In Africa, smallholder agriculture is the most common type of farming, and its growth is closely linked to reducing poverty and promoting agricultural development. It is estimated that around 41 million smallholders provide most of the food for both rural and urban residents in Africa. Some challenges African farmers face in food crop production include low yield, poor soil quality, water scarcity, limited market access, post-harvest losses, and susceptibility to climate change. The chronic underinvestment in agriculture further exacerbates these problems. According to reports, many African governments, 48 out of 54, allocate an average of only 3.8 percent of their budgets to agriculture, with some governments spending as little as one percent (AGRA, 2022)1. Given that agriculture accounts for a significant portion of Africa’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and is a major contributor to the continent’s economy, there is a need to discuss innovations that can advance the continent’s Agricultural sector.
Africa is considered to have the greatest potential for reaping benefits from biotech crop adoption due to the prevalent issues of poverty and malnutrition in the region. As of 2019, Africa had cultivated nearly 3 million hectares of biotech crops out of the 190 million hectares grown worldwide targeted at biofortification, drought tolerance, disease resistance, pest resistance, virus resistance, or herbicide tolerance. However, biotechnology development in Africa has been a slow and gradual process.
South Africa was the first country to adopt biotech crops on the continent. They planted insect-resistant cotton, its first biotech crop, in 1998. Insect-resistant maize followed, and in 2001, the cultivation of herbicide-tolerant soybeans was approved. They also adopted herbicide-tolerant maize in 2003 (ISAAA, 2017)2. In 2008, Burkina Faso and Egypt commercialized biotech cotton and maize, respectively. However, both countries stopped planting them after a few years. In 2012, Sudan commercialized biotech cotton. In 2018, Eswatini and Nigeria followed suit by commercializing biotech cotton, while Malawi and Ethiopia did the same in 2019. Additionally, in 2019, Nigeria became the first country to commercialize pod-borer-resistant cowpea. Ghana hopes to commercialize this cowpea in 2024 after it meets all regulatory requirements. This means that eight African countries have currently approved or commercialized four genetically modified crops, namely cotton, soybean, maize, and cowpea. The countries are Nigeria, Malawi, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Eswatini. Currently, ten other African countries are conducting trials on thirty-three other genetically modified crops. Experts predict that the market for genetically modified crops in Africa, which was initially valued at $615.4 million in 2018, will grow by 5% by 2025, reaching an estimated $871 million. This shows the huge transformational potential that biotechnology will bring to the agricultural sector in Africa.
The development of biotech in Africa faces several challenges that are hindering its growth. A major challenge is the wide unavailability of facilities for biotechnology-driven research in the agricultural sector. Most countries in the continent are still striving to meet up with the global advancement in biotech research. Several African countries are not well equipped both in research skills and technology for biotech development. This affects the rapid advancement of biotech research in the continent. The slow pace at which biotechnology research is moving in Africa has a poor impact on farmers’ livelihoods, scientists, and the world economy.
Beyond the problem of inadequate facilities to complement the efforts of the large pool of talented researchers across the continent, there is the issue of regulation. The level at which regulations, biosafety frameworks, and policy instruments related to biotechnology are created, enforced, and monitored varies from country to country based on their unique needs. However, the adoption of biotechnology has been hindered in many countries due to unfavorable policies that stem from misconceptions about the technology that have not been addressed. Thus, the development of biotechnology in Africa will be subject to advances in biotechnology in a manner that balances the regulatory complexities while safeguarding the net gains for human health, the environment, and the economy (Masehela & Barros, 2023)3.
While agricultural biotechnology cannot solely address the numerous obstacles African farmers encounter, it does possess the potential to significantly enhance crop breeding and management systems’ efficiency. As such, Africa must deliberately leverage these advantages.
For Africa to make progress in biotechnology development, governments must play a crucial role. Africans need to have a thorough understanding of the challenges that face the continent’s agricultural sector and the extent of the threats posed to food and nutrition security. It is equally important for Africans to grasp how biotechnology can serve as a tool to address this issue. To achieve this, governments must strengthen their science institutions to educate the public or introduce courses in schools that clearly explain the concepts involved.
Another important role for governments is to invest in research that aims to solve crop-related issues for the benefit of its people. Countries must cultivate a thriving biotech sector by leveraging local talent and biotech companies. Investing in the provision and accessibility of adequate facilities to conduct biotech research projects will significantly enhance the quality of crop improvement and consequently ensure food security. It is also necessary to strengthen and harmonize biotechnology policies and biosafety regulations and respond effectively to public-private partnerships to create an enabling environment for biotechnology.
Effective research that is beneficial to the population can be conducted through research collaborations. Stimulating linkages between African countries and international organizations through networks and joint projects is essential. Inter and intra-continental collaborative research efforts in biotechnology advancements will help to speed up the actualization of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, and 3. Additionally, enhancing the capacity of other researchers by building their skills should be a priority. As biotechnology continues to advance beyond genetic modification and into technologies like genetic engineering and CRISPR-based genome editing, the potential to increase crop production and develop crops that are resistant to biotic and abiotic stress continues to grow. Africa needs to be prepared to leverage this technology to achieve food security and boost its GDP.
For consumers, biofortified crops help in achieving overall health improvement. For farmers, the development and acceptability of climate-resilient genetically modified crops will help to reduce crop loss and increase their livelihoods. For scientists, the availability of essential biotech lab equipment such as sequencing machines, imaging machines, etc., and well-trained personnel for gene sequencing and genome editing will help foster cutting-edge biotech research to augment the African biotechnology development space.
About the Authors
Abdulkabir Abdulmalik is a graduate student at the CEPLAS Graduate School, Germany and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He has research interest in molecular plant biology, and computational biology. Abdulkabir enjoys writing and shares a passion for science communication. You can find him on X/Twitter at @Omeiza_PlantDoc.
Dennis Baffour-Awuah is a science communication enthusiast who has many years of experience practicing broadcast journalism in Ghana, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. He loves to be referred to as the pop scientist because he loves to blend pop culture and science as a lifestyle. You can find him on X/Twitter at @dennisgameplay.
Idowu Obisesan is currently lecturer at Bowen University Iwo, Nigeria, and a 2023 Plantae Fellow. She is interested in legume sustainability (the effects of abiotic and biotic stresses on plants) and medicinal plant research. You can find her on X/Twitter at @IdowuAobisesan.