Cutting honours for Thomson in Nairobi

19 July 2004

UCT's Professor Jennifer Thomson (molecular and cell biology) shared the ribbon-cutting honours with the Kenyan Minister of Agriculture, Kipruto arap Kirwa, recently when they opened the new African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Nairobi, an initiative to increase productivity among Africa's small-scale farmers. Thomson is the chair of the AATF's board.

Thomson, mainly through her work on genetically modified crops, in particular the maize streak virus and drought-tolerant plants, and her book Genes for Africa, is well-versed in this arena.

A public-private partnership, the AATF plans to spearhead the transfer of agricultural technology by accessing royalty-free agricultural technologies for smaller farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. In this way the organisation hopes to improve food security and reduce poverty.

Eight priority programmes have been identified that deal with aspects like striga (witchweed) control in cereals; nutritional quality enhancement in maize and rice; and mycotoxins in food grains.

Thomson was also part of an InterAcademy Council (IAC) study panel that wrote the council's 2004 report concerning agricultural productivity in Africa and the role of science and technology strategies for improving agricultural productivity and food security in Africa.

The study was requested by United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, who asked the IAC panel to prepare a strategic plan for harnessing the best science and technology to increase food productivity on the continent.

According to the summary, since 1990 the availability of food increased by 30% in Asia and by 20% in Latin America but declined by three percent in Africa, causing near-starvation for many millions of people in southern Africa.

The report recognises that the problem requires long-range approaches involving a broad array of African institutions and constituencies. Their recommendations include:

  • a request for Annan to identify appropriate institutions to implement innovative pilot programmes designed to shape Africa's agricultural future
  • interdisciplinary teams from African universities, research centres and allied organisations to prepare plans for promoting priority farming systems
  • African governments should create centres of excellence for agricultural research to serve the interests of smallholder farm families.

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