By Gift Briton and Tsim Mavisi
The 19th Triennial symposium of International Society for Tropical Root Crops(ISTRC) has kicked off in Nairobi, Kenya and is expected to run through 25 November.
Coordinated by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation(AATF), the event will serve as a platform for scientists across the world to deliberate on how countries can leverage science, technology and innovation in advancing the production and productivity of root tuber crops in an effort to boost food and nutritional security in Africa.
Despite their dietary importance, with more than 400million smallholder farmers in developing nations depending on them for livelihoods, experts say that root tuber crops have for a long time received insufficient policy attention thus limiting their potential contribution to food and nutritional security of millions of households.
Consequently, this has delayed the benefits that can be realized from the climate resilient potential of these crops. Therefore, the ISTRC event seeks to provide opportunity for scientists from around Africa and world over to network, exchange information, innovate ideas and initiate new collaborative studies on how to improve the performance of these crops including cassava, yam, potato and sweet potato.
Speaking during the opening ceremony, Executive Director, AATF, Dr. Canisius Kanangire, noted that root and tuber crops are the most important commodities for food and nutritional security and income generation particularly among smallholder farmers.
Furthermore, as resilient crops, Dr. Kanangire noted that they are capable of assisting farmers in adapting to climate fluctuations insisting that “this is the opportunity for the global community to look for technological and corporate solutions to boost root tuber crops for resilient foods, nutrition and industrial systems that will lead to long-term economic development.”
The symposium is expected to harness partnerships and facilitate transformation of agricultural sector by giving attention to root crops in both policy and research.
According to Dr. Kanangire, root crops can provide more edible energy per day (up to 20% of the dietary calories) than any other crops group can provide.
“We, the scientists and stakeholders have the opportunity to help strengthen the climate resilience of our food systems through innovative and scaled up investments in the root crops sector,” he said.
“Vibrant partnerships are essential for the successful uptake and scaling of technologies in agriculture. In this spirit, I believe that the symposium will energize existing partnerships and also catalyze new partnerships and conversations on root tuber crops.”
Although Africa has vast agricultural land, crop productivity in the continent has been low compared to other continents. Therefore, in order to improve crop production, Dr. Kanangire urged that there is need to have technologies that can increase productivity, protect crops from diseases and pests and climate fluctuations, adding that this will only be possible if farmers have access to technology and knowledge on smart agriculture.
Turning on policy recommendations, the AATF boss urged governments to put in place policies which are favorable for adoption and use of scientific findings showing benefit to food systems.
“This can be achieved through enhancing collaboration between research centers with the public and the private sector which can use the scientific findings and translate them into wealth,” he said.
Dr. Kanangire further called on governments to put in place mechanisms for increasing farmers’ access to finances including access to inputs such as seeds and fertilizers.
Sharing similar sentiments, Prof Lateef Sanni, President ISTRC, noted that the continent is facing food crisis with food systems threatened by climate change, pests and diseases, low productivity and week extension system which has made it difficult for innovations to reach farmers’ hands.
The ongoing Russia-Ukraine war which has also paralyzed the supply of cereals is mounting pressure on root and tuber crops thereby bringing to attention the significance of root and tuber crops particularly in building resilience in food our foods systems, Prof. Sanni said.
Addressing Gender Inequalities in Agricultural Sector
Turning on the importance of women leadership and participation in research, Dr. Susan Kaaria, Director, African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD) noted that although women contribute substantially to agriculture production compared to men, they face numerous obstacles and constraints such as lack of access to training, machinery, and new technology.
She added that women are disproportionately affected by pandemics and crises with the Food and Agriculture Organization 2022 report on the State of Food Security and Nutrition, revealing that the gender gap in food insecurity widened substantially under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Therefore, in order to achieve a resilient food and nutrition system to a sustainable economic development, Dr. Kaaria said that there is need to address gender inequalities in all dimensions, noting that this can be attained through increasing women’s access to technology and business innovations and addressing the barriers women face in the root and tuber value chain.
Multidimensional interventions are key in addressing rural gender inequalities including addressing the root causes of gender inequalities such as discriminatory gender norms, behaviors, and attributes that continue to perpetuate inequalities policies, gender-responsive research institutions, and integrating women into the research designs, implementation as well as strengthen women leadership capacities making sure that the institutional mechanisms for recruiting and retaining women in the staffing sector, she said.
According to her, women representation in many institutions are as low as 24% while women leadership in most institutions stands at only about seven percent due to many workplace and cultural challenges limiting their ability to progress within their careers. Therefore, to attain food security goals, she urges that there is need to leverage all the players including women.
Further, Dr. Kaaria observed that it is important to use scientific evidence to inform policy decisions thus, it is critical to mentor and ensure that younger women scientists are mentored by experienced women and men scientists to increase their visibility and access to networking services.
We need agricultural policies that can help to close the gender gap in agriculture and rural labor markets, generate gains in agricultural productivity, increase food security, and foster economic growth, she added.