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Agric Biotech: What Nigeria Can Learn From South Africa



“I feel I wasted my time working for over 20 years as an electrical engineer in Johannesburg,” said Khambi Frans Malele, a middle-aged farmer, as he stood and told his story in front of over 30 people in a small make-shift tent, made up of delegates from Nigeria on a biotechnology and biotech study tour in South Africa, government officials from the Gauteng Province, private company players and fellow farmers.

Malele told the story of how he left his home and family and migrated to the city as a youth. He put in years working in the big city to put his wards through school. When his children graduated he decided to come back home in 1999 and face working on his farm squarely. He told the small crowd how he grew his farm from 2 to 4, 6 and 10 and later 20 and 30 acres. Now he farms on 150 acres of land.

His story: “When I came back home I went into farming. I started with 4 hectares. So, I started with cotton in 2000. We do not have enough rain here, but I moved from the 4 to 6 hectares in 2000. Comparing with the maize and cotton, I saw maize was slow in production. So, I was lucky I started with the Bt cotton because I didn’t have to bother with the draught, worms. In the second year, I start to increase my hectares to 10 hectares, I was going lower on the maize in my farm and higher on the cotton and in the coming year I moved up to 20 hectares and in the coming year I was planting 30 hectares. So, I started going around talking to people here, especially the younger ones, to show them this is the way. Many people left our place saying they are going to Pretoria, Joburg but the job is here.

“As you see now, I am about 19 years here at home, I left my job 1999. And so, I have been farming and luckily, I’ve got this technology, biotechnology, and as you can see cotton is not difficult to plant. Once you plant it you’re not worried about the weed. You spray just once or twice and go your way.

“So far, I am on 150 hectares that I am operating around here. As you can see I only plant cotton now, from the gate till this area is just cotton. I am not talking only about me right now because we are 10 farmers, those who really want to do this business, they see it that it works and so, I am no longer by myself here, I am with farmers here, also planting cotton and we’ll like to get more people because when you plant the cotton you’re quite sure you’re going to harvest.  During the good season we harvest about 1.5 to 2 tonnes per hectare which I think is alright.”

Insect resistant cotton was the first GM crop grown in South Africa in 1997. Now herbicide tolerant cotton and double-stacked herbicide tolerant/insect resistant cotton are also grown. Statistics showed that virtually no conventional cotton is grown in South Africa. The double-stacked herbicide tolerant/insect resistant cotton accounts for more than 95 per cent of the cotton planted.

Malele’s story is not so different from Phanuel Tlamama’s. Tlamama is a maize farmer, who has been battling drought for several years until he was introduced to GM maize last year.

According to him, “I have been planting maize for over 10 years. I started planting GM maize this year but compared to the conventional maize and the GM maize, the seed is better because it is draught tolerant, we have draught around this area but even with that I still get good harvest with the GM maize.

“I think GM maize is more advantageous, though this is my first time of planting refugee seeds because it manages to protect from worms to the entire length. When you go for the GM maize I don’t think any farmer will easily want to drop it because it is more advantageous to farm.”

Insect resistant maize was first grown in South Africa in 1998. Now herbicide tolerant and double-stacked herbicide tolerant/insect resistant maize are grown in South Africa. Statistics showed that 86 per cent of maize cultivated in South Africa is GM maize. The double-stacked herbicide tolerant /insect resistant maize accounts for the greatest proportion of GM maize grown, at 49 per cent, with the insect resistant Bt maize accounting for 35 per cent of all GM maize. South Africa also grows herbicide tolerant soybean since 2001.

From South Africa’s widespread adoption of GM crops, it’s become clear that the country has embraced the use of GM biotechnology in agriculture and has become the frontrunner on this front on the continent.

Nigeria is currently concluding research on its leading biotechnology products, the Bacillus thuringiences (Bt) Cowpea (beans) and cotton, which has been fortified against pod borer and bollworm infestations respectively with a view to commercializing them this year.

The communications and partnerships lead of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), West Africa, Abu Umaru, said the tour organized by the foundation in collaboration with South Africa-based AfricaBio was to gain first-hand interaction and experience with small scale farmers utilizing agricultural biotechnology to improve their livelihoods; to interact with biotechnology stakeholders involved in the entire food chain from farm to table in the African context, and to have an opportunity to visualize the technology at both the laboratory and field stages.

Other objectives of the tour, according to Umaru, was to receive briefings from South African government officials on the measures in place to regulate biotechnology products and the necessity of the measures, and to develop a network for the exchange and sharing of biotechnology information amongst themselves.

Speaking on the way forward, the leader of the delegation, the AATF West Africa regional representative, Dr Issoufou Kollo Abdourhamane, said the main lesson for the delegates was to learn how South Africa was able to, in a very short period of time, fully deploy modern agricultural technology to boost production, adding it brought to clearer perception that the anti-GMO propaganda has no basis as South Africa has been consuming GM crops for over 15 years without any recorded negative health issue resulting from it.

Speaking in the same vein, a member of the delegate, the chief operating officer of Replenish Farms, Kaduna State, Onyaole Patience Koku, stated that one of the lessons learnt on the tour was that South African government is very supportive of improving the lot of farmers to use advanced technology to meet the nutrition demands of the nation’s growing population, adding state governments are also directly involved with the people.

“Here, in South Africa, you see a direct involvement of the state governments. In Nigeria we kind of bypass, we really don’t expect so much from the state governments, whereas they are the ones who are closer to the people. And so, we tend to put a lot of pressure on the federal or national government and expect them to be able to solve all our problems. So, we kind of excuse our state governments and forget that they get allocation for funds and it is their responsibility to create this environment that thrives and then with all states working then the whole nation at the end of the day works,” she added.