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Vol. 30 No. 5
September-October 2008

Conference Call | Reports from recent conferences and symposia 
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The Role of Chemistry in Sustainable Agriculture and Human Well-Being in Africa: CHEMRAWN XII

by Piet Steyn and Christoff Pauw

CHEMRAWN XII: the Role of Chemistry in Sustainable Agriculture and Human Well-Being in Africa, was hosted by Stellenbosch University in the Western Cape Province from 2–5 December 2007. The conference’s focus was the role of chemistry in improving the quality of life of the peoples of Africa.

The objectives of the conference were translated into a number of themes:

  • African agriculture in a global context: the role of chemistry
  • adequate, safe, and affordable food for Africa
  • the safe development and application of biotechnology in agricultural production
  • securing and sustaining water and soil quality for agricultural production
  • technologies to reduce post-harvest food loss
  • the role of chemistry in sustainable agriculture
  • value-added and niche chemicals from agricultural produce
  • the role of agriculture in building a sustainable energy base
The rector and vice chancellor of Stellenbosch University, Russel Botman (center) welcomed the delegates, speakers, and guests during the opening ceremony. He is flanked at left by James Martin, opening speaker, and Piet Steyn, conference chair. The CHEMRAWN XII conference was hosted by Stellenbosch University.

Workshop sessions were also held on applying chemical expertise to the needs of Africa, in keeping with CHEMRAWN’s tradition of follow-up and implementation after conferences. The workshops covered the following topics:

  • the role of green chemistry in agricultural production in Africa
  • chemical and microbiological analyses to ensure safe and wholesome food for Africa
  • current biofuel technologies and their application

Africa’s Green Revolution Has Started
According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Africa is the only region in the world where average per-capita food production has fallen steadily over the latter half of the 20th century. However, the former secretary general of the United Nations declared in 2004 that, given due national and international support, Africa could start a “Green Revolution” that could potentially end hunger on the continent. This message was amplified at the recent CHEMRAWN XII Conference: Africa’s Green Revolution has already begun!

This positive sentiment expressed by the conference’s keynote speaker, Pedro Sanchez, was shared by many of the attending scientists from Africa and elsewhere. Sanchez, an agronomist at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, referred to the success of the Millennium Villages project, which had demonstrated that by investing in the front end of the food chain rather than the tail end—seed and fertilizer rather than food aid—whole communities could be lifted out of the trap of poverty and malnutrition.

The Millennium Villages project has resulted in increases in maize production of up to 2.6 tonnes per hectare in Malawi, and schemes and logistics were put into place to sell surpluses on local and international markets. These profits were subsequently ploughed back into infrastructure, health clinics, feeding schemes, and the development of human capital.

This encouraging spirit permeated the underlying theme of CHEMRAWN XII—improving the quality of life of the peoples of Africa through the provision of adequate food, with specific attention to the role of chemistry.

Food Security Challenges
Among the many challenges Africa faces is the fact that the majority of its 25 000 people who die from hunger every day live in sub-Saharan Africa, and that global climate change looks set to worsen this situation. The impact of global climate change was strikingly presented by James Martin, who pointed out the stark implications of current global warming: the earth’s breadbaskets will shift northwards to Canada and Russia. If urgent action is not taken, Martin said, global agriculture will be able to provide food for only 500 million people.

And such action is possible. Many of the technologies required to both increase Africa’s food production and reduce the impact of global warming are readily available. However, what is lacking is education, science communication, and management. Scientific research dedicated to finding more and better solutions to these challenges remains the key to future agricultural sustainability. However, the mere application of existing knowledge could potentially vastly increase food security in Africa.

Pedro Sanchez, from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, delivering the keynote lecture on Africa’s Green Revolution.

Currently as much as 60 percent of Africa’s produced food is lost as a result of post-harvest spoilage and unsafe food quality. Optimal irrigation of crops and better post-harvest technologies, including proper storage of produce, could greatly reduce this loss, said Leopoldt van Huyssteen, former dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Stellenbosch University. Given that as much as 70 percent of Africa’s workforce is involved in the agricultural sector and that the agricultural industry contributes a reported 40 percent to the continent’s GDP, such improvements could have major benefits for Africa’s entire population, particularly now that global food stocks are under pressure.

Measures to Promote Sustainable Agriculture
Numerous other technologies that could be implemented were presented in papers and posters at the conference. Salome Guchu from the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya reported how interspersing maize with Desmodium legumes, commonly grown for fodder, prevents witch weed (Striga hermonthica), a parasitic plant that cripples maize production, from taking hold in maize plantations.

Wilhelm Holzapfel from the University of Karlsruhe in Germany explained how fermentation prevents the growth of dangerous mycotoxins on food. A study on fermented porridge produced markedly lower occurrences of diarrhea in children and increased their immunity.

CHEMRAWN XII dovetailed with the South African National Energy Research Institute Biofuels Conference hosted from 5 to 6 December at the same venue. The CHEMRAWN XII workshop on biofuels was scheduled as the opening session of the Biofuels conference, and thus CHEMRAWN XII delegates were able to take part in the opening session and to register for the Biofuels Conference. The theme was “Sustainable Biofuels for the Future,” and six international and 15 national speakers discussed the current world trends and future biochemical and thermochemical technologies for cellulosic biomass conversion to biofuels and their application to the Southern African scenario.

Apart from technologies that could support sustainable agriculture in Africa, a number of presentations focused on policies and science communication. In a presentation on the implementation of widely applicable, robust technologies for increasing agriculture’s role in the development of Africa, Leopoldt van Huyssteen illustrated how a logical systems approach could ensure the effective application of chemistry to soils, water, plant protection, readiness for harvest, post-harvest processes, seed treatments, traceability/falsification, barriers to entry into the market, and biodiversity.

In a keynote presentation entitled “Grand Challenges for African Universities and Research Institutions,” Sospeter Muhongo, director of the International Council for Science’s (ICSU) Regional Office for Africa, highlighted the importance of quality human capital production and development in Africa. This is an achievable goal when scientific knowledge and data are allowed to influence policy- and decision-making processes and a community of practice is established that focuses on science, technology, and innovation across academia, industry, and the public.

In a similar vein, Shem Wandiga from Kenya’s Centre for Science and Technology Innovations reported on measures taken in Kenya to mobilize the interface between science and policy, while including farmer groups in the process. These projects aim to strengthen and diversify production systems through the promotion of rainwater-harvesting technologies, agroforestry systems for soil and water conservation, minimum tillage to conserve soil moisture, revegetation of degraded areas, and increased agricultural production using locally available manure and other farm inputs.

Keynote speakers and conference organizers during the opening ceremony, from left: Emile van Zyl, James Martin, Piet Steyn, John Malin, Pedro Sanchez, and Leopoldt van Huyssteen.

Supporting Africa’s Scientists
In addition to its scientific contribution, CHEMRAWN XII also witnessed the announcement of a new Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) initiative, the Pan African Chemistry Network. This network follows the success of the Archives for Africa program, which made all of the RSC’s journal content free to scientists from African universities. The new network, with funding from Syngenta, aims to increase connections between scientists, researchers, schools, and libraries across the continent.
The conference was attended by more than 200 delegates, 58 of them from 18 African countries outside South Africa. From an initial 160 abstracts received, over 40 papers and almost 60 posters were presented. The poster sessions ensured that the poster presenters received adequate exposure, and four prizes were awarded to the best presenters, two of which went to young scientists.

The keynote addresses were delivered by:

  • Pedro Sanchez (Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York)
  • James Martin (21st Century School, Oxford University, United Kingdom)
  • Pol Coppin (Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium)
  • Jens Kossmann (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)
  • Sospeter Muhongo (ICSU-Africa)
  • Linus Opara (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
  • James Simon (Rutgers University, New Jersey, United States)
  • Leopoldt van Huyssteen (Stellenbosch University, South Africa)

Piet Steyn and Christoff Pauw were, respectively, chair and secretary of the Conference Organizing Committee. Piet Steyn <[email protected]> is director of research of the Division of Research Development at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. He has been involved with IUPAC for many years and was IUPAC president from 2002-2003. Christoff Pauw <[email protected]> is with the International Office at Stellenbosch University.

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