Journalist share thier thoughts on Facebook #Why research is Invisible in Africa

How come that research in Africa in invisible?

July 3, 2013 : The following is a collection of reactions from a discussion posted on facebook by George Achia early last month, discussing the question on Why Research is Invisible in Africa.

George Achia: We know nothing about research happening outside the US and UK. When you look at science coverage you get a sense that the world consists of [only] the UK and the US.” That was the opening salvo by the moderator, Vibeke Hjortlund, at a session discussing science reporting in the so called ‘neglected regions’ during the world conference of science journalists in Helsinki. How much do you agree or disagree with this statement.”

Cosmas Butunyi: “I totally disagree – especially in the case of Africa. There is huge coverage from this side. The moderator was obviously speaking from a point of ignorance.

Mercy: “interesting…and I think I am hopeful now that there is a change and Africa is getting covered positively. Mhh…there was time when science writing in Africa was all about disease and how Africa is suffering when it comes to issues of development. And through my years as a science journalist, there has been a sort of revolution

George Achia, and now we are having A LOT of positive stories coming from Africa, of development, of innovations, of how Africa is rising from the ‘ruins’ and doing a lot when it comes to science, research and development. A lot has to be done, but there is hope :)”

Patrick Luganda: “There is just very minimal research going on in Africa for it to steal the show. Something is being done but a lot more needs to be done. For science reporting most of the agenda setting is by the west. Who do we write for in Africa? Do we write these science stories for a senior citizen in Embu or Kericho or the youth in Gulu or Kampala…NO it is for the educated in our midst and then only a paltry following. Otherwise it is much in line with what is desired by the western universities, research agendas etc. Even stories that concern our scientists in Africa have a bias towards the sponsors of the research from the west. A good example is in GMO coverage. Depending on who is paying the ‘piper’ you can get the feel of the tune and lyrics. The same goes for climate change, technology promotion and also health stories. We still have a lot to get done. One of the approaches is to get more people to understand and therefore appreciate what science and science reporting is all about. That is a big demand among so many competing interests!!”

Jonathan Odhong: “In certain fields of science, yes but generally that’s a false statement by the moderator. Let me try and paraphrase what s/he meant to say: “Both in the UK and US, we are generally ignorant about the research that goes on in the rest of the world. Not only are we ignorant about the science, but also the general news and developments in other regions of the world. “This can be the only true statement s/he could have wanted to make because it only takes a click of the button to find out what research or science is going on in the African continent. We may have not as a continent graduated into the more sophisticated science branches like nanotechnology and others of that kind, but there are numerous other scientific researches going on. Yes most of the funding for on going research from Africa is from the West, but African researchers have lately had more voice in setting the research agenda.”

Redemtor Atieno: “He definitely does not read widely”

Patrick: “Jonathan you raise an interesting point. This is the assumption that people who live in the western world because they have the facilities at hand to access scientific research they actually do so. That is wrong. Most of the ordinary people who access the internet do so for entertainment, general news, shopping, gossip (disguised as chatting) and other seemingly simple reasons (but which are important to them). It is therefore true that they are ignorant about the science news and information first around them but more so from beyond their boundaries. By the way apart from science information most westerners do not even have a wink about where such countries as Uganda or most of the 53 countries in Africa are located or even what they are called. Then how would they bother to learn about science from here. Except that is if you were from a London School of Tropical Medicine etc and you would just most likely know about a small spot on the continent.”

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Need for scientists, regulators and journalists to work together for a biosafe nation

Which Way GMOs

By Aghan Daniel,

Biosafety is important but so is ensuring that GM crops benefit the rural poor and that decisions are based on sound science.

Journalists can report on progress being made on various issues on biosafety right from processes, new developments, challenges, available biosafety systems, regulations and policies. How does Kenya compare with other countries, neighbours, internationally etc?

And most importantly the importance of such issues. For regulators, what is your role, challenges, how effective are you in your work, what are some of the processes of getting products? We talk about national performance trials, confined trials etc, what do these mean? What does it take to do all these and why do them in the first place?

The GMOs ban: wonder of wonders that the ban came as a surprise even to the chief regulators and scientific advisors of the government of the day. NBA was caught with her pants down – there was no explanation whatsoever coming from scientists, from NBA – NBA was actually switched off.

The journalists expected at that time that these bodies work together but that was not depicted – journalists ran around and thank God that some bold scientists from the University of Nairobi came to the rescue of journalist by being available for interview as TV is all about sound bytes.

Nearly 6 months later, the then PS for Agriculture in Kenya, Dr Romano Kiome came out in the open to dismiss the ban as being unscientific. To date there is confusion, do we have a ban or not? And by the way, it is important for regulators to explain the process of effecting a ban – is it through a media conference, release, a gazette notice, or an advertisement?

Three years before the ban, Kenya had set up the NBA tasked with supervising the transfer, handling and use of GMOs. It aims at establishing a transparent, science based and predictable process for reviewing use of GMOs. This means that Kenya had already established a scientific agency to assess safety concerns. Yet with all this machinery in place, the ban was hardly explained to the public, but most importantly, the journalists want to know what impact the ban could have on research,
development, trade etc.

I want to continue challenging scientists to join the debate; In Sept 2011, Kenya’s then Agriculture Secretary, Dr Wilson Songa urged scientists to join the debate on GM foods and not leave it to politicians. You of course know the messy and dramatic ways politicians can explain GM related issues, take the case of the immediate MP for Naivasha who served as the chair of the Parliamentary

Committee on Agriculture, Mr Mutotho. He went on to vilify GM foods and biotechnology in general.

Given, researchers have knowledge which they can use to educate the public and save them from the dangerous propaganda going round about GMOs.

Scientists must effectively, competently, and soberly link science with the society. We must provide information that can tantalize the public to appreciate the role of biosafety systems rather than provide alarming information. I was recently in Bujumbura, Burundi where a professor claimed that he was part of the team of scientists who worked with Seralini to conduct research on GMOs and rats. The truth is, he does not even know Seralini is French!

Scientific institutions must come out to demonstrate to the public (to build their confidence in their ability and work) that they indeed have the capacity to deal with biosafety issues.

Terminology: A differentiation should be made by scientists between tolerance and resistance etc.

Does the public know what it takes for a product to reach the market?

Intellectual property and trade: Then there are the issues of IP – are corporations taking ownership of genetic material, undermining the staple practice of farmers using and sharing their own seed from one year to the next?

Danger risk of biodiversity loss: there is need to explain to journalists the impact of GM on insects and birds.

Scientists need to ensure that national agricultural policies take into account the interests of the poor farmers and give rural communities sufficient leverage over decision making to ensure that GM crops meet locally defined needs.

Need to explain how regulations are scientifically sound – some scientists exaggerate the impact of

GM crops eg that they poison the environment, that they are supersedes etc.

Journalists must develop a passion to report on biosafety correctly.

Scientists must embrace that we are past the dawn of social media, that you can use facebook, blogs, participate in citizen journalism so that they make their work known. Think about Norman Borlaug and his time, he had very few media tools and he used them effectively. Are scientists taking advantage of all the new media?

Scientists need to be empowered by the institutions to speak/interact with the media. Perhaps an annual communication/scientific clinic every January/February?

Scientists can creatively work with the media by dedicating a day or two to live a journalist’s life, visit the media house, attend editorial meeting, go out in the field with a reporter, collect the information, get back to the studio/desk and bang/edit the story …..

Finally, we need to think over and over again about our audience. Think about the question we usually ask at the corporate communication level – who is your target? Think about the journalist’s target – donors, school children, donors, professors etc.

We are told you need to write for the common man, are we too concerned with the ordinary man to a point of diluting information?

*This article was first presented at The Second National Biosafety Conference on Thursday, August 8, 2013

**The writer is the Communication and Advocacy Officer at African Seed Trade Association (AFSTA) and also the out-going Secretary of MESHA

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The really (not) scary truth about nuclear research

By Sandra Chao

Genetic research in agriculture is not as scary as it sounds.

Nuclear research in agriculture is not as scary as it sounds.

“I’m sorry Madam, but the only open field trips are for irrigation and biotechnology,” the clerk at the registration said to me.

“Bio-what?” I asked.

“Yes, Madam, to the Biotechnology and Nuclear Agriculture Research Institute. You can write your name here,” he finished.

I was too busy thinking to hear the last part of his statement. The first thing that came to my mind was genetically modified food, and I began quickly cataloging what I had eaten since I landed at the Kotoka International Airport for the 6th FARA Africa Agriculture Science Week, and whether there was any remote possibility that it would have been genetically engineered.

Somehow I found my way to the hotel but sleep was not forthcoming. How could it be when all my brain was thinking was “What did I eat that tasted funny? Did it come with packaging? Did I read the labels? All genetically modified foods are supposed to come with some kind of notice for consumer information, aren’t they?”

As I got onto the bus for the field trip on Thursday morning, I could not help but wonder the nuclear aspect of agriculture. Quite often you hear nuclear and the next thing that pops up in the brain is bombs. I had heard before of the Al-Shabaab militia making bombs from fertilizers back home so it was natural for me to think that probably the institute was using biotech to modify the elements of fertilizer to make much stronger bombs. Probably.

We got to the Legon Institute and the chairman of the Ghana Atomic Energy Commission was among the people in the welcoming panel. My heart began to race.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the research institute. Let me make this clear: We do not make bombs here,” said Professor Benjamin Nyarko.

“PHEWKS!” I say to myself as I begin to relax and settle in to enjoy a tour of the facility.

What I found most intriguing about the field trip was not the fertilizer that was being made out of compost and human waste, nor was it the gamma radiation technology that was being employed to extend the shelf life of goods so that farmers could exploit more distant markets. Though the technology of using radiation to breed sterile male fruit flies for population control, similar to a successful programwith tsetse flies in Zanzibar some years ago, was quite informative, it wasn’t what most interested me either.

It was the year of the institute’s establishment that really got me thinking. 1963. Five decades exactly. That’s how long  it has been churning new technologies to improve the agriculture sector.

“If atomic research were so risky, surely by now several generations of ‘mutated’ Ghanians would have been walking around the streets of Accra by now!” I said to myself.

Even now I wonder how many people at that field visit were going through the same emotional roller coaster that I was on. There is so much propaganda and misinformation about genetically modified foods and the use of nuclear energy in agriculture that is holding back Africa from being the world’s food basket. I hope my companions on the AASW6 field trip had the same enlightening experience, and that ignorance and baseless fear will not keep we as Africans from triumphing over hunger.

“My people perish from a lack of knowledge.” Hosea  4:6

The writer is a Science and Development journalist based in Kenya

First published on the AASW6 blog.

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By George Achia

A cabinet meeting chaired by former president, Mwai Kibaki, in November last year, directed the then public health minister Beth Mugo to ban Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) imports until the country is able to certify that GMOs have no negative impact on people’s health.

The ban came as a shock to many biotech players including scientists and GM regulatory agencies such as the National Biosafety Authority (NBA) who maintained they were never consulted.

It was also feared that the ban could be a significant blow to progress on biotechnology research and development in the country.

Mugo then moved fast to constitute a taskforce to look at all available evidence and scientific research before lifting the ban. The report from the taskforce is expected later this month.

One pertinent question that many are asking, and which even experts from the National Commission of Science and Technology (NACOST) fear to tell journalists is: who are the members of this taskforce? What are their backgrounds and which organizations are they drawn from?

When I asked Dr. Benson Mburu, senior science secretary at NASCOSTI about this, he was very protective and stingy with information.

“The taskforce is still doing its work and based on the report they will submit later next month (August), the government can make its decision,” he told journalists attending a press conference dubbed Great Debate on GMOs in Kenya at KICC on Thursday last week.

“I may know some people in the taskforce from individual basis but that is something I cannot talk about and the criteria used to appoint them,” he said.

While dismissing the ban as inconsequential and lacking the backing of the law since the ban was never gazetted, Romano Kiome, former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture once said in a meeting “although a “political stand” could hold sway for a time it is no substitute for a considered professional judgment”.

The ban came long after the country had put in place agencies mandated to oversee various regulatory issues. Such agencies include NBA, NACOSTI, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services and National Environment Management Authority.

It could be worth knowing whether the people in the taskforce are drawn from such agencies as they are better placed to tell whether there is “lack of sufficient information on the public health impact of such foods”, as Mugo argued.

Of interest to know also are the exact issues that the taskforce is looking at, because Kenya had set up, for instance, the NBA, tasked with supervising the transfer, handling and use of GMOs.

In addition, research institutions both national and international; have confirmed that there is scientific information on safety on GM products on human besides improving agricultural productivity.

As it stands now, according to Dr Mburu, it is the Attorney General office to give legal direction since “NBA which is mandated to handle GMO issues was never consulted and there was no gazettment of the ban,” said Mburu. Because

 The writer is a Science Writer based in Kenya and a Sci-DeV Fellow




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National Biosafety Authority to ensure gmo foods safety

By Agatha Ngotho

Dr Willy Kiprotich Tonui is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA). He is one of the leading scientists in Africa and the only Registered Biosafety Professional (RBP). Prior to his appointment, he served as a Principal Research Officer and Environment Coordinator (Immunology), Health and Safety at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI). He spoke to Star Reporter Agatha Ngotho about his role in the NBA. 

 Briefly tell us the mandate of the National Biosafety Authority (NBA).

The National Biosafety Authority (NBA) was established pursuant to the provisions of the Biosafety Act No. 2 of 2009. The overarching mandate of NBA is to exercise general supervision and control over development, transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) so as to ensure human safety and animal health and provide adequate protection to the environment.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are defined as those organisms in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered through genetic engineering in a way that is not possible through traditional breeding or natural selection methods. The genetic engineering (GE) technology often referred to as biotechnology, allows carefully selected individual genes to be transferred from one organism into another and also between non-related species.

In Agriculture, for example, GE technologies have been used to create genetically modified (GM) plants that are then grown and cultivated to produce GM food crops. The main GM crops currently approved and on the international market have been modified to acquire the ability to protect themselves against destructive plant pests, diseases, viruses and for tolerance to certain herbicides.

Do we have commercially available GM food or feed in Kenya approved by NBA?

We would like to inform the public that NBA has not yet approved any GMO for commercial use in Kenya and so far we have not received an application for GM commercialisation. The Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) is experimenting on GM cotton (Bt cotton) and when they are finally ready they may come to us for commercialisation and there is a possibility that we may receive an application this year.

But even when this comes to us, it will take 4 to 6 months or so to approve as provided by the law. The Environmental Regulations 2011 that is going to guide the process of application demands that we seek public opinion and we will do this through the press for 21 days.

If the application is approved, the organisation seeking the application is given a permit for a period not exceeding 10 years. We are ready for any application that will come our way and we will do it with the public safety and interest in mind.

The Authority has approved genetically modified products for importation into Kenya for humanitarian assistance and relief supplies during drought seasons. These include: corn-soya blend and maize meal.

These approvals were granted after a food safety assessment by expert reviewers concluded that the food products are as safe as the conventional counterparts.

What is the status on transit products through Kenya?

Read more


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Why Devolution in the Health Sector should be halted

By Geoffrey Kamadi

Rather than bring services closer to the masses thereby increasing efficiency through disaggregation of government functions, it is now feared that devolution might actually have the direct opposite effect. And this is despite the fact that the process is set to get under way in just a matter of days.
But nowhere is this more apparent than in the health sector. And now rather than champion for the process, healthcare providers are up in arms clamouring that the process be delayed, until such a time as proper structures have been instituted in all 47 counties.
“We believe that the rush to devolve all functions of the government does not favour the counties nor does it favour the health sector. The counties will soon discover that they have accepted liabilities that they will be hard placed to meet, out of their limited budgets,” says Dr. Victor Ng’ani, the chairman of the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists and Dentist Union (KMPDU). The trade union represents all doctors in the country.
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Localizing the GM debate the sure way of developing acceptance

By Kimani Chege

While growing up in Nyandarua County, as a farming community, there were many challenges which at some point I thought needed someone bigger than us to solve them. There were problems of infrastructure with impassable roads being the norm. Milk could go to waste, sukuma-wiki and cabbages could rot in the farms, same as potatoes and tomatoes. Food was plenty, but no market for us.

The situation remains almost the same, few decades down the line. Thinking of it now, I am seeing an option where communities such as those in Nyandarua could be empowered to adopt a technology that can help prolong the shelf-life of their products.

Biotechnology is one tool that has been proven to come up with certain solutions. This can be mirrored towards meeting the needs of specific communities and locations.

Most of the biotechnology products available through out the world are geared towards solving problems like drought, acidity, taste and recently nutrition deficiency (e.g Vitamin A). However, there are unique challenges present in certain areas which have not been addressed. For example, there is a variety of cassava that has certain toxins if eaten. Farmers in the counties where this is grown can demand a technology that develops varieties whose toxins have been neutralized.

Another technology that can easily be demanded by farmers and food processors is a technology that alters the gene responsible for producing toxins present in beans that occasion bloating. Being a staple food, communities can demand varieties that can sell more while free of these toxins.

Naivasha whose large percentage of its population suffers from excessive fluoride consumption (fluorosis) can be assisted by farming crops that neutralizes the excessive fluoride, if any.

The list is endless, and that is my point. The new constitution leaves agriculture in the hands of the county governments. They hold the key to expanding this important sector and what they can deem as important can not be ignored by national government.

It is the role of science to solve problems in the society. The country assemblies and the Senate hence becomes the new frontier of lobbying if one needs to sell a biotechnology agenda. However, for such to happen, communities need to be educated to clearly see the benefits a technology can be based on local-problem/local-solutions.

The writer is the coordinator of the Media for Environment Science Health and Agriculture MESHA).

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