JUMA: New revolution knocking at Africa’s door
Posted Saturday, June 30 2012 at 20:05
Kenya is celebrated as the birthplace of mobile money revolution. Motorola’s first cell phone released in 1983 cost $4,000 (or $9,500 at current costs – Sh798,000).
It weighed two kilos. Subsequent generations were viewed as toys for the elite with no practical relevance to developing countries. Today Kenya is ahead of the curve.
The mobile revolution had its detractors. The incumbent landline industry stood in the way. There were scare campaigns that using mobile phones could cause job losses and brain cancer.
The dramatic benefits from mobile phones were foreseen only by a handful of people but driven by dedicated policy makers and entrepreneurs.
Today a new revolution is knocking at Africa’s door — agricultural biotechnology. It promises to do for agriculture what mobile technology has done for communication.
I wrote my second book, The Gene Hunters, in 1989 on the technology. It was seven years ahead of the first commercial release of biotechnology crops in the United States.
There were concerns from the outset akin to those raised about mobile phones.
It was claimed that biotechnology would only benefit rich farmers, destroy the environment and undermine food security. But evidence is stacking up against these earlier doomsday claims. The current adoption rate of biotechnology crops is 11 per cent
in developing countries compared to five per cent in industrialised countries.Of the 16.7 million people who grew biotechnology crops in 2011, 15 million or 90 per cent were small resource-poor farmers in developing countries.
Over the 1996-2010 period, the global farm income gain was $78.4 billion, half of which went to developing countries. In 2010 alone, the net farm level economic gain was $14 billion, equal to an average rise in income of $100 per hectare.
There are concerns that the costs of accessing biotechnology are prohibitive to farmers in developing countries. Farmers in developing countries spent about 17 per cent of their total technology gains on accessing the technology, compared to 37 per cent in developed nations.
The cost of access to technology should be measured against productivity increases.
When I helped to draft Kenya’s industrial property law in 1989, we envisaged a future in which access to new technology would help to boost economic productivity.
We also knew that when patents expire, the associated knowledge becomes freely available.
Kenyans are already using publicly available technology to conduct research on critical agricultural fields such as controlling pests, diseases and weeds; increasing nutritional content of local crops; and developing drought-tolerant crops.
The fruits of their labour will require international recognition and protection. Potential environmental impacts of biotechnology remain a controversial area.
No technology is risk-free. However, there is growing evidence that biotechnology crops are beneficial to the environment.
If biotechnology had not been used in 2010, the world would have required an additional 23 per cent of the arable land of Brazil to maintain the same level of soybean, maize and cotton output.