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Finding Common Ground in the Debate about African Agriculture

The sixth of 10 children, Florence Wambugu knew at an early age there must be a better way to ward off pests than mixing ashes and soot. Her mother sold the one cow from their family farm to send her daughter to school and test the theory.

Wambugu would go on to receive a scholarship from the United States Department of Agriculture to spend time at Monsanto, the biotechnology powerhouse in St. Louis, Missouri, where she studied genetic engineering for the sweet potato.

Since returning to Kenya, where she is CEO of Africa Harvest Biotech International, she has extended technologies such as tissue culture for bananas to rural smallholder farmers.

While she says her work is increasing yields and incomes, Wambugu added that the path to commercialization has many challenges. As Kenya considers whether to lift its ban on genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, representatives on both sides of the debate are working to make their positions known. Some, like Wambugu, say GMO bans block African farmers from the technological advances available in the developed world. Others say that the indebtedness that can result from the use of external inputs such as hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers is not only harmful but criminal.

The debate in Kenya reflects a discussion happening across the African continent about the best ways to feed 9 billion people by 2050 while also preserving the planet for future generations. How might African farmers enhance their productivity and increase their resilience to climate change without compromising the health of their land? How might American companies play a role without short-term gains standing in the way of long-term sustainability?


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