FLORENCE WAMBUGU

Kenya,

Sorghum farmers are able to feed themselves during the dry spells by adopting of use of high quality seeds, timely planting and use of good agronomic practices. Florence has made it a reality for farmers to generate income and rehabilitate productive infrastructure in arid Wote County.

This profile below was prepared when Florence Wambugu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2009.

INTRODUCTION

Most scientific research in agriculture in Africa has focused solely on cash crops.  Therefore, although genetic modification has the ability to greatly improve food production, it has not benefited African smallholder farmers who produce over ninety percent of food. But this is finally changing, thanks to Florence Wambugu who has, through a variety of scientific and community based interventions throughout the agricultural value chain, been able to dramatically increase both the food security and incomes of smallholder farms throughout Africa.  How?  Florence combines high level scientific research to improve resistance of food crops to disease with effective organization and empowerment of farmers.




THE NEW IDEA

Although genetic modification has the ability to greatly improve food production, such state of the art research has not benefited many of the smallholder farmers who account for over 90 percent of the food production in developing countries. Through a variety of scientific and community based interventions throughout the agricultural value chain, Florence has changed this and has dramatically increased both the food security and incomes of smallholder farms in Kenya and throughout Africa.

Florence uses high level scientific research to improve resistance of food crops to disease with effective organization and empowerment of farmers. With an increased focus on small-scale agriculture as the pivotal point in turning around Africa’s economic fortunes, Florence has made new headway in discovering innovative ways for scientific research to contribute to both the economic welfare of smallholder farmers and increased farm output in developing countries.

 




THE PROBLEM

In the past few decades, the food production of Africa has dwindled considerably. Despite research and technological developments elsewhere, the continent that 30 years ago was a bread basket is now becoming increasingly dependent on food donations. A number of factors account for this tragic turn of fortunes. Deforestation and poor farming methods have led to major shifts in weather patterns that are now transforming vast areas on the continent that were fertile into arid land and, in many cases, deserts. War has also had a major impact on agriculture on the continent as conflict has led large farming populations to leave their fertile land and migrate to cities.

Just this year, the World Food Program warned that Kenya is facing a catastrophic decline of food production and the agency will have to more than double the number of people it feeds from two million to over four. The WFP says drought and erratic rains following three successively poor harvest seasons have resulted in widespread crop failure. As a result, 10 million people face food shortages requiring US$400M in foreign aid.

To address the food crisis, governments and international development organizations have focused on scientific approaches to increasing productivity per acre of land, investing heavily in mechanization and fertilizers. With major investment and advice from international finance institutions like the World Bank, governments engaged large numbers of rural farmers in these new methods. While food production per acre of land has indeed increased in many cases, farmers were often left with no markets to sell it in. As a result, motivation to produce food beyond subsistence use dwindled.

While genetic modification presents an opportunity for Africa to tackle its widespread food shortage, such efforts are not currently being used to serve the interests of rural farmers.

 




THE STRATEGY

In 2002, Florence founded the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International to improve the quality and impact of biotechnology in Africa. Through Africa Harvest, Florence has developed a value chain for poor farmers with five modules: Information and education to build respect, links between farmers and new technologies, links to agronomists and scientists, marketing of the farmers’ products by Africa Harvest, and links between farmers and markets. After bringing farmers together for training in the use of genetically modified crop production, she registers members during harvest time to sell their goods to collection centers. Africa Harvest can pay top prices by ensuring their buyers that they will get regular and quality products.

Today, the 240,000 small farmers involved in Africa Harvest make roughly three times more than they had previously, and Florence has been successful in creating new enthusiasm towards agriculture in Kenya. By using genetic modification, Africa Harvest produces pest resistant seeds for viable indigenous food crops and connects farmers with other organizations that provide seeds, high quality fertilizer, and other farming inputs that will guarantee increased productivity on farms. To facilitate acquisition of high quality farming inputs, Florence has also created microfinance services to provide easy access to credit.

Additionally, Africa Harvest is leading a team of organizations across the continent in an ambitious nutrition program sponsored by the Gates Foundation. The program aspires to assist 300 million people in Africa by developing vitamin- and iron-rich drought-resistant sorghum. In this case, Florence’s model will be applied to basic food stuffs like vegetables, cassava and potatoes to work towards this broader goal.

Recognizing that building relationships between farmers and markets is necessary to sustain growth, Florence has recently partnered with Technoserve, an international citizen organization with extensive experience in sourcing markets for agricultural produce. Technoserve works closely with farmers on market intelligence and product improvement.

World-renowned for her dramatic success, the Kenyan government has recently invited Florence to join the Community Development Fund in training farmers throughout the country. Today, Africa Harvest’s programs have reached over 500,000 farmers in Kenya and continue to grow with offices in South Africa and in the U.S. In the future, she aims to extend her project to Tanzania and Uganda among other countries in Africa.

 




THE PERSON

Florence is the sixth of ten children and as a child, she showed a remarkable interest in food science. In fact, at the young age of seven, she was already developing pesticides to fight bugs. Although her education did not come easy as her mother had to defend herself for selling off the family cow to educate a girl, Florence excelled in school, especially in the sciences.

Florence grew up in rural Kenya and - through a combination of family sacrifices, hard work, and an insatiable interest in the natural world around her – she finished secondary school and went to the University of Nairobi to study botany. Upon graduation, Florence got a job with the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute and began what would become a lifelong career in crop science. At her first job, a quarantine site and crop research station just outside Nairobi, young Florence had the chance to work closely with international experts in the field of tissue culture on a USAID funded project. The team’s job was to select viable commercial plants to import, but to also eliminate any diseases that the plants brought with them. In this role, Florence was involved in the introduction of permethrin, a flower used as a natural pesticide and ideally suited for growth in certain areas in Kenya. Making the most of her newly acquired skills in tissue culture, Florence broadened the viability of the permethrin flower so that more Kenyans could grow the plant; today Kenya produces 80 percent of world market for this particular flower.

On the heels of this early success, Florence furthered her studies in plant pathology at the University of North Dakota in Fargo. She received her Masters degree and later did her PhD at the University of Bath. All the while Florence’s heart and the focus of her research remained in Kenya. While pursuing her studies, Florence continued to work with KARI where she shifted from tissue culture to plant pathology and started to focus on the sweet potato. More significant than her shift in tactics was her decision to work with the indigenous potato. Flowers were a cash crop, this local tuber was not. “Good scientists” in this field were not supposed to focus on local and non-commercial crops. But Florence knew that she had to focus on improving the viability and disease-fighting ability of these so-called “orphan crops:” Sorghum, sweet potatoes, pigeon peas, cassava, bananas, and other indigenous edibles.

In 1987 and with a US$10,000 grant from the International Potato Center, Florence managed to set up a research center and extension program for the Kenyan government to study the sweet potato. Florence met many obstacles, but one of the most pronounced was the fact that so much of what she learned from observing Western experts and studying in the US and England needed to be retooled for work with indigenous African crops. There were no winters in Kenya to break the disease cycle and Florence realized that through the common practice of families sharing cutting with neighboring farmers, African smallholder farmers were unknowingly spreading diseased plants. By contrast, in the U.S., sweet potato farmers would go to nurseries every three to four years to get clean seeds. But the most daunting challenge remained the fact that no research was being done on breeding new varieties of sweet potato seeds. Kenya was in dire need of new varieties because of the constant challenges posed by disease and environmental changes, but the infrastructure needed to study African crops on African soil was sorely missing. And then, Florence learned that genetic engineering could “vaccinate” plants. It was 1991 and the technology was very new at the time, but Florence immediately saw the immense potential of genetically modified crops, if only the technology could be harnessed to develop African crops.

Dr. Wambugu did something that might at first appear surprising. Much to the dismay of her friends and colleagues, she took a post with Monsanto, an often criticized multinational corporation interested in agricultural technologies. The company was drawn to Florence because of her keen interest in food crops, and Florence seized on the opportunity to learn how to vaccinate the sweet potato. Just three years later, she had successfully developed a whole system of genetic engineering for the sweet potato, including procedures on how to test and transform the tuber. With her mission accomplished, she went back to Kenya to implement.

In 1994, Florence took a new role as head of International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) in Africa in the hope of finding more resources to further her ideas and start a laboratory in Kenya. However, she did not find sufficient interest from the leadership at ISAAA to allow her work freely and her interest in food crops was again criticized. So she resigned.

Florence’s career in biotechnology is accomplished and characterized by a number of challenges to the establishment to make technologies work for those who really need it. Although the early part of her career was spent with public and international institutions working on globally traded crops, she soon realized biotechnology’s ability to solve the food crisis in Africa and dedicated the rest of her career to making that a reality. As a result, Florence has been at the center of remarkable advances in the use of biotechnology in the flower, banana, and sweet potato industries in Kenya.

In 2002, Florence’s transition from the public and private sectors to the citizen sector became official as she started the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation and to implement her vision of using biotechnology to solve the food crisis in Africa. Through a variety of interventions Florence has built the Hybrid Value Chain infrastructure that allows the benefits of biotechnology to reach smallholder farmers in rural parts of Africa, where 90 percent of the continent’s food is produced.