Africa: The Potential of Biotechnology for Sustainable Agriculture in Africa

Biotechnology can play a key role in creating a more sustainable framework for agriculture in Africa

Advances in digital technology are beginning to reshape agriculture.

The right combination of technology and processes allows farmers to apply only the water or fertilizer they need, monitor conditions more effectively, and use data to drive additional profits.

Connected sensors, smart tractors, drones, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), farm management software and smartphone apps are quietly reshaping agriculture. These systems reduce water use, fuel consumption, fertilizer use and ultimately carbon emissions.

  • Biotechnology is widely used in agriculture to improve plant growth and yield, increase resistance to pests and diseases, and increase nutrient content.
  • Biotechnology offers a way to develop environmentally sound and climate-resilient crops that will help protect Africa’s food basket.
  • The GMO market in Africa was estimated to be worth US$615.4 million in 2018 and is projected to grow five percent to US$871 million by 2025.

However, biotechnology can also play a key role in creating a more sustainable framework for agriculture. In the past few decades, more robust seeds and plants have become commonplace through genetic engineering.

Drought, heavy rainfall and other environmental conditions significantly affect Africa’s agricultural production. Biotechnology offers a way to develop environmentally sound and climate-resilient crops that will help protect Africa’s food basket.

Experts have conducted extensive research into developing GM crops with faster maturation times and higher quality. As a result, GMOs provide a means for Africa to achieve higher agricultural productivity and shorter crop periods, thereby ensuring greater food security.

In this article, we will discuss some of the most common examples of how biotechnology is being used in the agricultural sector in Africa and the benefits of biotechnology.

Genetically modified plants

Genetically modified crops are created by inserting genes from different organisms into the DNA sequence of specific crop varieties. This creates traits that would not occur naturally, such as resistance to pests or environmental conditions such as drought. The GMO industry has evolved over the years, and progress has been made in developing herbicide-resistant, disease-resistant, and insect-resistant plants.

GMOs are said to have several advantages, such as high yields, drought and pest resistance. Breeding plants that are more resistant to diseases spread by insects or viruses is likely to result in higher yields and more attractive crops for farmers. All of these factors help reduce costs for the consumer and can provide more people with access to quality food.

Kenya approved the commercialization of Bt cotton in December 2019 as it sought to revive its underperforming cotton sub-sector. The government is using GM crops as part of its broader plans to revamp agriculture and improve food security in the face of drought and other impacts of climate change.

Recently, the government of newly elected Kenyan President William Ruto lifted the ban to allow the adoption of approved biotech crops and the importation of GM foods by a Cabinet decision. With the lifting of the ban, the Cabinet further allowed the open cultivation and importation of white GMO corn.

The GMO market in Africa was estimated to be worth US$615.4 million in 2018 and is projected to grow five percent to US$871 million by 2025.

With the right strategy and framework, GMOs can help Africa fight food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger. Food spoilage and loss caused by pests and pathogenic microbes pose a significant threat to food safety and security in Africa. Food loss reduces income by at least 15 percent in developing economies. Pre-harvest infestation of crops by pests reduces the value of crops and the volume and marketable quality of such crops.

Improving Plant Seed Quality

We cannot mention examples of biotechnology in agriculture without mentioning the improvement of the quality of seeds available to farmers. Biotechnology has made it possible to find more efficient and effective ways to improve the crops that feed our population, as well as ensure high-quality seeds at harvest. Seed quality has always been key to good yields, and biotechnology has made it possible to improve seeds in several ways.

Kenya has hybrid and heirloom seeds. Hybrid seeds are created when two different species of the same plant are cross-pollinated. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated where insects, birds, wind or other natural means play a critical role. If the seed variety is more than 50 years old, it is considered a heirloom. The genetic structure of GMO seeds is changed by human intervention. This is done by inserting genes from different species into one plant to produce the desired set of traits.

Development of biofuels

Another great example of biotechnology in agriculture is the development of biofuels. Biofuels are fuels produced from raw materials including wood fuel, coal, wood pellets, plants, forest residues, industrial and municipal waste. Biofuels such as green diesel, biogas, biodiesel, and ethanol offer cost-effective and low-carbon approaches to making energy decentralized and more accessible to low-income populations.

With commitments from the Government of Tanzania and support from the Embassy of Norway, the Tanzania Domestic Biogas Program has seen over 12,000 biodigesters implemented in the East African country.

In February 2022, Mozambique’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development and oil and gas supermajor Eni signed an agreement to develop projects aimed at producing biofuels through agro-raw materials.