Dr Issoufou Abdourhamane is the director at African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) for West Africa. In this interview with ADOYI M. ABA and PAUL OKAH, he speaks on the activities of AATF in Nigeria, as well as the controversy on the desirability of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
What AATF does essentially in its field of service is plant disease control. In the process, I learnt a lot in breeding because breeding is very important in plant disease control. I have learnt a few things in other agronomic fields. I have more than 25 years experience in agricultural research and development in Africa. I have been in Nigeria in the last 25 years and half as head of AATF office in Abuja and also as manager of the cross border cowpea projects.
Areas of intervention
We only intervene in a few areas in Nigeria, because we want Nigeria to be the AATF hub in West Africa. Our office is not only for Nigeria, but for West Africa. The cassava mechanisation project was the first project of our intervention in Nigeria, which was based at Ilorin in Kwara state. It was in collaboration with the Agricultural Mechanisation Centre. Our aim in the project was to start the cassava mechanisation system in Nigeria only. We have been able to deal with hundreds of farmers to mechanise cassava from planting to harvesting. It is all done by machines. We imported the machines from Brussels under FEEDER. They became interested and even gave us money to import more equipment. In the process of helping farmers, we have been able to quadruple the yields of cassava. We extend it to many areas and link the farmers to the cassava process.
Cassava production used to involved manual labour. A farmer who is 50 years old whose son is studying doesn’t have help, so the new innovation was to introduce these machines from planting, weeding to harvesting. The machines harvest and automatically put the cassava into trucks. Nowhere else in West Africa is cassava mechanised other than Nigeria, so it is an innovation. When we started with farmers, the average yield was eight metric tonnes per hectare. Now, we average 30 to 32 tonnes per hectare. We work with a cluster of farmers. We provide the machines and each farmer pays a certain amount of money and the field work is done. It has been very successful as I always receive people coming to ask about the cassava project. An emir even asked us to come and do an illustration in Ilorin and we have also gone to Minna.
Our host is the Agricultural Research Council (ARCN). AATF does not work alone in a country. We always work with agricultural research institutions of host countries and stakeholders in agriculture. We always look for partners for public private partnership.
We look at the key problems in the agricultural sector that has become a bottleneck for farmers to increase their productivity and look for available technology that farmers can take up quickly to solve these problems. It may be conventional technology or bio technology products; we do not discriminate against any technology, as long as it is safe, productive and can solve the problem. If the farmers can quickly take these technologies and innovate, we don’t discriminate. I didn’t give you all the projects; I just gave you the first project AATF is doing here in Nigeria. Another project is rice at the national research centre in Badegi. Do you know how many billions of dollars Nigeria spends on daily importation of rice? Anybody who hears it will cry. Nigeria alone spends close to $1 billion every day; that is about $360 billion a year. Other West African countries are also dependent on the importation of rice; so the amount of money we are losing that can go into developing this sector is huge.
In 2008, there was food crisis because Vietnam, India, Pakistan and Thailand stopped the export of rice and the price of rice in West Africa skyrocketed and people started crying. Giving our nature, if people are crying for lack of food, who is to blame? It is the leadership of a country, but what do they have to do with it? Can they force Vietnam, India, Pakistan or Thailand to lift the ban? They cannot. 70 per cent of Nigeria’s export earning is dependent on oil. What happens if the price of oil drops? Does Nigeria control the price oil in the international market? If the value of naira goes down, in this country that is dependent on oil, inflation follows and then social unrest. This is because you can’t stop the bandits on the road when people go hungry. This is why we decided to think of how we can stop the importation of rice. We can develop rice by improving the agronomy, the genotypes and varieties themselves or both. In West Africa, 80 per cent of rice produced is by rain-fed agriculture. Nobody controls the rain except God. Sometimes you get the rain or it doesn’t come the way you want. So, how can we make the rice to maximise the little rain or make rain available? This is because nitrogen fertilisers are becoming expensive. Worse still, Nigeria, which used to supply neighbouring countries with fertilisers, is fast becoming fertiliser- dependent now. So, how can we make maximum use of the rain available to natural plants to increase their efficiency? When it rains too much, the nitrogen is not available and when it rains a little, the soil is not humid and will resist drought and the nitrogen is no longer soluble. Nitrogen metabolism gene has been put in rice to make it very efficient and taking nutrient and water easily. They are also soil-tolerant. If you go to Sierra Leone and other countries, they plant mangrove and you get salinity. When you do irrigation, you get salinity sooner or later and that is a problem. So, you get tolerance, good usage of nitrogen. For every kilogramme of nitrogen taken from the soil, the plant produces more rice than the conventional rice.
People that are against GMOs never extract the DNAs of plants. They never look at the DNA sequence of the cowpea plants or any plant. So, how do they know? It is pure invention to scare people. You take the DNA of this plant, you analyse it. You take the DNA in sequence. We use the same variety which has been transformed into conventional breeding programme to put the resistance gene into the variety you want. We pass through the same conventional breeding programme in back crops to recover all the maternal variants. The back crops work this way: from the first cowpea, which has been transformed, we use it as a donor gene, in conventional back crops, which means the cowpea is working well. Then you will have to sequence the cowpea genes and analyse the cowpea gene clinically to see what is being produced. Is it producing only the product you want or there is a difference? So, the cowpea is as safe as any other product or cowpea. Secondly, farmers who have seen it are even on our necks because of the unavailability of the cowpea in large quantities in the market. Since last year, many farmers have been requesting for the seeds. I have been getting phone calls from farmers who are desperate to buy it.
It is not available. You know Nigeria has some laws and we have to respect the laws. You have to respect the laws if you don’t want to be in trouble. The National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA) are the ones who grant permit, in the first place, to make your researches or trials and they will monitor you to see if you are respecting the laws. Therefore, you will present to them your data, chemical analysis and everything about your product. NBMA has the pool of biotechnology in Africa, so they will call others to assess the product, whether it is safe or not. So, it is the bio-safety organisations in Africa, especially Nigeria, that will analyse and make recommendations on whether a product is safe or not.
All the GMOs released in the market are safe. If a GMO variety is not safe, the bio-safety agency of the country involved would have destroyed it even before it gets into the market. This was what happened when some people in the US wanted to use Brazilian product to modify Hazonat. The project was stopped when it was realised it would not be safe, as it would lead to allergic reactions. We have food and environment protection agencies and many other institutions monitoring, so safety is assured. Africans can embrace GMOs or technology and use them if they can solve their problems or stop using them if they can’t solve their problems. But you don’t have to rely on a single one. You may have other solutions. But there are cases where you don’t have any single option than to go to GMOs. Like in cross border cowpea, there is no resistance. All the cowpea varieties of the world have been screened and tested for resistance. So, if you can use this technology that has been used for more than 25 years and proved to be safe to solve maruka problems; that will be a great leap forward for our agriculture.
Fertilisers were brought by the Europeans. So, in our minds, we have both the white man’s fertilisers and our own. But it is the same nitrogen. Farmers should be encouraged to use manure because the soils are being depleted of organic matter. It is a disaster, but it doesn’t mean that people should rely completely on manure. You cannot have enough. What is the nitrogen content of the dung of a cow that has been in the soil for a year and six months? At most, it will be 0.5 per cent. So, for one tonne of maize, you need 20 tonnes of manure per hectare, so where will you get 20 tonnes of manure per hectare today? If you can get, apply it; it is good, but it is difficult to get it.
When are the leaves going to decompose in the soil? Even if they do, they take mineral nitrogen, not organic nitrogen. The nitrogen has to mineralise nitrate ammonia, so how long will it take? You do it, and then get profit next year, but not planting it in the alleys. Even the cowpeas, we plant it in rotation in mixed cropping. They fix nitrogen. It fabricates, manufactures urea in its roots, that is the noodles. But the cowpea manufactures it for the cowpea, not the serial crop. If the farmers uproot the cowpea plant, nothing is left for the crop next year. Even what is left is not enough for a good yield, so that’s a problem. It is not enough for the plants. People who are not agronomists are inventing suggestions of how agriculture should be. Worse still, they tell people not to believe agricultural scientists and professors. If the majority in the country cannot believe what agricultural scientists and professors are saying, then ask the government to close the agricultural department in universities because they will become useless. If you can’t believe someone who is a PhD holder and has been teaching for the past 20 years and instead choose to believe someone who has never been to the university nor carried out any research, then close research institutions and the schools of agriculture. It is as simple as that.
Future of agriculture
There are two things going on in agriculture today and we need to be very careful. I don’t know much about East Africa, but from Central Africa to West Africa, there is a tendency to take Africans away from science and technology. There are many NGOs which are even in the villages telling people not to use fertilisers, science or buy hybrids. This is a dark agenda; it is terrible as it is taking us back to the dark years. How can you tell farmers not to use fertilisers? The ability to sensitise ammonia from the air we breathe is 70 per cent nitrogen. If you can’t clinically sensitise ammonia, what do people have to rely on? If you have big fungi, the nitrogen in the air will smell if not sensitised. Cowpea is fixing nitrogen by itself, so it also needs sulphate. If there is no sulphate in the shore, cowpea cannot fix. So, sulphate is obligatory and it has been known that in West Africa you clear a forest every year; otherwise it will be depleted of sulphate. Lack of sulphate in the soil is one of the limiting factors. It is a lie to tell farmers not to use agronomy products or fertilisers. First year, agricultural students are told that the organic factors of the soil are important. It is in every textbook, but people are inventing lies to tell modern farmers not to use manures.