The future of Kenya’s economic development lies in the country’s ability to embrace the application of new technologies such as biotechnology that has the potential of opening new opportunities for industrial development. Prof. Calestous Juma one of Kenya’s leading academic currently serving at the prestigious US based, Harvard University dispelled the notion that agricultural biotechnology in particular was an instrument used to benefit rich farmers in developed countries, while at the same time it undermined food security and the environment. Prof. Juma was speaking at Jomo Kenyatta University of agriculture and Technology where he was awarded an honorary doctorate degree of doctorate of science in agricultural biotechnology during the University’s 19th graduation ceremony, Friday June 22, 2012.
In his acceptance speech Prof. Juma likened the revolutionary emergence of biotechnology to the first arrival of mobile telephony in Kenya that then ‘cost the price of a three bedroom house in Nairobi’s middle –income Kariobangi estate’. At the time he said mobile phones were seen as toys of the elite which was not the case today. He said mobile revolution then had its detractors such as incumbent landline industry who mounted scare campaigns of the dangers of the new technology that claimed could lead ‘to job loss and cause cancer’.
He argued the application of biotechnology was beneficial to the poor, citing studies conducted among 16.7 million people who grew crops using the new technology in 2011 that found that an overwhelming 15 million were small poor farmers in developing countries. In 2010 alone he added, net farm gain was $78.4 billion ‘equal to an average rise in income of $100 per hectare’. The don said Kenya’s major challenges of increased population, ecological degradation and climate change that could be mitigated through a mix of approaches including biotechnology. He is of the view that countries that embraced agricultural biotechnology were better prepared to use similar techniques to solve health, industrial and environmental problems. ‘As an early adopter, Kenya is now applying mobile technology to other fields such as health and agriculture’.
Prof. Juma said a vision for biotechnology in Kenya had to include meeting the needs of the very poor by developing cheaper products such as diagnostics for crop diseases citing three countries in Africa, South Africa, Burkina Faso and Egypt that were now growing biotechnology crops on commercial scale and had registered commendable economic progress.
The challenge he said was for Kenya and other countries of Africa to find ways of harnessing the benefits of biotechnology ‘while reducing their risks’. Speaking at the ceremony, the Chancellor Prof. Francis Gichaga called on the country’s universities to seek tangible ways of commercializing their research outputs. Prof. Gichaga commended JKUAT for initiating a project with a Japan based multinational that he said would lead to the construction at JKUAT of Shs. 500 million fast food processing plant for the production of high nutritional value expected to improve Kenya’s food security situation. The chancellor praised the government for its ongoing construction of the ultra modern Thika superhighway which he said would come with many benefits to JKUAT. He however expressed concern that the highway had created a number of challenges associated with road safety to the university that required urgent attention from government authorities. In particular, the junction between the Super Highway and the road leading to the University has become a bottlenecks evidenced by the serious traffic jam. There is also a glaring need for a footbridge to increase safety of students and staff crossing the road’.