Agriculture without investment is like dancing without music

Professor Eeric Danquah
Ghanaian expert says Africa could and should feed itself


What do students teach their professors? How can Africa tackle brain-drain? Why are lions and lambs bad for science? Where are politicians really letting farmers down? We discussed these and other topics with Professor Eric Danquah* of WACCI.

Syngenta Foundation: As a crop improvement expert and keen observer of the agricultural scene, what’s particularly on your mind right now?

Eric Danquah: I spend a lot of time thinking how Africa can get better at managing unplannable challenges.


For example…?

The Covid pandemic was a big reminder of the fragility of African food supply chains. Here in Accra, as in most of the continent’s cities, informal channels play a crucial role in ensuring access to food and income. To tackle major challenges to the supply chain, African countries must meet their own needs locally. We can’t depend on imports.  


You’ve said in the past that “sustainability means ensuring local production of crops that meet expectations”. What role should breeders play here? 

Crop breeding is only part of the answer, but a very important one. My center WACCI and others across Africa, as well as your Foundation, put a lot of emphasis on Demand-Led Breeding. We’ve made good progress. But ‘DLB’ now needs to step up to the next level. 


What would that step upwards involve?

One aspect is technological, the other social. African crop scientists must ensure that they are using the most efficient methods such as speed-breeding and other advanced technologies. We have to keep abreast of what is happening elsewhere, and be on the look-out for new, sometimes unexpected partnerships. At the same time, we must always align our science with societal needs. That means, for example, breeding varieties that help improve smallholders’ resilience rather than “only” tolerating a particular pest or disease. That’s a subtle mindset shift, but a vital one. And it means a greater focus on multi-disciplinary teams that develop, implement and learn together.  


As a professor, you say that you learn more from your students than vice versa… 

Definitely! Some of the reasons are fairly obvious, others perhaps less so. Of course, young people are good at keeping us older generations in touch with new topics, tools and trends. But there is more to it than that. Why is it essential that I listen to young people? Because they are the custodians of future happiness. Recently, for example, WACCI students have reminded me of the importance of inclusivity for motivation. If we treat young people as fellow citizens rather than spectators, they will dive into work and opportunities with enormous energy. Many organizations in Africa – and elsewhere! – would do well to remember that.   


Inclusivity and motivation sound good. But how do you tackle the risk of brain-drain? Don’t all your students want to move abroad?

International experience is highly valuable. Just look at all the places where our Faculty trained! What matters is that Africans who study overseas then come back**. And for WACCI, with its international intake, there is also an intra-continental aspect. One of the most rewarding sides to my job is seeing the impact that our alumni make back home. Former WACCI students are now spearheading crop improvement in more than 15 African countries. And they acknowledge that we enabled them to stand comparison anywhere, worldwide. Who would have thought that possible 20 years ago? There were many doubters. But my WACCI team believes in young scientists, and they continue to justify that confidence. 


Confidence is fine. But doesn’t attracting and retaining talent require rather more than that? 

Sure. Whether in Ghana or elsewhere, battling brain-drain also requires high-quality organizations and facilities. We have to offer people a great place to work, in all respects. That’s why “People” are one of the five priorities in the University of Ghana’s 2024-29 Strategic Plan. In crop science, ambitious academics want top-class labs, greenhouses, and demo plots. And they need good long-term prospects – properly endowed Fellowships, for example, not just a series of temporary grants. Nobody can live on a vague “we might extend it” from governments or donors. 


Which brings us to the topic of money. Worldwide, investors and donors have a huge range of topics and organizations they could support. Why should anybody put funds into a breeding program at WACCI? 

There are three main reasons. The first is moral: African farmers could and should be more productive. They deserve better varieties, developed locally. The second reason is the opportunity: There is huge scope to make a difference. African crop science still lacks the critical mass required to serve the continent’s agriculture appropriately. The question is then: Why WACCI? My answer is a practical one: Because we’re already off to a good start. The risks are low, the chances high. At WACCI, you know that your funds will be well invested. 


But shouldn’t African governments be funding the continent’s breeders?

They certainly should be. But despite their Malabo commitments, I still see a frustrating lack of investments by African governments in agricultural science. There is a lot of short-term thinking by visionless leaders. Despite typically being farmers themselves, many African politicians mentally uncouple farming and science. They somehow expect smallholders to flourish even if R&D gets no money. But to paraphrase a former Tanzanian president: “Agriculture without investment is like dancing without music”. 


Dancing often requires partners. WACCI works with numerous other organizations. What, for you, are the ingredients of a successful scientific partnership?      

I think the same applies to science as for other collaborations. In my experience, there are five key success factors. Top of the list is mutual respect. Partners also have to share a vision and then align their objectives. Every partner – whether there are two of you or ten – needs free space in which to play to its own strengths. And communication must always be clear and open. “Lion and lamb” relationships are not productive! 


What have we not yet talked about, but should do?   

If readers only remember one thing I say, it should be this: Africa simply cannot afford to keep on importing so much food. Spending foreign exchange on crops we could be growing locally is not only perverse, but also unsustainable. And we have absolutely no excuse – not even the NGOs’ favorite one that “nasty Western governments” are undercutting African smallholders with subsidies. When good African science gets into their hands, our farmers can compete, improve their livelihoods, and feed their countries. 


*Eric Danquah leads the West Africa Centre for Crop Improvement (WACCI) of the University of Ghana. In 2022, he received the Africa Food Prize; for the last two years, Reputation Poll International named him one of the 100 most Reputable Africans. He has worked closely with our Foundation on improving the training of breeders at African universities. In his free time, he is a keen fan of the soccer team Accra Hearts of Oak.

**See the recent portrait of our retired Country Director in Mali: Salif Kante also studied abroad and returned home.