Straight Talk from Africa: Our Help is Welcomed

Owen RobertsMany people have opinions about what developing countries need to prosper in food production. Some insist on more local autonomy for farmers, and less Western influence.  After all, people in what are now considered developing countries survived for thousands of years before Western wisdom arrived, they say. Such thinkers  believe we should turn back the clock, let developing countries rediscover and re-implement traditional ways, and things will work out.

That approach is not limited to developing countries. Anywhere there’s a local food movement, participants are likewise committed to the belief that traditional is better. I think what they mean is that fresh is better. But regardless, traditionally, fresh meant local. And the pursuit of fresh food is one factor driving the public to support local farmers and farming initiatives, such as the Local Food Fest this Sunday at Ignatius College, on the outskirts of Guelph.

Food production is highly research driven. As challenges change and opportunities arise, research answers the bell. The institution I know the best, the University of Guelph, has a tradition of food production development, and of connecting with people provincially, nationally and internationally who need sound, research-based help with their food systems.

At home, the University’s highly productive research agreement with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of Rural Affairs addresses provincial needs for food quality, food safety and environmental sustainability, among other necessities.

Abroad, East Africa has been identified as a region where help is needed, where the population is booming and food systems have not kept pace. It’s also where Guelph has a presence. Its East Africa Initiative connects university researchers with stakeholders in East African countries, such as Tanzania.

Recently, a five-person government and academic delegation from Tanzania visited Guelph. It was a high-powered group — four vice-chancellors from agricultural institutions in the country, and the minister of education and vocational training.

Time fell away as a 10-minute meeting we’d arranged grew to consume nearly an hour, as a result of a full discussion that followed just one question: How can University of Guelph researchers help you address food needs in Tanzania and perhaps elsewhere in Africa?

They were clear in their response…overwhelmingly, they see partnerships and technology as the answer. They are craving technology that will help Africans help themselves, and face challenges such as drought, natural disaster, marketing and competition.

“As a country, we need development and support,” said Prof. Gerald Monela, vice-chancellor of the Sokoine University of Agriculture. “The critical thing for us is the challenge to agriculture to increase productivity, to develop agribusiness so we can process our own products. This will create jobs, as people become entrepreneurs.”

His colleague Prof. Idris Kikula, vice-chancellor of the University of Dodoma, noted Tanzania is having a tough time. He says food insecurity there is a real problem, most recently as a result of the country facing a massive maize failure for four consecutive years. Its cassava and banana crops are suffering badly. Kikula, like agricultural industry observers and participants everywhere, wonders if climate change is to blame.

Like Canada, Tanzania has a variety of agricultural zones and regions. Crops need tailored approaches to increase productivity. Realistically, technology to broadly increase production must be affordable and flexible.

Many in the industry are now looking toward precision agriculture as part of the solution — that is, production involving the likes of satellite technology and remote field-level sensors, to help farmers know the precise location, amount and timing of inputs such as fertilizer, crop protection and irrigation.

Precision agriculture was once a futuristic concept. But now, with technology becoming so much more accessible, it’s everywhere. With some effort to network and coordinate the many information systems capable of supporting precision agriculture — along with sensor technology advances such as those which have been developed at the University of Guelph — it will be globally available. Affordability remains to be seen, but given how the technology behind it has fallen price-wise, it can and should be within the grasp of those who need it the most.

Precision agriculture shows how technology stands to benefit countries such as Tanzania (which welcome it). At the same time, it shows how farmers there could better manage their own resources. Research partnerships will help make it happen.

 

 

Owen Roberts

Owen Roberts directs research communications and teaches at the University of Guelph, and is president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists. You can find him on Twitter as @theurbancowboy

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