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Africa and Science

March 21, 2007


In a six paragraph article on African development, The Economist makes sweeping conclusions along the lines of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel [“Amaizing grace,” 3 February 2007]. This whirlwind sweep of history begins long ago in Europe:

“Once upon a time, not so many centuries ago, there was a poor continent. Its name was Europe. Then it discovered three things: the free market, the rule of law and science-based technology. Now it is rich. A little simplistic perhaps, but the same thing happened in North America, with the same consequences, and it is now happening in Asia.

The article then asks the big question: “What about Africa?” Can this simplistic formula actually be the key to development on the Dark Continent? My colleague, Tom Barnett, has preached for years that connectivity must also be part of that equation, but The Economist would likely fit Tom’s ideas under both the “rule of law” and “free markets.” Rules play a large role in Barnett’s strategy in getting underdeveloped states, in what he calls “The Gap,” to connect with and be accepted by developed nations (that he calls “The Core”). The article continues:

“The need for the countries of Africa to embrace free markets and the rule of law gets written about ad nauseam. … But the third leg of the stool is strangely neglected. Which is silly. For the lack of an indigenous base of science and technology will hamper Africa’s development as surely as any stupid ideology or greedy dictator. Now, for the first time since their countries became independent, Africa’s leaders are showing some interest in the topic. Better still, African researchers are starting to strike out on their own, addressing African questions from scratch, rather than trying to fit other people’s answers to them.”

When The Economist uses the broad term “science,” it isn’t implying that Africans should concentrate on nanotechnology or quantum physics. Africans are, quite sensibly, beginning with basic scientific research that can have immediate and beneficial impacts on the lives of millions of Africans.

“Understandably, the most progress is being made in agriculture. Africa missed out on the Green Revolution that helped Asia on its way because, among other things, its soils often lack nutrients that Asian countries possess (it’s a matter of the underlying geology of the two continents). That is now being addressed by the design of special fertilisers adapted to African soil. After a shaky start caused by the reluctance of European consumers to accept genetically modified imports, Africa is now embracing that technology, too. The first African-engineered crop to go on trial in the continent should be planted this year. It is a form of maize that is resistant to a devastating virus. Maize, though an American crop originally, is one of Africa’s most important foodstuffs. Other crops are getting the once-over, as well. Uganda, for example, recently opened a laboratory dedicated to the scientific improvement of plantains, another important food crop. And South African scientists have developed, and Mauritanian ones deployed, a fungus that kills locusts by the swarmload (as a bonus, the dead swarms are a bonanza for local wildlife). African scientists, too, are developing a vaccine to stop sheep catching an infection that has put off Arab countries that used to be the main markets for African herders. Clearly, a small but impressive portfolio of scientific agriculture is starting to emerge.”

Late last year, I wrote a post about efforts by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation to bring the Green Revolution to Africa [Gates & Rockefeller Foundations Tackle Food Security in Africa]. Although not specifically addressed in the article, perhaps the greatest payoffs for African scientific successes would be inspiring African students to pursue higher education and increasing investment in all levels of education in Africa. Scientific heroes are badly needed in that part of the world. Some African politicians are starting to offer their support.

“One or two, such as Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, have been long-term supporters of science, but for the first time in its history the African Union, meeting this week in Addis Ababa, put science and technology close to the top of the agenda. That is a double-edged sword, of course. If politicians are willing to cut the red tape that stops innovations spreading, and shake up the continent’s sleepy government-run research institutes, well and good. If they start talking, as the African Union has, of “priority projects,” and drawing up lists that include space programmes, it might be time to run for the hills, or even the stars. … African science is still a young and fragile plant, but it is now being genetically modified to fit its environment. Let it grow.”

In a companion article, The Economist provides a more in depth look at the type of scientific work taking place in Africa [“Local heroes,” 3 February 2007].

“Africa is where researchers go to carry out exotic fieldwork—at least, that is a common presumption in rich countries. It is a useful place for studying elephant behaviour and discovering early hominid remains; then the scientists return home, write papers and enjoy the kudos of getting them published in oft-cited journals. This, however, is only part of the picture. Nigeria, for instance, has about 40% of the world’s sickle-cell-anaemia patients. Last July, a drug company called Xechem Nigeria started selling a new medicine for the disorder. This medicine, Nicosan, had been developed by the country’s pharmaceutical research institute. And, at a more esoteric level, the Southern African Large Telescope, located in South Africa’s semi-desert Karoo region, is the joint-biggest such instrument in the world. Despite these successes, many African scientists feel neglected by their politicians who, they suspect, do not understand that geeks as well as businessmen are crucial to economic development. That, however, might be about to change.”

The “change” they refer to is the African Union Summit on science and technology mentioned above. The article stresses that it should be Africans — pragmatic Africans — who should be deciding what scientific and technological advances should be pursued:

“In Africa, as elsewhere, no one knows better than the locals exactly what technology needs to be created, and no one has a greater incentive to create it. Nor need such technology be of the unsophisticated kind often badged as ‘appropriate’ by well-meaning outsiders. Appropriate technology can be very sophisticated indeed. … The African Laser Centre, for example, is that most trendy of things, a virtual organisation. This means it can draw on talent from different countries without requiring people to move. One of its first projects is to design a laser-based gadget that can diagnose the condition of crops. … Laser laboratories, virtual or otherwise, are still a rarity in Africa. The continent, however, does produce some of the world’s top veterinary livestock research. From the perspective of poor farmers, animal diseases can be placed into three categories. Some, such as Newcastle disease, for which H5N1 flu was first mistaken in Nigeria, reduce their assets by killing livestock. Others pose limits to their productivity. East Coast Fever, for instance, hits non-indigenous but meaty breeds of cattle harder than the scrawny, local zebu. That puts cattle farmers in the east and south of the continent, where the disease is endemic, on the horns of a dilemma when they choose which breeds to ranch. It is the third category of disease, though, that is most economically devastating. This is the sort that shuts down farmers’ access to their markets because the buyers are afraid of it spreading. Rift-valley fever falls in this third category. For centuries, nomadic herders in areas now under the control of Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan sold sheep and goats to customers across the Red Sea for sacrifice during the haj pilgrimage to Mecca. Until nine years ago, this trade involved millions of animals. But then, a massive outbreak of rift-valley fever led Saudi Arabia to impose a trade ban, and to buy more expensive Australian livestock instead. Some scientists, such as Assaf Anyamba, from Kenya, are trying to tackle the problem by using satellite images to forecast how much rain will fall in various parts of the Horn of Africa. Eggs of the mosquito that transmits rift-valley fever must dry out and become wet once more if they are to develop into adults, so an accurate forecast of periodic flooding is the key to predicting where the disease will break out. That might help herders avoid those areas. But a vaccine would be better. This is what Felicity Burt, of the University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, is trying to create. She has taken a virus called sindbis, which does not cause serious symptoms, and swapped the genes that code for its protein shell with a selection of those that do the same job for the rift-valley-fever virus. When her vaccine is injected into an animal, it causes the production of rift-valley viral proteins without the associated fever. The immune system can then learn to recognise those proteins, so that it can react rapidly if it encounters real rift-valley viruses. So far, the vaccine seems to work well in mice—protecting them against infection.”

The article also discusses the work on maize crops mentioned in the first Economist article.

“Jennifer Thompson and Edward Rybicki, of the University of Cape Town, have developed a variety of maize that is resistant to maize-streak virus, another insect-borne disease (the culprits here are leaf-hoppers). Maize is not native to Africa, even though it now, for instance, occupies 90% of the cultivated land in Malawi. But since its arrival from the Americas in the early 1500s, a virus found in local grasses has evolved a way to attack it. In bad years, such as 2006, maize-streak virus can wipe out entire harvests. Plant breeders have tried for a quarter of a century to develop crops that are immune to the disease by crossing maize with partially resistant native grasses. Unfortunately, they have met little success. The pattern by which resistance genes are inherited has proved elusive. Dr Thompson and Dr Rybicki’s trick was to insert a modified viral gene into the maize. This gene encodes a mutated version of one of the proteins that the virus needs to copy itself. When expressed at high levels in a plant infected with maize-streak virus, the modified protein outcompetes the normal version, throwing a spanner into the works of viral assembly. That has been demonstrated in greenhouses, at least, by Panner Seeds, a seed supplier in Greytown, South Africa. And the trait has successfully passed itself down four generations of crop. If further crosses go well, field trials will take place later this year. Those would be the first such trials of a genetically modified crop in Africa, and if successful, this maize would be the first genetically modified crop created in a developing country—the first, it is to be hoped, of many.”

One of the reasons that our Development-in-a-Box™ approach stresses the importance of communities of practice is that we recognize the critical importance of local input and buy-in. It is encouraging to see local and transnational cooperation in Africa beginning to tackle projects beyond peacekeeping.

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