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Fertilizer doesn't apply itself, of course, which is why it's so important to involve the women of Africa from the start. It isn't just that women cultivate most of the food crops, like maize and cassava, while men typically focus on cash crops, like tobacco. Women--for better or worse--have generally stayed behind in rural communities, while men migrated farther and farther afield in search of employment and educational opportunities.
Fortunately, the proportion of women plant breeders and agricultural scientists has grown in recent years in places like Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Most African women scientists who are 40 or older "come from the land," says Margaret Karembu, director of the Nairobi office of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications. "Our lives really revolved around the village and food production. We know what it means to have to collect water, to have to harvest all day. When you have more women like that being exposed to technology, it helps because they are more likely to work on ways to help their sisters back in the village."
No one expects success to come easily. One of the reasons the green revolution flourished in Asia back in the 1960s and 1970s was that it focused on just a couple of crops--rice and wheat. But Africa depends on dozens of crops scattered across hundreds of different regions at different times of the year. "You're not going to develop a single crop that revolutionizes African agriculture," says Paula Bramel, a researcher who works in Tanzania for the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture. "This is a much more diverse place."
West African scientists have made significant progress in that regard since the 1990s by creating high-yielding varieties of rice that are well adapted to the dryer conditions of upland regions. Dubbed NERICA (New Rice for Africa), the plants were created through conventional breeding of a high-yield Asian variety with a hardier African one--something that had been tried many times before without success.
Asian farmers, however, have had more access to transportation, irrigation and robust regional markets in which to sell their products. (The Gates-Rockefeller initiative will start with developing markets and address the other issues later.) If there is a greater sense of optimism for Africa this time, it is at least partly because a number of African governments are taking the lead, promising to increase spending on agricultural development and earmarking money for improvements in infrastructure and research.
Even if the governments and farmers do everything right, it could take decades to see widespread improvements. But the countries of sub-Saharan Africa may have no choice. If they are ever to get their houses in order, they must first start with their fields.