Using technology to improve yield, farmers’ lives

By Thomas Hellauer

DES MOINES, Iowa – There is rarely insurance on crops for farmers in the developing world; a poor harvest can signify hunger or, a bountiful one, relative success.

Farmers from Uganda, Ghana and India shared their experiences, successes and failures with implementation of technological improvements for better yields Wednesday at the 2015 World Food Prize and Borlaug Dialogue at the Marriott Downtown Hotel. Lydia Sasu, who began working life as smallholder farmer and is now executive director of the Development Action Association in Ghana, spoke on the importance and role of education needed to make this movement more effective. One issue: many technologies are not explained in local dialects or languages.

“We have great victories where we can implement the proper methods of growing. Too often, though, farmers resist the change because of things like language barriers.”

The literacy rate in Ghana is 71.5 percent, but it decreases in the rural areas where the majority of farmers reside. Sasu also said that many farmers are women whose sons and husbands have gone to urban areas in search of an occupation and the women left, “are taken advantage of.” Commercial farmers do not recognize the women’s rights to land, she said, and pay them less than their male counterparts.

Identifying the need to change this, Sasu and Development Action have set out to empower farmers, especially female ones, to grow crops themselves instead of for commercial farms. The association shares technologies, such as hybrid and GMO seeds, with participants, along with exact instructions that can triple or quadruple yields.

“It falls upon us to translate (the materials) and apply it to our own people,” she said.

Moderated by Julie Borlaug (right), the panel, From Poverty to Prosperity: How Agricultural Technologies Improve Livelihoods, discusses their personal experiences on the subject at the 2015 World Food Prize. From left to right, Lydia Sasu, Erostus Nsubuga, Dr. Richard Pluke and Balwinder Sing Kang. Sasu was speaking on the difficult conditions Ghanaian farmers, especially women, face while trying to provide for their families.

Moderated by Julie Borlaug (right), a panel discusses personal experiences with agricultural technology at the 2015 World Food Prize. From left to right, Lydia Sasu, Erostus Nsubuga, Dr.
Richard Pluke and Balwinder Sing Kang.  (Photo by Thomas Hellauer)

Also on the panel was Ugandan Erostus Nsubaga, founder of Agro Genetic Technologies, a company working to spread agricultural innovation and biotechnology across Africa.

“In the U.S., you can say GMO’s are harmful and it is a choice of how to produce food,” Nsubaga said. “In Africa, there is no choice, (high yield) means life or death.” Not only does Nsubuga have to face the same challenges of implementation that Sasu experiences in Ghana, but he also is fighting to legalize GMO’s in his country.

Nsubuga has tried for years to introduce a bill in the Ugandan parliament that would allow farmers to use GMO seeds.

“Western media has attached an unwanted, negative connotation to GMO’s that has made it impossible for me to feed my people,” he said.

The GMO seed Nsubuga wants to see the most is banana resistant to black sigatoka and other viruses.

The viruses are threatening the existence of bananas worldwide. Uganda is the largest consumer and second largest producer of banana in the world and a country where 70 percent of of the population eat bananas every day. Black sigatoka is an airborne virus that spreads with ease and kills affected plants quickly, especially on large-scale plantations with no other plants as buffers. While increased biodiversity and agroforestry have shown promising results in stopping the viruses, Nsubuga believes the answer is an immune banana. He added, the Ugandan economy without bananas, “is nothing.”

Having already presented one bill to parliament that was rejected, Nsubuga and his colleagues are working on a second one. He hopes that the outside countries influencing the decision can, “Let Africa go. Let us make certain decisions on our own.”

Throughout the developing world, farmers are finding improvements to quality of life when properly implementing technological advancements. Still, there remains considerable obstacles like gender discrimination, bureaucratic and political shortcomings and a wide variety of other variables, for those on the forefront of change. As Sasu said, “If you teach a woman to fish, she’ll fish all the time. She’ll eat her fish every day.”

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