.

There remain many barriers and political opposition to transgenics, despite the scientific community establishing that the method is safe, says Bouis. HarvestPlus is researching the technology and it may be an option in the future, for example, in areas such as increasing iron levels that have been difficult to achieve with conventional breeding.

This article by Magali Reinert was originally published on the Spore website

Arla Dairy: Setting up in West Africa

The fifth largest dairy in the world is setting up in Nigeria and Senegal. Arla Foods, a Danish company, intends to increase its revenue in the region fivefold by 2020. What impact will this have on local producers and consumers?

Strengthening Senegal’s local milk industry will help meet consumers’ needs. Photo credit: Kamikazz photo agency

The Danish dairy cooperative, which includes 12,700 European farmers among its members, is set to take over the West African dairy market. In Nigeria, where it already has a presence, Arla Foods plans to triple its turnover.

To achieve this, Arla Dairy Products has been created which, since September 2015, has been responsible for packaging, marketing and distributing Arla products under the Dano brand within the country.

In Senegal, where it does not yet have a presence, the company has created a subsidiary for which it holds 75% of the capital. Arla Sénégal SA will have the same roles in Senegal as its counterpart in Nigeria.

The Senegalese milk market already contains several large companies, such as the French companies Lactalis and Danone, which have partnered with a local company, Laiterie du Berger.

“West Africa faces a milk deficit, which gives Arla an opportunity to provide milk powder and other dairy products that meet consumers’ needs. We are here to build a long-term business, and that requires strong local partners,” says Steen Hadsbjerg, head of sub-Saharan Africa at Arla Foods.

However, in Senegal, the ‘local partners’ are not milk producers. Arla argues that the low quantity and quality of local milk means that supplies should come exclusively from imported goods. However Arla also highlights possible negative impacts of mass imports on the local markets, with consumers switching to powdered milk exclusively and dairy farmers being unable to sell their products.

For this reason, Guillaume Bastard, an expert in agricultural sectors and representative of the French development NGO, GRET, in Senegal believes it would be better to support the milk industry and help producers improve the quality and quantity of the milk produced.

“Of course, building up the local milk sector is a real challenge, but milk products are currently Senegal’s second most imported foodstuff, amounting to CFA 65 billion (€39 million) annually. Local businesses, the government and dairy farmers all have an interest in seeing it done so that income can be redistributed to the most marginalised rural populations,” he concludes.

This article by Anne Perin was originally posted on the Spore website at http://www.spore.cta.int/en/business/setting-up-in-west-africa.html

Happy New Year 2016, the International Year of Pulses

bean market masaka1_lo
Bean market in Masaka, Uganda. Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT).

A very Happy New Year to you. The United Nations has declared 2016 as the International Year of Pulses. This is a global opportunity to raise awareness on the important role of pulses in contributing to food security and nutritional well-being for millions of people around the world.

According to the United Nations International Year of Pulses website, the aim of this special year is to “heighten public awareness of the nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition. The Year will create a unique opportunity to encourage connections throughout the food chain that would better utilize pulse-based proteins, further global production of pulses, better utilize crop rotations and address the challenges in the trade of pulses.”

Visit the website of the Global Pulse Confederation for more information on how you can take part in promoting the International Year of Pulses or follow the online conversations at #IYP2016.

Happy New Year!

Agri-biotech experts call on Kenya to lift ban on GMO imports

Group photo: Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communications Conference 2015

Delegates from 30 countries from around the world, attending an international Agri-biotechnology and Biosafety Communication (ABBC 2015) conference in Nairobi have called on the Government of Kenya to lift a 2-year ban on GMO imports.

Addressing the delegates who comprised farmers, scientists, policymakers, private sector, the media and science communicators, the Principal Secretary in Kenya’s Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development, Dr Wilson Songa, emphasized the role of agricultural biotechnology in propelling the country towards prosperity.

“To harness this potential, the GMO import ban must be lifted,” he said. In addition, he said that Kenya has adequate capacity to develop and ensure safety of GMO products.

Members of Parliament present called upon the government to release the report by the Ministry of Health task force that was set up to look into the safety of GM foods, following the ban on GMO imports.

The ABBC conference brought together organizations and networks involved in agri-biotechnology and biosafety communication around the world to take stock of the progress and dynamics of agri-biotechnology communication over the past two decades. It was organized by the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) AfriCenter, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the National Commission for Science Technology and Innovation among other partners.

One of the key lessons was that agri-biotechnology and biosafety communications must be simplified and messages delivered in appropriate languages for different stakeholders to make impact.

The delegates came up with the following Nairobi Declaration 2015:

We, the participants of the International Conference on Agri-Biotechnology and Biosafety Communication, held on 13-14 April 2015 in Nairobi, representing the academic and research community, civil society, law makers and policy advisors, the media, farmers and other stakeholders drawn from 30 countries across the world, collectively issue the following statement resulting from this conference:

Whereas

  1. The world faces unique and particular food security challenges in future, as the human population increases towards a likely 9.6 billion by 2050 and climate change raises additional problems for agriculture in terms of water and temperature stress, increased disasters and extreme weather;
  2. Some progress has been made in meeting the Millennium Development Goals on extreme poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality and food security. Much work remains to be done to ensure that citizens of all countries enjoy the full opportunity of healthy and sustainable access to food;
  3. Biotechnology and genetic engineering, while not being the only solutions to these challenges, offer great potential in addressing many specific concerns in food production, including micro-nutrient deficiencies, productivity and yield gaps, pest and disease problems;
  4. There exists an international scientific consensus that the ‘genetic modification’ process itself does not raise any risks over conventional breeding approaches;
  5. The debate around genetically modified products continues and is often characterized by emotive and misleading information about purported dangers that are not supported by any scientific evidence;
  6. Highly restrictive policy and regulatory environments exist in parts of the world, greatly hampering the capacity of farmers to access innovations that will improve farm productivity, household incomes and food security;

We hereby declare our commitment and determination

  1. To work collectively to improve the communications environment, including the use of the latest as well as traditional communication strategies to ensure effectiveness.
  2. To work inclusively, with all stakeholders, including those opposed to this technology, in an effort to build consensus and common understanding.
  3. To promote choice, so that farmers, consumers and other end-users can make informed decisions that reflect their best interests.
  4. To address the concerns of people at all levels, to ensure the widest participation possible.
  5. To demonstrate how agricultural production challenges can be tackled using biotechnology, and how it can directly contribute to food and nutrition security, poverty alleviation, job creation and sustainable economic development.
  6. To support credible scientists who are most trusted by the public and governments to be effective communicators and to have a closer relationship with the media and policymakers to ensure that scientifically-informed messages reach target audiences.

In particular, we gratefully acknowledge the active participation of Members of the Kenya National Assembly and many senior government representatives who participated in this conference and welcome their invaluable inputs to ensure the current ban on importation and consumption of GM foods in Kenya is lifted.

Call for abstracts: Kenya’s 2015 National Science Week

Kenya’s National Commission for Science, Technology and Innovation (NACOSTI) and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology have issued a call for abstracts for the fourth National Science Week to be held on 11-15 May 2015 in Nairobi.

The event consists of an exhibition, robotics contest and a conference. The aim of the conference is to share and identify practical, evidence-based solutions to science and technology development in the post-2015 agenda in line with Kenya’s Vision 2030 national strategic development plan.

The conference will bring together academia, researchers, scientists and practitioners working in universities, research organisations, industry, civil society, government and other stakeholders.

The theme of the conference is The role of science and technology in the post-2015 development agenda. The sub-themes are:

  • agriculture and food security
  • energy and climate change
  • environmental and natural resource management
  • water, sanitation and health
  • knowledge management and technology transfer

Visit the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology website for more information on how to submit abstracts.

The deadline for submission is 31 March 2015.

New atlas maps data on Africa’s smallholder agriculture research and development

The work of agricultural researchers and development workers in Africa has the potential to significantly improve the lives of the poor. But that potential can only be realized with easy access to high-quality data and information.

The Atlas of African Agriculture Research & Development highlights the ubiquitous role of smallholder agriculture in Africa; the many factors shaping the location, nature, and performance of agricultural enterprises; and the strong interdependencies among farming, natural-resource stocks and flows, and the well-being of the poor.

Organized around seven themes, the atlas covers more than 30 topics, each providing mapped geospatial data and supporting text that answers four fundamental questions:

  • What is this map telling us?
  • Why is this important?
  • What about the underlying data?
  • Where can I learn more?

The atlas is part of a wide-ranging eAtlas initiative that will showcase, through print and online resources, a variety of spatial data and tools generated and maintained by a community of research scientists, development analysts, and practitioners working in and for Africa.

The initiative will serve as a guide, with references and links to online resources to introduce readers to a wealth of data that can inform efforts to improve the livelihoods of Africa’s rural poor.