OFAB opts for high-impact grassroots outreach approach to advocacy

Consensus is emerging among biotech stakeholders in Africa that three things must happen to spike the graph of biotech crops adoption in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Of the three, the first is increased demand for biotech crops by grassroots communities, followed by a strong commitment by high-level policy makers to evidence-based biotech policy decisions. And the third is the need for a global coalition of pro-biotech advocacy and communication groups for a coordinated approach to biotech issues management.  It is a renaissance of sorts, reminiscent of the revolutions in the 50s and 60s that shaped modern theories of development communication.

Dr. Mnenei of OFAB Tanzania , accompanied by  journalists, talks to local farmers about challenges facing their crops in Mtwara, Tanzania.
Dr. Mnenei of OFAB Tanzania , accompanied by journalists, talks to local farmers about challenges facing their crops in Mtwara, Tanzania.

As catalyst of the new thinking, in 2014 the OFAB project started laying major groundwork to mainstream the three approaches into its advocacy strategies. During the 2014 OFAB Annual Review and Planning Meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, the project’s new vision, strategic thinking and roadmap for achieving the three pillars of mobilizing grassroots support, impacting high-level policy makers and building a global coalition was presented to the over 40 stakeholders in attendance.  This  new thinking was supported by advice from experts on grassroots campaigns and biotech issues management in addition to experiences gained by the OFAB family and its partners over the years.

OFAB project started testing its community dynamic grassroots model in Tanzania in the last quarter of 2013. By the following year there were significant impacts that were shared during April Annual Review and Planning meeting. The model involves holding conversations with farmers and community leaders in their localities about the challenges facing their key staple crops, such as bananas, maize, cassava and sorghum. The experts would then explain the causes to the community members and the media and provide available solutions to the challenges. As a follow-up, farmers would on their own petition relevant authorities for access to seeds that are better equipped against abiotic and biotic stresses.

To help improve biotech policy environment, OFAB implemented a series of activities aimed at gaining high-level commitment of policymakers to science-based policy making.  For instance, in April 2014, the project organized a high-impact seeing-is-believing tour to South Africa for high-level policy makers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Nigeria. The main purpose of the visit was to expose the policy makers to architectures of evidence-based policies and the practical benefits of genetically modified crops.

In Uganda, the OFAB team organised and joined experts from Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization, AATF and AfricaBio in briefing the Uganda parliamentary committee on agriculture on the benefits of biotech crops and their role in agricultural development in July. The team also participated in the 2nd National Agriculture Stakeholders Meeting where biotechnology was also discussed.

In Tanzania, conversations and calls for review of the strict liability clause to allow field trials of biotech crops continued during the year, backed by written recommendations to cabinet and parliament.

In Kenya, an advisory paper was presented to the government, calling for lifting of the ban on GM imports. There were also encouraging positive public statements on biotech by the president and his deputy thereby offering a rare flicker of hope that the much-awaited lifting of the ban could be in the offing. To build on this momentum, OFAB partnered with varsity lecturers and other stakeholders         in calling for ban to be lifted. These outreach activities contributed to a chorus of calls on cabinet to lift the ban from scientists, legislators, ministers, entrepreneurs and media.

Finally in Ghana, statements of support for biotechnology that also denounced left-leaning anti-biotech lobby groups were received from high ranking government officials that lent support to level headed discussions of biotechnology and the plant breeders’ bill.

One of OFAB project’s key mantra in 2014 was to ‘Think global, act local’. This was championed to help build strong regional and global networks of partners to help in dealing with the complicated scenarios around biotechnology. OFAB undertook an exchange mission to the UK, Belgium and The Philippines and forged useful strategic alliances that were leveraged to optimize its impacts.

Another development for OFAB during the year was involvement in designing the Cornell Alliance for Science (AFS) program. AFS’s main goal is to train biotech stakeholders on effective biotechnology advocacy, communication and leadership. A number of OFAB and AATF staff and partners benefited from the first training on grassroots campaign and effective biotech advocacy held from 10-12 September 2014 in London.

The other key achievement of the period was the launch of the eighth chapter in Ethiopia, in June 2014. The launch was attended by over 50 people, representing government, research institutions, universities, the media, industry, farmer organisations and regulatory bodies. The launching of OFAB Ethiopia was significant as it marked the forum’s entry into a city which is essentially the ‘capital of Africa’ being the host of the African Union headquarters.

Following logically from the above, the way forward for OFAB is three-fold: to intensify biotech grassroots advocacy and communication campaigns to mobilize community support for the potentially life-changing technologies; to enhance high-level biotech policy outreach aimed at mainstreaming evidence-based policy decisions; and to build OFAB brand regionally and globally in order to attract significant support from development partners and like-minded organizations.

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