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Thinking development

By Christopher Guta, PhD:

I have, in several entries of this column, made reference to the important role of agriculture for Malawi’s economic development. This is so because although agriculture contributes only 28 percent of Malawi’s economic output (GDP), it drives the other economic sectors of industry and services since agriculture generates 80 percent of the country’s foreign currency earnings. Without foreign currency, we cannot import petrol and many other inputs needed in the services and industrial manufacturing sectors.

It is, therefore, obvious that improving productivity of our agriculture will go a long way towards improving Malawi’s development prospects. Neither is it surprising that the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy III (MGDS III) adopted Africa Agenda 2063’s priority area of improving agricultural productivity and production as one of its strategic outcomes. While the strategies outlined in MGDS III for realising this objective will deliver results going forward, I would like to highlight what our scientists and technologists have done in the past few years that accounts, to some degree, for where we are today regarding agricultural productive capacity.

Agricultural output in Malawi is assessed through crop production estimates with the so-called ‘third round crop estimates’ forming the basis for approximating what the country actually realises by way of harvests. In 2016/2017 agricultural season, maize production increased by 46.2 percent from a base of 2.37 million tons in 2015/2016. Malawi’s small wheat output declined by 6.5 percent from a base of 797 tons while output of sorghum increased by 55 percent. There were output growths for groundnuts, pulses, beans, pigeon peas and coffee – the important cash crops grown mostly by smallholder farmers. Regrettably, cotton output declined by six percent from a base of 31.4 thousand tons.

What has been the contribution of our STI system to, on the one hand, the gains and, on the other hand, response to the losses in productive capacity in these crops? Taking maize as an example of food crops, both public and private sector-based STI systems released a total of 26 technologies in 2016 for adoption by farmers. These were, among others, in the areas of new maize varieties, maize storage and crop protection. I am a beneficiary of new maize storage sacks which, when used together with appropriate pesticides, reduce post-harvest losses. On the cash crop side, it is not by chance that output of groundnuts, which was an important foreign exchange earner for Malawi, in the past, increased by 40.5 percent in 2016/2017 season. Our STI system released seven new groundnut varieties and an additional five technologies related to various aspects of groundnut production. The losses in cotton output were responded to by intensified research in biotech cotton. My expectation is that Malawi will soon join Burkina Faso and South Africa as leading African countries with approved and capable systems for producing biotech cotton. The high yields associated with biotech cotton will deliver significant economic benefits to our cotton farmers, thereby fostering improvements in their livelihoods. I also know that our biotechnologists are currently making strides aimed at the loss of production output for bananas. Sooner, rather than later, the STI system would be in a position to release the innovations regarding virus-resistant banana cultivars.

With these STI gains that have potential impacts regarding improvement in agricultural productivity and production in mind, my thoughts on Malawi’s development today are motivated by the question: How can Malawi enhance commercialisation of knowledge outputs from its STI system?

The key to commercialisation of knowledge such as that produced by our STI system is entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs are those members of society who identify opportunities and take action to exploit them. While entrepreneurs are, by definition, expected to solve the problems that arise when commercialising knowledge outputs from any STI system, actions by leaders in government, industry and research institutions to leverage the process can enhance exploitation of the knowledge outputs commercially. I believe that the National Commission for Science and Technology is well placed to bring together these three partners that are key for enhancing the development and commercial exploitation of knowledge not only from our STI system but the global STI system. The fact that wheat output declined while Malawi imports almost all its demand for wheat is an area where government, industry and our research scientists can direct their attention to. I also believe that the newly established National Planning Commission needs to play a critical role in ensuring that actors in public (government ministries and departments) and private (companies) sectors take action to implement the strategies in MGDS III regarding improvements in agricultural productivity and production. This will enable Malawi to attain competitive advantage in agriculture. Otherwise, MGDS III will, as Dr Naomi Ngwira said recently, not achieve its desired outcomes due to “implementation deficits”.

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