Technology should not under-develop Africa

A writer on a planned conference in Arusha (June 29-July 1) by the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) urges the Zimbabwe government to reject the proposed ARIPO Plant Variety Protection Protocol because it will deprive African farmers the power to manage seeds and transfer it to multi-national seed corporation; thereby undermining Africa's ability to manage its food security.  The arguments are compelling and deserve further debate, especially in view of the observation that African farmers were not consulted on this protocol - suggesting that when it comes to technology, experts have taken the view that science trumps culture and its attendant practices. A protocol with such far-reaching potential consequences for African agriculture and food security (especially at the household level) deserves wider consultations and should as a minimum include the views of smallholder rural farmers who live far from markets and depend on own-grown seeds.  

In the pharmaceutical sector, similar approaches have been pushed by big pharma (the global pharmaceutical industry) seeking to improve the management of diseases using patented products resulting from scientific advances (itself a good thing), but forgetting that for the majority of poor people around the world, such patented medicines from the latest advances in science and technology are out of their reach on account of price. In fact, most diseases afflicting the poor in the world (like malaria, intestinal worms, diarrhoea, skin infections, etc.) can be treated with existing drugs whose patents expired many decades ago; but even these are inaccessible to the poor. Poverty in this case has turned easy-to-treat and preventable illnesses into killers of the poor around the world.  Parallel to the efforts of big pharma have been efforts by activists to preserve traditional herbal medicines because they are available in the localities of the poor, but this is a battle that the poor are slowly losing as known traditional technologies to prevent and treat diseases are being abandoned in favour of industrial products.

In the case of plant variety protection, the situation could be much worse as new industrial seed varieties would kill off traditional varieties rather than exist side-by-side with them the way industrial and traditional medicines have continued to exist in poor communities around the world.  This is where community seed banks should be promoted and conditions created for them to coexist with large-scale farming techniques using genetically-modified seeds because we should not stop scientific progress.  A pragmatic solution of co-existence is necessary to ensure that the poor are given time for their economic welfare to improve so that they too can take advantage of scientific and technological advances in agriculture (and in other fields) rather than condemning them to a life of misery as plant and other biological materials are sucked out of African rural communities for modification in urban centres around the world.  The top ten seed companies are American (three, one of which accounts for 23% of the market), European (five) and Japanese (2).

In the second half of the last century Walter Rodney wrote a seminal work on How Europe underdeveloped Africa, primarily by sucking Africa's able-bodied labour (through slavery) and its raw materials (through exports without creating much local employment).  Rodney's thesis is that deprived of labour and without the necessary technology to process local resources a, Africa experienced under-development as its labour and natural resources built Europe - very much in line with the strategy put forward by Cecil Rhodes towards the end of the 19th Century. As a leading advocate for European imperial expansion, Rhodes was clear on the economic dimensisons:

"To save the forty million inhabitants of the United Kingdom from a bloody civil war, our colonial statesmen must acquire new lands for settling the surplus population of this country, to provide new markets... The Empire, as I have always said, is a bread and butter question.” (see Simpson, William, Jones, Martin Desmond (2000), Europe, 1783-1914, Routledge, p. 237)

Activists against the Plant Variety Protection Protocol are worried that future problems of hunger in Africa will be driven by the denial of modern seed materials to the poor on account of price once traditional seeds have been wiped out by genetically modified seeds that require farmers to purchase them every planting season.  The argument that commercially-produced seeds have higher yields are correct, but rural farmers are disadvantaged by non-functioning markets that mean that rising prices of seeds gradually outstrip incomes from produce sales.  It is this trade imbalance between rural and urban, and between underdeveloped and developed countries that needs to be addressed before we change the traditional-industrial seed balance.

In the 1990s campaign to increase drug availability for Africans affected by HIV/AIDS, big pharma was accused of "killing the poor" on account of these drugs being out of reach because patents stopped the production of cheaper drugs while the patented ones were simply too pricey for health budgets in poor countries needing to purchase the required quantities.  It is this accusation of "genocide of the poor by patents" that the drug companies were accused of that could be levelled against the seed companies in the future.  One of the most effective campaign for affordable HIV/AIDS treatment was led the vocal South African TAC.

For technology to be effective in serving the poor, those who develop and deploy advanced technological products must ensure that technological innovations remain in tune with cultural and economic realities.  The application of intellectual property protection protocols, especially for processes and products that have been developed through community knowledge in non-industrialized societies over the centuries, needs new tools that do not shortchange poor communities by transferring community knowledge rights to individual ownership.

Innovators and entrepreneurs stand challenged!