Many a time, when looking for individuals and institutions to celebrate in Africa, we tend to overlook the scientific community. Even when we do applaud scientists, it is not unusual that our attention will be drawn more to those far beyond the continent.
This trend has especially been apparent now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. All notable focus has been directed to research activities in Europe, Asia and the United States. Yet we have thousands, if not millions of scientists doing similarly impactful work in the continent, including leading food systems transformation that encompasses advancements in agriculture, health and nutrition amongst other sectors.
Thankfully, this narrative is gradually changing with prestigious awards focused on the African scientific community, such as the Africa Food Prize. Since 2006, the award has been shining a spotlight on heroic African individuals and institutions making a real difference in the continent’s agriculture, food and nutrition security landscape.
Through the US$100,000 award, 13 leading scientists and one research organization have over the last 15 years been recognized among 24 winners for their contribution to the eradication of hunger and poverty from the continent.
More recently, remote sensing scientist, Dr. Catherine Nakalembe, and micro-dosing specialist, Dr. André Bationo, were 2020 Africa Food Prize joint winners. As in previous years, the two were selected from a competitive list of more than 500 innovators across the food system value chains. Exemplifying importance of scientific work in Africa, the 37-year-old Dr. Nakalembe is helping countries build systems to monitor crops using satellite data thus supporting African farmers to make evidence-based decisions for better agricultural output and resilience. Co-winner, Dr. Bationo, on his part, is contributing to the understanding of soil fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa and has made transformative discoveries in micro-dosing fertilizer technology.
These are just two of the many transformational innovators feted by the African Food Prize, whose selection committee I have chaired for the past five years, during which time we reviewed several thousands of nominations. As I prepare to step down from this role, I can attest to the richness and depth of Africa’s talent and innovation, and it has been gratifying to have a ring-side seat in celebrating it. During the AGRF Summit 2021 in Nairobi, from September 6 – 10, more laureates and a new chair will be unveiled, in addition to providing a great platform for leaders and other agriculture and food system stakeholders to engage on the future of Africa’s food and nutrition security through high-profile conversations and extensive deal making.
The Africa Food Prize has brought more than just recognition to the recipients. Take Ugandan entrepreneur, Josephine Okot, who won the Yara Prize in 2007, for instance. Then aged 37, Ms. Okot was honoured for her efforts in reversing Africa’s declining agricultural productivity, managing to penetrate the hitherto male-dominated seed sector with her Victoria Seeds enterprise in just three years. According to her, it was a real growth driver, transforming her company’s prospects and lifting it onto an international pedestal.
The award opened similar doors of fortune for the 2017 laureate, Malian entrepreneur Maimouna Coulibaly. Ms. Coulibaly started her company, Faso Kabo, a small-scale production in 2007. It has since grown into one of the largest seed producers in West Africa, with a wide distribution network for hybrid maize, sorghum, rice, cowpea, peanut and vegetable seeds. It was this fast growth and her contribution to boosting farmers’ productivity that won her the prize.
This demonstrates the value of recognizing the rich talent and innovation in our midst. It is not only the right and deserved thing to do, but also sets virtuous cycle in motion. As I reflect on the impact of the Africa Food Prize over the last 15 years that I have been a front-row witness of the diverse scientific and entrepreneurial activities unfolding within the continent, this has been the greatest insight and source of pride.
We have many heroes doing amazing work in Africa as they contribute towards eradicating poverty and hunger through transformation of our food systems. Seeing many young people brilliantly deliver solutions for Africa’s biggest problems gives me hope of a brilliant future for the continent, much unlike the strife we had been attuned to previously.
The writer is former President of Nigeria and Chair of the Africa Food Prize Committee