The New Harvest: Exit Obama, enter Ole-Juma!

Date Posted: 
Wednesday, July 10, 2013

By Guardian on Sunday correspondent

The story of our ‘Ole-Juma’ begins at the tail-end of the latest public lecture in a monthly series hosted by the Tanzania chapter of the Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology (OFAB).

Sit back and visualize a zebra on a motor bike speeding perilously along Sokoine Drive somewhere in the plains of the fabled Serengeti minus a helmet. This ostensibly careless omission to protect itself in case of a crash soon pays off: if our zebra had taken a minute longer to dress up for accident, a waiting predator, you guessed right, the lion would have caught up with him!

The moral: success goes to those dare to take risks, real or imagined. That’s vintage Calestous Juma, a professor at the Kennedy School, Harvard University in the United States.

Perhaps unknown to him, Calestous had just landed on the soils of a country also known as Bongo, where fine leaders talk fine science; but behind closed offices and boardrooms their tongues and fingers provide evidence to the contrary. Here, you cannot do a descent job -- no matter how well constructed your intentions may be unless you’ve been bribed by Monsanto, or some other imagined brood of vipers, as everyone seems to suggest.

This was quite evident during a recent tour to the tiny West African nation of Burkina Faso – where everyone in the Tanzania delegation witnessed how ordinary Burkinabe were reaping the handsome rewards of agricultural biotechnology.

But, boy, the doubters still remained unmove , and they even thought that the proof the poor farmers of Bt cotton had provided our delegation was some ‘loss’ on their side. In fact, someone called back home from the bushes where we had stopped to get some ‘herbs’ midway between Bobo de lasio and Ouagadougou to report: “We’ve had it … we’re done for.”

What cheek! If that can persist at that level, what can we expect from the hoi poloi in our midst whom we owe critical leadership?

In the words of Prof Calestous Juma, people aren’t afraid of change; they are afraid of loss. So what loss were these government mandarins talking about in the bushes of Burkina Faso, where they had just learned that Bt cotton (read genetically modified cotton) was changing the lives of poor farmers?

Not surprisingly, even as President Jakaya Kkikwete now affirms his administration’s resolve to set up more science and technology institutions, and to reform nation’s universities, a surprising 52 per cent of his own people do not understand why all the fuss and a clear 38 per cent think it’s a waste of scarce resources and 14 per cent simply don’t know what that’s all about.

In a random survey on whether Tanzania and indeed the whole of Africa needs STI (science, technology and innovation) as sure way for us to improve our deprived lot a surprising majority of Bongo people just wasn’t amused why all the fuss!

The survey results were released last Sunday night during ITV’s popular “Kipima Joto” (literally, Thermometer) which teases out public response to emerging issues of our lives.

Granted, the ITV ‘thermometer’ may not be the most accurate instrument to gauge public opinion, but it’s significant that we still have people among us who think STI (science, technology and innovation) aren’t sexy enough to warrant government spending.

Yet there’s hope. This country has a rich harvest of visionaries doing sterling jobs under conditions lesser mortals would never even start; these are the people who share in Calestous Juma’s often outlandish optimism.

Talk of outlandish optism reminds us about former premier Ed Lowassa who has ‘a dream’ about available opportunities for making a complete turn-around in the country’s awful record in education right now and prays that he sees it happen before he is ‘collected’ to his ancestors.

Within our corridors, there’s Dr Reginald Mengi not because he doles out a pay cheque for my living but this man is already walking that dream by tapping into the creative faculties of young men and women whom he fondly refers to as the unsung heroes through an active online engagement with them.

Yes, and there’s Dr Joseph Ndunguru, the current presidential science laureate (for three years running), who just led a regional team of researchers in an historic breakthrough after 142 years of dark days for cassava farmers in Tanzania and the rest of Sub Saharan Africa.

In August, this year, Dr Joseph Nduguru from the Mikocheni Agricultural Research Institute (MARI) and his colleagues from Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa announced their historical discovery of a distinct species (genotype) of the white fly, Bemisia tabaci, which carries the virus that causes two major pests destroying cassava harvests across the region – cassava ‘mosaic’ and ‘brown streak’ viral diseases.

This landmark science breakthrough, whose four-year study was coordinated by Dr Ndunguru, brings a fresh breath of relief to 200 million people who live on a diet of cassava in sub-Saharan Africa and another 500 million across the third world, the Guardian on Sunday can reveal.

On a larger canvass, the discovery could also spell an end to needless misery from ‘cassava mosaic’ and ‘cassava brown streak’ diseases both known to have decimated whole crop harvests within a year and opens opportunities to the region’s scientists to apply state-of-the-art molecular techniques to resolve field problems facing resource-poor farmers.

And now, our toast of the week is Prof Calestous Juma, a professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of the Science, Technology and Globalization at Havard Kennedy School, USA.

Author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa, Prof Juma is credited in raving reviews for having produced a “refreshing new book that steps back from the usual debates about appropriate agricultural policies and programme interventions for redressing Africa’s pressing poverty and food security needs, to takes a longer-term view of the kinds of science-based interventions that are needed to launch Africa’s agricultural sector on a structurally different trajectory…”

He was the founder of the African Centre on Technology Studies (ACTS) in his native Kenya: and this week, Tanzania played host to him at a public lecture on “Innovations in Agriculture for Improved productivity and socio-economic development” where he was the key speaker.

In many ways, Calestous and Reginald seem to be walking and ‘digging’ the talk as the rest of us keep on talking and whining away our woes endlessly.

A meeting of minds: Cal and Reggie

At a public lecture hosted by the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), Prof Calestous Juma painted a graphic picture of what Dr Reginald Mengi has been preaching and some of his listeners often think he is getting a bit geeky: these two men are talking about two sets of the human faculty: of people resigned to fate and those who set out to conquer their fears; you can either remain perpetually sorrowful that you’re a late comer technologically or are physically disabled and can do nothing about it or take a good fight and conquer, wait, not someone else but yourself.

And, these two men never mind if they’ve ever met also argue that with a resolve to act, the late comers and so-called disabled people could bypass the first-comers and become front-runners themselves. It’s all in your mind, they both argue.

To drive that point home at this week’s public lecture, Cal displayed on screen an ape – our closest ancestor in the theory of evolution  walking towards some destination; the ape soon morphs into a naked man, still walking, but this time towards something that looked like a computer screen which opens up and out comes a garment which envelopes this naked man who, possibly buoyed by lack of nakedness and newfound garb takes off to the moon!

The central message here is that those who come late can become front-runners: Africa didn’t invent mobile phones but the mobile banking system -- M-Pesa – was born in Kenya, and a few others have since come along. That’s possibly the best definition of innovation; so every time you send money home you’re also defining STI.

The trick is, absorb what others have invented, move on and create some other opportunities based on an invention not entirely your own: the British created the what we knew as the Industrial Revolution but it was the Germans who made capital out of that and outpaced the Brits; soon the Germans were also outrun by others the Scandinavians, the Japanese and now the Chinese who want the likes of Obama and his Yanks out of the way.

“There’s no reason why African economies shouldn’t soon outrun those of China soon,” Calestous said, arguing that it takes shorter for late-comers to out-perform the earlier runners because the groundwork already exists for them to innovate drawing resources on existing inventions.

Worried about patents? Sit pretty because they expire, don’t they? But the problem is, none of us in Africa, except Ethiopia, do not have institutional mechanisms to monitor when those patents on key inventions would expire. Perhaps the only reason the rest of us we don’t monitor patents and move in full throttle is because we think they’re sacred: that’s fear at its worst.

Back to meeting of minds, just how many times have we heard Dr Mengi telling those we call ‘disabled’ people that they’re only as disabled as they think otherwise, they’re just as good, or even better, than people with all the limbs and other awfully underused physical endowments? But we digress so more of this anon.

So what of Ed Lowassa and his dream? In Bongo, we’ve truly perfected the art of associating good ideas and the faces behind them. The same goes for bright ideas from ‘foreigners’ (even if they happen to come from fellow Africans) which our spirited do-gooders rush to interpret as ‘pressure’ from outside. And, it’s precisely this misplaced metaphor which has, in large part, bogged down meaningful debate on agricultural biotechnology.

But mark our words: Ed Lowassa is no starry-eyed ‘dreamer’ as some would want us to believe; in this case, the word ‘dream’ is a well deserved allegory for a sober message to us all.

Indeed, we cannot simply wish away the fact that adult literacy has slipped down; in just eleven years, the number of people who cannot read or write has nearly doubled, from 18 to 32 per cent between 1992 and now not to talk of the resounding ‘zeros’ in the 2012 ‘O’ Level results which we sought to sweep under the carpet by nullifying them.

But there’s hope; it’s from the ‘bad’ that we get the ‘good’ performers, to paraphrase Calestous Juma: that’s the way to go if we want our grandchildren today to become tomorrow’s front-runners come 2050 when, we are told, Tanzania will be home to a population the size of Nigeria.

Just as for our pitifully low levels in food production, so will it be for the awful record we now see in education; both call for change – a shift away from the perceptions which currently inform most of our decisions to policy decisions informed by empirical evidence.

We aren’t quite sure what time-frame Ed Lowassa has in mind; it’s probably not all that important, but can we step back from the usual knee-jack reactions of forming select committees every time we have a crisis in our hands?

Where a scenarios building session would do a better job, as it would certainly serve the purpose, we heard calls for probe teams and select committees as if we had a yet unexplained murder – for which you need an inquest. That’s where perceptions are taking us, demoting everything – science, religion and even metaphysic – to the realm of politics. And, some may already be nodding knowingly: Ed is talking politics under the guise of a dream for better educated kids tomorrow.

Former UNEP executive director Mostapha Tolba left behind some fond rhetoric: We have not inherited the earth from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children. But, it was this Egyptian microbiologist, among many others, who brought debate on global warming and climate change out of coffee tables to serious business.

On reflection, the mid-1980s were also my salad days in science reporting – and many of the issues which rubbished as science fiction have come to pass within my lifetime, even though they looked ridiculously out of kilter as I put out the first ever press release on global warming from UN in the mid-80s.

So the former premier should be taken seriously not he is Edward Loward from Monduli but because his dreams contains the seeds of honour to future generations. For the believers among us, even Ed gets collected to the land of Abraham and Jacob today, I’m sure the living God he believes in will cause the heavens to shake with joy when his dream comes to pass!

On a flight from Vienna, Austria, to Dar in 1979, Dr Eric Knutsson, the man who helped raise critical funds for Costech’s forerunner, Utafiti, shared this quip with me: After the (political) scramble for Africa was over, there’s only one more continent to scramble for: the future.

The story we then carried in the Sunday News of the day, Knutsson’s quote was as hilarious as it was also remote like the press release I put out at UNEP about scientists worrying about a warming Planet Earth.

But as the numerous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sessions progressed over the years – with complex mathematical modulations (read scenarios building) -- at Villach, also in Austria, Peter Usher, the man with the UNEP brief at IPCC, stared making sense to me – and a learning curve had begun.

And now the scramble for the future runs full steam as we regurgitate old puke from the EU – which they have long since abandoned themselves. Perceptions die hard, indeed.

For the sake our children who will pick up the mess from where we now live, work and make love (read politics) and soon die we better stop playing politics and listen to this young man from Monduli.

Sorry, did I just preach? Think again. Just other day, an opposition MP called for a review of our education system – and hell itself descended upon the poor guy. God forbid – couldn’t even from the top Yank we just hosted: he and protagonist Bush Jr were here and we heard no politics when they both remembered their dead from that fateful day in 1998.

Download article in the Guardian on Sunday in pdf