Fighting ignorance through new technology

Samuel Owiti Awino was an agricultural gambler, so to speak.

supportTormented by unreliable rains and the destructive Striga weed, he was ready to try any crop that came his way. “When you are sick and you don’t know what ails you, you will take any concoction hoping that one of them will eventually cure you. In farming that is what I had been doing for quite a long time.”

Samuel Owiti Awino

Samuel Owiti Awino at his farm

But this was before he encountered agricultural extension services during a field day facilitated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Homabay Town two planting seasons ago.  They introduced him to new ideas such as soil testing, planting appropriate crops, and the use of certified seeds and fertilizer.

He also got to learn about the Imazapyr Resistant (IR) seeds, popularly known as the StrigAway or Ua Kayongo technology that is changing fortunes in the Lake Victoria region. He was told that Striga survives by siphoning off water and nutrients from the host crops for its own growth. It can reduce output by 80%.

The AATF – established in 2003 to help small-holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa improve farming in order to fight hunger and poverty – has partnered with four commercial seed companies to make available the IR seeds to farmers. Its Striga Control in Maize Project also trains its beneficiaries in better farming practices.

“Even though we knew they (extension officers) were experts, there were so many questions as to their motive. Some farmers just laughed off a suggestion that if they prepared the fields properly, used the right seeds and used fertilizers, their harvest would multiply ten times. It is a language they never heard before.”#

Samuel Owiti-Awino

Samuel Owiti Awino

His farm was among those hitherto heavily ravaged by the Striga. In fact when he was approached to be part of the demonstration group whose farms would be used as exhibition sites, he gave them a parcel he had long abandoned due to its low yields.

To his surprise, even his most fertile land did not produce half of what he eventually got from the demonstration plot he had up till then neglected – the parcel he had abandoned.

“I managed (140 kilos) from the demo plot yet only a few buckets from the one I planted the kienyeji (seeds recycled from previous harvest)”, he recalls.

Ignorance is a key contributor to food insecurity in Kenya, according to Awino.  “Many people have been growing maize for a long time and their choice of seeds is usually informed by what they see others plant. They don’t seek expert advice. And it takes time for them to accept latest technologies.”

Samuel is now a delighted man. He no longer depends on the hand-of-fate to give him a bumper crop. The StrigAway seeds came in handy. He can now afford food for his family even as he handily pays school fees for those who depend on him.

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Women take the war over to ‘cereal’ killer

Busia is among the most fertile of Kenya’s 47 counties.  Its rich soils receive between 760mm and 2000mm of rainfall. “Most parts of the County have high potential for agriculture and promises of faster growth,” according to the Busia County Integrated Development Plan 2013-2017.

supportYet this frontier region lags behind in virtually all key indicators of life. Poverty level is 20 percentage points higher than the national figure, life expectancy is 17 years short of the national level, literacy level is 75% against the national’s 79%, and only one in five of teenagers are enrolled in high school.

The situation in Funyula, the most affluent rural area in the county, is even more poignant.

So, sometime in 1999, a group of farmers in Funyula decided to attack the dilapidating poverty. The 37 members (29 women and eight men) gave themselves the name, Becha Inyuma (loosely translated as Start Late but Pick up Fast) Women Group. “Since we were all farmers, the first push in the war against poverty was to improve agriculture,” says the chairperson Margaret Auma Aleke.

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The Chairperson of Becha Inyuma Women Group Margaret Auma Aleke

They reached out to the Ministry of Agriculture for answers to the perpetually poor farm yield.

It was during such visits that they got to understand the curse wrought by the Striga, which takes away up to 80% of the maize harvest. They were told about the latest anti-Striga technology, Imazapyr Resistant (IR) technology (trading as StrigAway or Ua Kayongo seeds), and they were referred to the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) whose Striga Control in Maize Project is making available the seeds to thousands of farmers in the Lake Victoria region.

AATF is working with four seed firms to make the seeds commercially available in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The Becha Inyuma Women Group members, each with average 2.5 ha farms and five children, pooled resources and acquired the IR seeds. The farm yield was startling. It was not business as usual.

Aleke is now able to harvest about 40 bags (3.6 tonnes) of maize from one hectare, up from six bags (540 kilos) formerly. “Maneno ya gorogoro tumesahau hii area yetu (we have buried hunger; food handout is now history),” she quips, remarkably excited.

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Owing to improved yields, the members have built stone houses, now afford clean safe water, and handily meet their school fees obligations. They managed to raise enough money for a commercial groundnuts shelling machine, bought an ox-plough, and now plan to acquire cattle. All now rear goats for milk.

Because women don’t own land and control no resources, they’re disadvantaged in negotiations for credit. And this explains why they form into women groups and other “chamas” (groups).

Busia has 175 women groups and over 150 youth groups, all involved in credit facilities.

“The IR seed is a boon. It came just at the right time. Now we know our farms aren’t cursed,” Aleke says.

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The Striga witch has left

Richard Amolo takes this writer around his farm. He just ploughed it in readiness for the short rains that were expected the previous week.

supportYes, the rains delayed. Amolo says he is afraid they may fail altogether.  But there’s one thing that no longer gives him sleepless nights – the Striga weed, known locally as Kayongo. He’s among dozens of farmers in Got Bondo village, in Central Asembo, Siaya, in Western Kenya, battling the destructive purple-coloured weed that attacks cereals, including maize, sorghum and millet.

“I have witnessed the fruits of the battle; now I can eat and sell the surplus. Previously I barely managed to feed my family. I plan to extend the cropland. I want to get into agri-business.”

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Richard Amolo, a farmer (left) supervising his farm. On his right is AATF’s field officer Caleb Adede

Rains delay in this area. But they never fail. “As long as I can remember, we have blamed rains for all our farming problems. Even when we had enough rainfall we still received minimal maize harvest. Rain has been the classic scape-goat,” Richard recalls.

However, the biggest torment for millions of farmers in the Lake Victoria region has been the prolific Striga weed which can destroy 80 per cent of the crop.

According to experts, this poisonous weed survives by siphoning off water and nutrients from the host crops for its own growth. It thus leaves the host stunted.

“A plant attacked by Kayongo looks like an emaciated HIV/Aids patient,” Amolo says, in his native Luo language.

He used to harvest just one bag of 90 kilos on one of his parcels of land outside the well-kempt homestead. He harvests four bags (360 kilos) nowadays, since he decided to try the Imazapyr Resistant (IR) seeds – the latest technology in the war against the weed.

Strigaa-storoRichard Amolo (left) a farmer in Siaya, pointing at his farm as AATF’s Caleb Adede looks on.

According to Gospel Omanya, the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) Senior Manager for Projects Management and Deployment, the IR technology acts in two ways: It stops Striga attaching itself to the crop roots; it kills the weed’s seeds in the soil.

The AATF-established in 2003 to help small-holder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa improve farming in order to fight hunger and poverty – has partnered with four commercial seed companies to make available the IR seeds to farmers. Apart from the seeds, the Striga Control in Maize Project also trains its beneficiaries in better farming practices.

For Amolo, a retired hotelier, the science that is transforming his livelihood is beyond his compression.  “All that’s important to me is that Striga has gone; the witch has left.”

He then gestures towards the sky, where dark clouds are forming. The rains aren’t far, he muses without effort.

“The rains can delay, but they will come eventually. But the Striga weed is fatal, unless you control it with the new (StrigAway) technology. It can wipe out your livelihood.”

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Rainmaker battles ‘cereal’ killer

Leonida Andewa, a mother of seven, is transforming a community hitherto ravaged by the effects of Striga. Her village is a few kilometres from Luanda Town, Vihiga County in Western Kenya.

supportThe widow, a former primary school teacher, has been farming since 1975. Implicitly, she’s an opinion-shaper, not only among women-folk but even within the highly patriarchal society of West Bunyore Sub-location, whose residents are famously known to be traditional rainmakers.

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 Leonida Andewa, a farmer in Vihiga County at her farm during the interview.

And because of her position in the society African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) officials and the Ministry of Agriculture extension officers selected her to headline the revolutionary Imazapyr Resistant (IR) technology that is used to control the destructive Striga weed in maize farmlands. AATF has partnered with seed producers to make available IR seeds to farmers.

Leonida has what area agricultural experts describe as ‘a model farm’ – two adjunct plots that extension agents or researchers use to study and highlight to the public the effects of opposing technologies, in this case the IR seeds and the kienyeji (seeds recycled from previous harvest).

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Leonida Andewa during the interview.

“I receive on average 30 visitors a month, who come here to look at my crop. They admire the way I go about my farming. They replicate on their farms what they witness here.”

Maize is a critical component of food security in Vihiga. Agriculture provides 61 per cent of all employment. Yet farming is still backward; about 98.7% of farming is subsistence. Use of fertilizer and certified seeds is just 25%.

The inapt farming practice is witnessed in the output – Vihiga County managed to harvest just 329,280 bags (29.6 million kilos) of maize in 2012 – not enough to feed its 570,000 residents. (Kenya’s per capita maize consumption is 88 kilos)

Leonida wants to change this. She believes Vihiga can be a self-sufficient county in matters of food. “If we fight Striga and employ good farming practices, we can become a maize surplus county.”

At times, Leonida’s 4-acre farm is turned into a field day, an annual forum where farmers and agricultural officers showcase their best practices and learn new farming techniques. Field days – apart from radio programs, on-farm demonstrations, chief’s baraza (public rallies), pamphlets and brochures, and agricultural extension agents – are the key sources of farming information in the rural areas.

Naturally, the fact that she is a woman was empirical in her choice to headline the new technology. In parts of western Kenya, women have been relegated to the periphery yet they provide 65% of farm-work. They own just one per cent of the land and resultant farm income. Thus, any technology that sidelines women is futile. “It must begin with the woman. We are open, and we provide the bulk of farm-work.”

Leonida sums up IR’s benefit, thus “There has been drastic change in the yields”.

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At the forefront in war against ‘cereal’ killer

In a region where the youth have apparently shirked farming despite the soaring poverty, Mercy Mwende Onyango stands out as an island. She’s leading the way in embracing technology. And she hopes that her agricultural exploits will not only silence hunger pangs in the community. Click to support:

supportThey will also fuel an appetite among the youth to return back to farms.

Mercy runs a demonstration plot where farmers in Nyangoma, Siaya County in Western Kenya, witness the miracle of the Imazapyr Resistant (IR) technology. This model farm is critical to the livelihoods of tens of families in the area, for it is one of the training venues for members of the Hagonglo, a community based organization (CBO) that benefits 723 households in matters farming and health.

Mercy Mwende Onyango, at her model plot in Nyangoma, Siaya County, Kenya.

Mercy Mwende Onyango, at her model plot in Nyangoma, Siaya County, Kenya.

“They (farmers in the area) can witness technology at work,” she says

Watch video on Farmer Mercy Mwende Onyango MPEG-4

The youthful mother of two got to know about the IR (popularly known as StrigAway or Ua Kayongo) technology during a field day organized by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF). She would later plant the H528 seeds produced by the Kenya Seed Company, one of the four seed producers AATF partners with to make available the technology.

Founded in 2003, the AATF assists small-holder growers fight hunger and poverty through new technologies.

“I got a big yield; very good harvest. I also realized that Striga was gone. And the farm is fertile because we used fertilizer for the first time; never before.”

Mercy Mwende Onyango plating the StrigAway seeds on her demonstration plot under the guidance of AATF’s Field Officer Caleb Adede.

Mercy Mwende Onyango plating the StrigAway seeds on her demonstration plot under the guidance of AATF’s Field Officer Caleb Adede.

Her harvests has improved from 5 bags (450 kgs) to 15 bags (1350 kgs). She has preserved some of last season’s harvest until the price of farm produce improves on the market, which is probably early next year. “My family can now move into the next season without having exhausted the previous harvest. We are food sufficient,” she says.

It is hardly surprising that Mercy’s story is important to Siaya authorities.

While Agriculture provides 61% of all employment, the youths in the area have not been keen about faming. Thus, employment is a key pillar in Siaya County government’s current development strategy. “(There’s need) for more resources to be channeled to employment-driven investments to reduce the burden of dependence and poverty,” states Siaya County Integrated Development Plan 2013-17.

The County Government – buoyed by the noteworthy success of AATF’s Striga Control in Maize Project – plans to allocate funds towards Striga control in the next budget, according to Samwel Ongonga Wambisa, economic adviser for County Governor Cornel Rasanga Amoth.

“Mercy decided to try the new technology and moved very fast to embrace it, and that’s why we picked her farm as a demonstration plot,” says Pamela Ogutu, coordinator Hagonglo CBO. “While her fellow youth find farming hectic, she is moving very fast to clasp the very best technology that gives the ultimate benefit. She isn’t shy about farming. She’s a role model who’s likely to change the mindsets here”

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Removing drudgery from cassava farming – success for farmer Stephania Kunda in Zambia

Cassava, a highly nutritious crop, can be time consuming to plant, maintain and harvest. This has caused many farmers to shun planting the crop and those who plant cassava neglect its maintenance leading to below optimum yields. Cassava Mechanisation and Agroprocessing Project (CAMAP), currently being implemented in Nigeria, Zambia and Uganda, is aimed at reducing drudgery, and increasing productivity and incomes for farmers.

Stephania Kunda (extreme right) with the CAMAP team (left to right: George Marechera, AATF, Lazarus and Mr Mutondo, Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) ) on her farm.

Stephania Kunda (extreme right) with the CAMAP team (left to right: George Marechera, AATF, Lazarus and Mr Mutondo, Zambia Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) ) on her farm.

Stephania Kunda is one of the farmers participating in the project’s implementation. She was part of the first group of farmers selected for the CAMAP project in 2013 who planted 1 ha of cassava using machines for preparing the land and planting the cassava. One and a half years later, she boasts of a bountiful harvest of cassava as a result of the project. She harvests 55 baskets of cassava that weigh about 50kg before peeling from a 25 sq metre of land and sells them at 15 Kwacha (USD 2.2) each. This price varies and could go up as high as 30 Kwacha (USD 4.4) per basket. In total, she earns 825 Kwacha (USD 121) from 25m by 25m land and ultimately 13,200 Kwacha (USD 1,941) per hectare of land.

Family members peeling cassava on Stephania’s farm

Family members peeling cassava on Stephania’s farm

This season, Stephania has decided to increase the area she is planting with cassava to increase her profits. She can now afford to pay for machine services to cultivate the new piece of land from income gained from the previous harvest. She is also saving some money to buy a bicycle and more goats which feed on cassava peelings.

CAMAP continues to change lives of smallholder farmers through helping them plant cassava on larger tracts of land by providing machine services at a subsidized rate. The subsidized payments are used to build a revolving fund that ensures the sustainability of the project.

–    Grace Muinga, AATF

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WEMA Bt Maize by KALRO and AATF

WEMA Bt Maize is major milestones in Kenya’s agriculture and biotechnology that will help farmers fight the stem borers insect pests and improve their yields. Bt maize is maize that has the ability to control certain moths that damage maize plants as a result of a gene derived from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a soil dwelling bacterium that enables it to express the toxins. Bt-Maize-Post-Card6http://wema.aatf-africa.org/wema-bt-maize

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Transforming the cassava subsector in Zambia with mechanisation

Majority of farmers in Zambia own land in excess of ten hectares. However, until recently very few farmers had ever imagined cultivating a full hectare of cassava.  Most of the land in the cassava growing areas in the country, like in Mansa and Samfya districts of Luapula province and Kaoma district of the Western province is occupied by bushes and thickets that could pass for forests in some countries. Farmers mostly practice shifting cultivation with most of the cultivated land falling under maize thanks to the government’s subsidised inputs for growing the crop.

Opening of new land is often through use of crude tools such as machetes to slash the shrubs most of which are big enough to qualify for trees. This leaves the land very stumpy but since farming is manually done in most parts of the country, the farmers are still able to work on the farms.

In Zambia cassava growing is usually a side activity despite its great potential both as a food and industrial crop. In addition, farmers who farm the crop don’t employ any best management practices. The cassava stems are planted by partly burying them in the ground at an angle of 900 or 450. This practice leaves the stem cutting with only about one to three nodes that can sprout. To aggravate the matter, farmers don’t use any form of farm input such as fertiliser. They also don’t usually weed cassava fields rendering the crop vulnerable to competing weeds. Production of the crop is also compounded by the fact that cassava is usually planted on land which has previously been used to grow maize for several seasons leaving it exhausted of nutrients.

Cassava production challenges in Zambia are also intensified during harvest as it is a cumbersome affair given the amount of effort required to dig around the stems before pulling out the tubers. After the gruesome task of harvesting, farmers have to sun-dry the cassava for many days followed by pounding using pestle and mortar before they can either sell it or take it for milling for home consumption. All these challenges have rendered intensive cassava production unattractive and uneconomical. Production levels are as low as 8 metric tonnes of fresh tubers compared to a yield potential of over30 tonnes for some varieties.

The above cassava production scenario is now set to change with the implementation of activities under the Cassava Mechanisation and Agro-processing Project (CAMAP) in Zambia which began in December 2012. The project, led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), is facilitating farmers to access modern technologies to mechanise cassava production and processing. These includes tractors for land preparation; cassava planters with a capacity of planting up to 10 hectares per day; cassava uprooters able to harvest up to 10 hectares per day as well as assorted small and medium scale processing equipment. In addition, the project is also promoting the use of appropriate agronomic practices in cassava production as well as building the capacity of farmers to do farming as a business. The AATF project will go further to facilitate farmer linkages with cassava processors and other market outlets for their produce.

The AATF CAMAP held its first field days in Mansa and Samfya districts in June 2013 where farmers were able to visit cassava farms that had been planted following best practices.  The initial beneficiaries of the project were all smiles as they compared their current crop with what they have previously grown under traditional methods. They can only look forward to a bumper harvest come August 2014. This achievement is the result of farmers concerted efforts where they cleared their land of stumps to allow for the use of machinery, adopted the new planting specifications and planted the cuttings horizontally with fertiliser and keept the fields clean of weeds  throughout the season.

During the field days farmers were challenged by the outstanding performance of the crop which has raised the demand for project services to overwhelming proportions. During one of the field days hosted by Samwel Chilinda, one of the participating farmers, participants were urged to buy-in into the project given the now many opportunities available in making cassava production a source of livelihood. Plans are at an advanced stage to enroll more farmers in the project during the 2013/2014 season that will see the number of beneficiaries triple from the current 50 to 150 in the two districts.

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Farmer Mumba forsees lucrative cassava production in Zambia with CAMAP

When Celestina Mumba Chanda heard that there was a new project being implemented in her locality to help cassava farmers improve their crop production she was eager to be one of the first beneficiaries.  A resident of Mansa district in Zambia, one of the areas in the country that grows the most cassava, Mumba wants to increase her cassava production so as to make money from the sale of her produce. Mumba’s children are all grown-up and have left home. For her therefore, growing cassava for home consumption only is not as important. She is looking to make money out of her cassava and she feels the Cassava Mechanisation and Agro-processing Project (CAMAP) could not have come at a better time.

CAMAP is a public-private partnership project being undertaken by AATF in partnership with the Zambia Agricultural Research Institute. The goal of CAMAP is to enhance the contribution of cassava production and processing technologies for sustainable improvements in food security, incomes and livelihoods of farmers, processors, and marketers in the cassava sector. This will be achieved through upgrading and expanding traditional planting, harvesting and processing techniques that will contribute to development of competitive cassava commodity value chains for a reliable supply of processed products for food and non-food industrial use.

In addition to cassava, other crops that Mumba grows include maize, beans and soya bean. Cassava and maize happen to be the most important not only for her but also in the district. However, for a long time, cassava has not been grown commercially in the area. It is grown mostly for home consumption and if there is any sale of the crop it is mainly to neighbours for food.

Mumba is interested in participating in CAMAP because she believes it has prospects of making cassava production in the area very lucrative. She says this will be beneficial to a lot of farmers in the area. Asked on what she will do with the excess produce Mumba says that as a farmer, she is not afraid to look for the market. She also expects that CAMAP will assist farmers to find markets as she foresees an increase in the production of the crop in the district.

Mumba planted her cassava demonstration plot in December 2012. She and the other farmers used hoes at the time – which she confesses is a tedious affair – as they awaited the project’s planting equipment. They were also asked to make some changes in their farming such as planting Mweru, a higher yielding and disease resistant cassava, by completely burying 20cm off-cuts in the soil as opposed to planting it upright. They were also advised on one square metre spacing in addition to using fertiliser.

Farmer Celestina Mumba demonstrates to fellow farmers how she planted her cassava crop

Farmer Celestina Mumba demonstrates to fellow farmers how she planted her cassava crop

To Mumba these were new methods. She and the other farmers in the area used to plant cassava the traditional way.  This included recycling cuttings, not using fertiliser, and not weeding or using weed control herbicides among others.

In June 2013, Mumba was a proud farmer as she hosted other farmers on her farm during the farmers’ field day. Her use of the improved cassava planting methods including weeding and use of fertilizer had paid off. Her crop had vigour when compared to her neighbors’ who had planted the traditional way. Participating farmers attested to the difference in her crop and theirs.

Story by Grace Wachoro

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Dr Kyetere highlights the power of technology in boosting food productivity at 2013 Africa Business Round table

Dr Denis T. Kyetere, the Executive Director of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has said that technology can boost Africa’s agricultural productivity and translate to poverty reduction. Speaking at the Africa Business Round Table during the Spring meetings of the World Bank/ International Monetary Fund held in Washington DC, USA in April 2013, Dr Kyetere said that injecting appropriate agricultural technologies and addressing some of the key challenges facing smallholder farmers will see Africa grow and perhaps turn into a key exporter of agricultural produce.

“Technological interventions to increase yields and productivity provide opportunity and future growth area for Africa’s agriculture” Dr Kyetere added.

Dr Denis T. Kyetere (right) at the round table meeting in April 2013 in Washington DC, USA

Dr Denis T. Kyetere (right) at the round table meeting in April 2013 in Washington DC, USA

“Regional, sub-regional organisations, and government strategies recognise that science and technology can contribute to agricultural growth. He said this recognition provides a strong position to start from.

Dr Kyetere said that Africa has great potential to accomplish more through its agriculture. He highlighted the uncultivated arable land, describing it as a gold mine and as a key resource.

“With more than 70 percent of Africa’s resource constrained people depending on agriculture for their livelihoods the importance of agriculture to Africa’s economic development cannot be over emphasised,” he added.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, growth in agriculture is 11 times more effective in reducing poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the gross domestic product growth generated by agriculture is more effective in reducing poverty than that in other sectors.

With technological interventions, Dr Kyetere said that the current yield gaps such as in cereals that still stands at around 1.2 tonnes per hectare, compared to an average yield of 3 tonnes per hectare in the developed world could be addressed.

“Given the low levels of production and the available technologies worldwide, the arena is open for Africa to choose and select the best options to fit its purposes,” he said.

“Some of the technologies include those that will generate new varieties of plants and livestock; varieties adapted to climate change; varieties with better or efficient utilisation of water and other minerals such as nitrogen; labour saving technologies, fertiliser utilisation and value adding technologies among others” he added.

In his address Dr Kyetere presented Africa as an investment opportunity that has great potential for further growth given the support, and participation of the larger global community and appealed to the members of the international community gathered for the round table to actively partner with likeminded organisations to build Africa’s strengths to further develop its agriculture and with it, economies.

However, he cautioned that to successfully exploit the potential that technology offers to Africa, partnerships between public and private sectors must be put in place and nurtured, to take advantage of the potential that each one offers agricultural development.

Dr Kyetere also took the opportunity to outline the role that AATF plays in technology access and delivery to support Africa become food secure. Pointing out that AATF was marking 10 years of operation this year he said that the Foundation had grown into an effective mechanism for negotiating access and delivery of agricultural technologies from both public and private institutions all over the world – whether proprietary or otherwise – on behalf of Africa’s scientists and farmers.

For more information on AATF visit http://www.aatf-africa.org

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