Icipe’s insect research, to help feed Africa – and the world(Part 1 of 2)

3/23/2018 12:31:51 PM

When she was a little girl, Ethiopian-born Segenet Kelemu witnessed locusts and armyworms devastate her country’s crops. Today, Kelemu is leading icipe, the Kenya-based international research center that focuses on finding solutions on insect and insect-transmitted diseases. “I have a golden opportunity to lead the drive for positive changes in Africa.” Club Africa discusses Africa’s agriculture challenges with the woman that was recently called one of Africa’s ‘Heroes in the Field’ by Bill Gates. Part 1 of this series of 2: Africa’s role in feeding the world.

Segenet Kelemu is the Director General and CEO of icipe, The International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology. Thinking of her childhood brings back thoughts of the Armyworms. “What strikes me is that, since the first official report of invasion in Nigeria in January 2016, the Fall Armyworm (FAW) has now spread to over 28 African countries today, terrorizing African farmers and threatening to steal their livelihoods.”

According to Kelemu, this armyworm is just one of the many challenges for African farmers. “While so much has changed for the better across Africa and we have so much to celebrate about, African smallholder farmers still struggle to access knowledge and technologies that they can afford, adapt and adopt to improve their incomes. Research for development must continue to focus on ensuring that technologies and products are made available.”

Produce 70 percent more food

As the world population grows significantly, by 2050, the estimate is that we’ll have to produce 70 percent more food. Kelemu is convinced that Africa can play a major role in feeding the world. In fact, investment in African agriculture, is actually investment for mankind as a whole.

Africa’s plant, animal, microbial diversity continues to be utilized and discovered. The uniquely African crops like teff, the stable crop of Ethiopia, is now rediscovered by the rest of the world as a wonder and super food. A number of nutritious and climate resilient African vegetables, fruits and cereals will be the future crops of the world. The genetically diverse animals that have been conserved by African herders for generations will be the future gene pool expansions for the world. African bees and other pollinators are resilient and less prone to diseases and pests. Pollinators are critical to our food production systems. Investing in the well-being of these African resources will contribute to the wellbeing of mankind.

What are Africa’s challenges? 

“Emerging and re-emerging pests and diseases are major constraints across Africa. We need to tackle these.  Globally, invasive pests (insects, diseases and weeds) introduced accidentally or deliberately outside of their natural habitats or countries of origin are considered among the most important threat to nature, due to their severe and cross cutting impact on ecosystems, human and animal health, economic and cultural resources. In Africa, within the last five years alone, invasive pests like tomato leafminer, fall armyworm, oriental fruit fly, Asian citrus psyllid, mango white scale, maize lethal necrosis disease and parthenium weed, have led to annual economic losses totaling billions of dollars.

What needs to be done?

Dr. Kelemu strongly advises Africa’s leaders to focus on development of climate and pest- resilient crops. “Also, we need to develop and implement a comprehensive pre-emptive action plan against invasive pests; develop effective plans and investment plans for generating sufficient and nutritious animal feed resources; significant measure to reduce Africa’s estimated more than 40% post-harvest losses. All life forms are interconnected and we need to tackle the constraints with the understanding that the impact on one life form affects the other in the chain.”

“Edible insects for protein and mineral source for animals and humans: this is an area I am interested in and I believe these are our future foods. Bees and other beneficial insects (eg. predators and parasitoids of harmful insects): we continue to discover a wide range of new and previously unknown beneficial insects that are helpful to agriculture in Africa and elsewhere. We will continue doing this.”

“I think Africa needs to continue and accelerate investing in its people and the youth; investing in high quality education that can meet the demands of the job market and the needs of society and development. Development is all about capacity: capacity to innovate, capacity to absorb and implement technologies, etc. Investments in infrastructure (including research infrastructure) and solar and other energies will contribute to agricultural development.”

Next time, in part 2 of this series: ‘Insect research: 5 ways to boost Africa’s agriculture potential’

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