Bookmark and Share

African Agriculture and Medicine: Modern Orphans
in a Globalizing World

Thomas R. Odhiambo


Africa must take a leadership role in tackling its scientific issues, such as

  • Ebola and other orphan diseases
  • use of traditional methods in modern agriculture
  • research facilities that address regional problems
  • control of its own scientific development

June 2001

Zambia has been called the cradle of the orphan crisis with 2 million AIDS orphans left to fend for themselves and their siblings. Photographer: Michael Mistretta, Creative Commons

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

Revised, shortened version of the 8th Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Annual Lecture, delivered by the author in Trivandrum, Kerala, India on 25th November 2000.

The orphans

Scientists are primarily concerned with diseases in industrialized nations.

During the three months of October, November, and December 2000, over 195 people, including the crisis management doctor, died in the District of Gulu, in northern Uganda, of Ebola, an acute viral disease. First reported in 1976, in a village near Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it has subsequently spread to other parts of Africa. Because Ebola kills its victims faster than it can spread, being terminal within 48 hours with internal and external bleeding, it has acquired the notoriety of being the most virulent disease known to humans. The disease, of which 4 sub-types exist, is transmitted through direct contact with the infected person’s blood, fluids, secretions, and organs. It has no known wild host. It has no known cure. Doctors can only provide basic health support, such as rehydration and good nutrition. The Ebola victims therefore fight their infections alone.

Many Africans can’t pay for medical treatment, so science ignores them.
  • Orphan diseases: In addition to Ebola, other tropical diseases, such as malaria, are major killer diseases in Africa (and other parts of the tropical developing world). They have acquired the epithet of orphan diseases, because the great instruments of science, and the brilliant brains in science and technology (S & T), have not yet turned their innovative instruments and creativity to challenge them in a sustained manner. Why? Because these diseases are endemic in zones of the world where the inhabitants are largely income-poor and may not, therefore, easily pay for the resultant science-based therapies.1
No profits in tropical crops or indigenous medicine, says the industrialized world.
  • Orphan food tropical crops: Such crops, including cassava, banana, millet, and the leafy vegetables, are not receiving attention from modern biotechnology, because these commodities are not important in the temperate industrialized countries, nor are they immediately profitable to food-related transnational corporations (TNCs).1

  • The orphaning of the accumulated indigenous knowledge and technology systems (particularly those related to Africa’s living resources): Taking one example, that of healing, it is not difficult to discern the origin of such orphaning and exclusion, as John Janzen (1997) states so openly:2

“Just as Muslim crusaders had attacked ‘pagan’ African forms of healing and religion, so Western Christian missionaries discredited the basis of knowledge as well as the overall approach to ritual healing. Assumptions that human relations could cause sickness were dismissed as superstition or ‘witchcraft’ at a time when the first steps of positive science were discovering the causes of contagious diseases… [But now] in medicinal plant research African scientists and other scholars search for ways to modernize uniquely African solutions to their needs.” (page 281)

In this context, let it be known that the conservation of medicinal plant diversity occupies a major concern of most communities in Africa — even during the several centuries of external interference with the African indigenous healing practice.

  • Metallurgy: Finally, there is the stark reality of the orphaning of the practice of metallurgy in Africa in the course of the last 500 years or so. Objects of gold, copper, and iron have always been at the core of African political, economic, social, and religious affairs - all the way from about 2000 B.C.E.3

Consequences of orphaning

Consequently, when one considers Africa as poor, one should instantly realize that the African phenomenon of poverty is not intrinsically one of material poverty. It is a far more fundamental experience of impoverishment, stemming broadly from two streams of experience:

During foreign rule, indigenous knowledge and technology was rejected.
  • It is the entire rejection, since the 16th century, of the African peoples’ indigenous knowledge and technology systems in agriculture, in medical practice and healing, and of their philosophical and religious worldview by alien dominant forces, sometimes coercively or even violently. This rejection has led to the impoverishment of the socio-cultural underpinnings of the African economic vitality and social wellbeing.
Africa must take control of its own destiny to eliminate poverty.
  • This impoverishment has been further deepened by the loss or under-utilization of the continent’s productive assets, including the loss of their experts in the brain drain to the West. And the continent is likely to continue on the poverty treadmill as long as she fails to construct a new vision for the contemporary contextual reality, or fails to take advantage of opportunities to position herself to compete successfully for market access and market share in her areas of comparative advantage.

The crisis of poverty in Africa is so great and so pervasive that only a radical strategy for its amputation is feasible. The previous four decades has seen United Nations-led development, financed by the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and a plethora of aid agencies, largely staffed by external experts. But this has led not only to stagnation or worse; it has also deprived Africa of taking the leadership role in her won development.

Quantum leap into the future

In the past, African universities catered to the elite.

Traditionally, during the just-concluded twentieth century, universities in Africa have educated an elite corps of scholars, scientists, and engineers; while research institutes have undertaken both basic and applied research, largely in the natural sciences, agriculture, fisheries, and the medical sciences. In both cases, these institutions have not engaged directly in matters of economic and social development, in livelihood issues, or in linking with industry, business, and community aspirations. They have all along adopted a hands-off posture.

The core of the radical strategy for the four-decade long science-led development programme consists of four major elements:

Change must include ways to marry science with traditional knowledge.
  1. Adopt the indigenous knowledge and technology systems as the foundational bedrock on which the African communities can graft the new knowledge emerging from problem solving scientific research and technology development (R & D). In this way, the successful bridging of these two knowledge systems becomes assured; and the modern science culture then comes to be assimilated seamlessly.

  2. Proactively promote a functionally working relationship between the science and technology (S & T) leadership, the community leadership, the business-cum-industrial sector, and the geopolitical leadership; so as to create a solid, focused partnership for the development of Africa. Consequently, this partnership brings together, in joint leadership, the best of knowledge, wisdom, entrepreneurship, and democratic responsibility to the development agenda.

  3. Induce Africa-based universities and R & D institutes to become consistently active agents of economic, social, and cultural development.

  4. Create strategic alliances in priority areas of Africa’s concern with the foremost centres of excellence in learning, skills development, and R & D located in the South as well as in the North.

In this context, Africa is relatively well endowed with universities and R & D institutes, although there are gaping holes in the array of such institutions. For instance, there are no research universities; and there are few R & D institutes concentrating on industrial innovations. In any case, there are approximately:

  • 220 public-funded universities and 186 public-funded R & D institutes in Africa, including a dozen or so regional and international ones5
  • Egypt alone has 17 universities; South Africa has 12 polytechnics and 21 universities, including the largest distance learning university in the world — the University of South Africa, with students enrolling from more than 100 countries
  • Nigeria has 30 polytechnics and 36 universities, with the Sheda Complex located on the outskirts of the capital city, Abuja, being designed as a “science village” for new and emerging technologies.5

What the program can do: an example

Take one example, that of food and nutritional security. Indigenous African agriculture relies on polycultures, which consists of

  • many crops being grown on the same plot
  • trees and shrubs are the anchor perennial species, providing mycorrhiza (for mobilizing phosphorus and other nutrients); these trees and shrubs promoting soil fixation against erosion by wind and water
  • leguminous relationships (providing nitrogen fixation)

Polycultural agriculture has, for most of the twentieth century, been condemned by agronomists as messy and inefficient in terms of industrial agriculture. However, recent scientific research7 has shown quite clearly that the opposite is true. Indeed, it is becoming clear that a permanent polyculture, with most crop species in the mixture being perennial in character — as most home-gardens in indigenous African homesteads had traditionally been — could once again become a significant part of mainstream farming systems in Africa. We know that each of Africa’s main staples and about 300 leafy vegetables have perennial cultivars which could provide a starting point for the genetic selection and breeding of the best cultivars to incorporate into the traditional tree-and-shrub polyculture in farming households.

Science shows that traditional agricultural methods work.

We have not far to go to see the feasibility of such a revolutionary farming system being demonstrated as prospectively successful. Dr. Wes Jackson, an American geneticist, the founder in 1976 of The Land Institute based in rural Kansas at Salina, USA, has just won the 2000 Right Livelihood Award for his dedication to prove that a natural systems agriculture based on perennial crops is indeed feasible. In his long-term research, he has been able to obtain yields comparable to annual grain crops, manage insect pests, plant diseases, and weeds without the intervention of synthetic pesticides, and maintain the fertility of the soil without chemical fertilizers.8

Africans, who have suffered so cruelly over the last half-a-millennium, who have seen deprivation and exclusion to unfathomable depths, can now create for themselves a new spiritual renaissance, linked to material well-being and social value, if they can but accept to take a new path of holistic development, as the radical strategy for Africa’s development is proclaiming.

What, then, are the next steps in putting into practice this radical strategy?

The way forward

Two giant steps — representing elements 2 and 3 of the radical strategy — are already being implemented: a joint continent-wide leadership to spearhead this “impossible task” and plans for a regional research university with associated solution-oriented R & D institutes.

Research and development facilities are essential.

Both of these bold initiatives are coordinated by an independent, non-profit, perpetual Trust, The Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development in Africa (RANDFORUM). Established in 1992, The RANDFORUM operates as a think-tank, whose primary objective is the promotion of the sustainable development of Africa, the promotion of problem-solving R & D and S & T cooperation, through capacity building and its utilization in wealth creation and socio-economic development, and through policy research and coordination.

The RANDFORUM took over the role of the Future Actions Committee9 and established the working concept of The Presidential Forum on the Management of Science and Technology for Development in Africa. Already, three sessions of The Presidential Forum have been held in Gaborone, Botswana in 1993; in Maputo, Mozambique in 1994; and in Kampala, Uganda in 1995. The next session is to be convened in Dakar, Senegal in 2001. Associated with these two-day summits, are country-specific National S & T Exhibitions; as well as pre-Forum sessions of The Roundtable on Science-Led Development.

Four critically important products have come out of these summits:

Potential of science — pay off some of Africa’s debts.
Intellectual and biological patents: African ownership.
  • the movement towards establishing The African Foundation for Research and Development (AFRAND), headquartered in Lilongwe, Malawi;
  • the design of a Debt-for-Science-Swap (DFFS) scheme, as a means of garnering endowment for AFRAND;
  • the completion of a detailed study on the Distressed and Expatriate Scientists and Scholars from Africa (DESSA);
  • the development of a long-term policy for their utilization in Africa’s industrialization and sustainable development; and searching for deliberate policies on Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) that would favourably work for Africa, particularly in relation to indigenous knowledge and technology systems and the world trends in trade liberalization.

The RANDFORUM’s efforts challenge several of the root causes and factors responsible for the continent’s underdevelopment, one of which is the failure of most African universities to be the gathering fulcrum for development. It is the intention of The RANDFORUM to sponsor a region-wide Research University — Mbeji University of Science and Health.

A new university: focus on major scientific issues in Africa.
  • Initially, the university will cater to the East African Lake Victoria Basin (consisting of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi).
  • Starting to operate in 2001 in the field of mathematics, Mbeji University will progressively widen its purview to include other sciences over the next 5 - 7 years.
  • This new institution is an entirely postgraduate university, undertaking its programmes largely within university-owned R & D institutes. These institutes are geared towards the major problems of their area, such as:
  • safe drinking water
  • the exploitation of mineral resources and their processing
  • natural products as a source of novel and bioactive compounds
  • the promise of nanotechnology
  • the management and cure of tropical diseases
  • and the domestication and mainstreaming of indigenous tropical crops.

A most essential context of this bold new African adventure is the selective networking and collaboration of the new problem-solving R & D institutes and their umbrella university, as well as other proven R & D centres of excellence in Africa.

© 2001, American Institute of Biological Sciences. Educators have permission to reprint articles for classroom use; other users, please contact editor for reprint permission. See reprint policy.

Thomas R. Odhiambo, Ph.D., is the Honorary President of the African Academy of Sciences and Managing Trustee of The Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development in Africa (RANDFORUM), Nairobi, Kenya. He was the first professor and head of the department of entomology at the University of Nairobi and was the first dean of the faculty of agriculture. Among his many honors, Dr. Odhiambo was the 1987 laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership. He received his M.A. in natural sciences and Ph.D. in insect physiology at Cambridge University, UK. (Update: Upon the passing of Dr. Odhiambo in May 2003, Africa and the world lost a great scientist and science education activist.)

African Agriculture and Medicine: Modern Orphans
in a Globalizing World

Science in Africa

Africa’s first online science magazine, free to all users. Articles change on a monthly basis. Second link takes you to their calendar of events.

Africa and biotechnology

A 4/99 article on how biotechnology could be Africa’s route to riches, by Dr. Thomas Odhiambo.

African science organizations

Contact one of the organizations listed to find out more about science in Africa.

The African Conservation Foundation

“The portal for the conservation of Africa’s flora and fauna.”

Why natural systems agriculture?

A 4/01 article about traditional agriculture methods by The Land Institute (Kansas, U.S.) whose mission is “to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned…”

Science for the 21st Century

This 7/99 online report by Unesco examines the need for all countries to share scientific knowledge and encourage its peaceful, ethical application.

The state of subsistence agriculture in Africa

An undated presentation by Sean Redding; she is an activist and scientist in Africa.

Parliamentary Declaration on the occasion of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)

Dr. Thomas Odhiambo chaired a panel discussion at WSSD in 2002. This link takes you to an the panel’s final report, which focuses on Africa’s sustainable development.

BioNET-INTERNATIONAL: the Global Network for Taxonomy

“Concerned with helping developing countries to recognise and know the organisms that constitute & threaten their biodiversity [in order to] support national programmes for sustainable agricultural development, and conservation & sustainable use of the environment.”

African Conservation Foundation
Linking people and conservation.

For educators: African science Ideas on how to include African scientific knowledge in the curriculum.

Teaching about Africa

The project gives high school students a view of Africa and the world.

  1. Persley, G. J. (1992) “Beyond Mendel’s garden: Biotechnology in agriculture,” pp. 11-19. In Biotechnology: Enhancing Research on Tropical Crops in Africa (ed. by G. Thottappilly, L. M. Monti, D.R. Mohan Raj, and A. W. Moore). Wageningen, The Netherlands: Technical Centre for Agricultural Research, and Ibadan, Nigeria: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
  2. Janzen, J. J. (1997) “Healing,” pp 274-283, In Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, volume 2 (ed. By John Middleton). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  3. Kusimbsa, C. M. (1997) “Technology,” pp. 149-153. In Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, volume 3 (ed. By John Middleton). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  4. Veit, P. G., T. Nagpal, and T. Fox (1998) “Africa’s wealth, woes, worth,” pp. 1-25. In Africa’s Valuable Assets: A Reader in Natural Resource Management(ed. By Peter Veit). Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.
  5. Abiodun, A. A. (1998) “Human and institutional capacity building and utilization in science and technology in Africa: An appraisal of Africa’s performance to-date and the forward.” African Development Review 10 (1): 10-51.
  6. Sachs, I. (1995) “Developing in a liberalized and globalizing world economy: An impossible challenge,” pp. 199-227. In Conditions for Social Progress: A World Economy for the Benefit of All. Copenhagen: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DANIDA.
  7. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria and at the International Centre of Insect Science Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya
  8. Sanders, S. R. (1997) “Lessons from the Land Institute.” Audubon March - April, 76-79.
  9. Odhiambo, T. R.and T. T. Isoun (editors) (1989) Science for Development in Africa: Proceedings of the Consultation on the Management of Science for Development in Africa, Duduville, Nairobi, Kenya, 21-24 November 1988. Nairobi: ICIPE Science Press and Academy Science Publishers.


Understanding Science