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News Story
12 September 2016

How African agriculture might look like in the future and why insects matter – a conversation with Dr. Segenet Kelemu

Dr. Segenet Kelemu, Director General of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) was one of the keynote speakers in the “Zero Hunger in a Changing Climate” Sida Development Talk, co-organised by SIANI and SEI. ICIPE is carrying out research about alternative and environmentally friendly pest control and management of diseases transmitted by animals, which are affordable to resource-limited rural and urban communities. ICIPE’s vision is to be a pioneer in the global entomology science, i.e. the scientific study of insects. SIANI took the opportunity to talk with Dr. Kelemu about ICIPE and about the future of African agriculture.

Q: Can you tell us more about ICIPE and the work you do there?

SK: The institute was founded in 1970 by a Kenyan professor and throughout these decades ICIPE has kept its same program and name. It was an organisation that started very small and regional, but now is an international institute, which is basically the only difference. It just happens that it is located in Nairobi, Kenya, but the organisation’s focus is on all of Africa. As far as we know, it is the only global research organisation focusing on insects.

I am the fourth director general and the first woman to lead the institute.

Co-creation of knowledge

Q: Reflecting on the panel debate at Sida, you mentioned there is a ‘gap’ between newly created technologies and their transfer to the end-users (mostly disadvantaged communities)? What can be done about this?

SK: We closely work with farmers on the ground. I often tell scientists that if you don’t go and visit your intended end-users, then you’re not doing the right thing. So, we collaborate with them. When comparing to my previous employments, in many aspects I see that ICIPE really influences the ground level, i.e. the farmer communities. We find out about and try to understand their constraints and their priorities.

What is really important is that we also learn from them. Today we have some effective commercial disease and pest control products on the shelf that were developed by learning from their traditional knowledge. Farmers do not necessarily know the science behind it, but this is where ICIPE plays a vital role in delivering the science.

Q: There is an increasing momentum in the research and practitioner communities that indigenous knowledge should be fully incorporated into scientific work. Can you explain a bit more how ICIPE works to take indigenous knowledge into account?

SK: I can describe one strong example: At the moment we’re working on a grass that is a so-called molasses grass. In this case we learned from the farmers that this particular grass has a very distinctive and unique smell, which repels tics on animals. We took this grass to the chemistry lab, looked at it on micro level, to understand the chemistry of the plant, i.e. by studying its structure. And now we’re trying to reproduce something similar that can be used by the farmers to repel tics.

Innovation and technology

Q: Will the research about GMOs be an integral part of future research agenda in Africa? And how much a contested topic is it in East Africa?

SK: Of course GMOs is a globally contested topic. But I believe that biotechnology is here to stay and is already making an immense difference in, for example, medicine in the production of vaccines, insulin and hormones, so agriculture cannot be an exception. The technology has a potential to contribute to climate change adaptation and to develop highly drought-resistant crops. It is a non-issue with unnecessary debates. ICIPE is an international independent organisation and our task is to make the technology available for those countries that wish to absorb this technology. Personally, I think it is here to stay; it can contribute to food security in many different ways, however, at the same time, it is important to understand it is not a silver bullet. . But together with other measures it can create positive change.

Q: What is your vision of the future African agriculture?

SK: I think that Africa needs to gradually move away from a smallholder context, potentially in similar ways that Europe and Australia moved. It is not going to happen overnight, but mechanisation of agriculture systems would be a start.

We also need to move away from strictly rain fed systems, since drought and erratic weather will increase, especially in the region of sub-Saharan Africa. We do have many water bodies and rivers, but only 4% of land is currently under irrigation. Other countries in the world are managing to farm effectively in dry land areas. If we gradually implement more irrigation systems and couple that with with drought-tolerant crops then we can start making real progress.

Agripreneurship backed by science and finance

Q: The term agripreneurship is a hot topic. What are your reflections around agricultural entrepreneurship and can it be a solution to a more sustainable and productive agriculture?

SK: It can’t be achieved without financing mechanisms. Actually what is agripreneurship? What defines it? Banks are not aware of how to finance these types of activities.

Governments need to implement agricultural subsidies in this region too. If we look at Europe, for example, we can see that agriculture is heavily subsidised.  If you look at Europe we can see large quantities of farmer subsidies being funded by Governments.

Q: How could ICIPE’s research support agripreneurship?

SK: In fact, this is something we are already doing! For example, we are supporting predominantly women’s groups to do bee keeping. The honey and wax that they produce are of high quality, which we help them to certify as organic. Now they export globally. And we’re currently expanding this model to other countries in Africa. In this case we work together with agroforestry organisations, since to be successful the beekeeping needs to take place in an agroforestry context. You need a landscape that provides areas for pollination and flowers for nectar.

One of the most interesting activities we developed with the farmers in Kenya is the so-called stingless bee, which doesn’t have venom. The honey from such bees is different; it is like syrup and has medical characteristics. Before, the farmers would follow these insects the whole day and see where they make their nest and where the honey is produced. ICIPE domesticated this insect and now farmers rear the stingless bees and can harvest honey directly. At the moment it is so popular it can’t meet the market demand so they sell the honey for 3-4 times the price of ordinary honey. It is widely used and the bees are also very good pollinators. Recently ICIPE also got request from the Ethiopean government to domesticate bees there too.


For more information and news story about the Sida Development Talk click here.

You can find out more about ICIPE here.

Watch the BBC documentary “Healthy Harvest – Techniques for protecting crops” where BBC visits ICIPE.

Listen to Segenet’s interview with the Swedish Radio in 2012.


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