Dr. Walter Alhassan

Strengthening capacity for safe biotechnology management in Sub-Saharan Africa

Dr. Alhassan was at the time of this interview coordinator for the African Biotechnology and Biosafety Policy Platform and the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) project Strengthening Capacity for Safe Biotechnology Management in Sub-Saharan Africa (SABIMA).

He has served as the director general of the Ghana Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Dean of Agriculture at the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (Nigeria). Dr. Alhassan has conducted extensive studies on the status and application of agricultural biotechnology in Africa. He holds degrees in animal, poultry and dairy sciences and tropical agriculture from the University of Guelph (Canada), the University of Wisconsin (US), and the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (Ghana).

How would you briefly explain your public-private partnership (PPP) with the SFSA?
Most of our initiatives are public-sector-driven. They focus on building capacity for managing qualitative product development from the laboratory through to the market, in partnership with the private sector. In SABIMA, the Foundation provides the support for developing this capacity through a train-the-trainer arrangement. Through good stewardship practices, products developed by public sector institutions will be recognized for their safety and high quality. All the project countries now have the capacity to train in stewardship. This increases private sector confidence in joint initiatives to develop modern biotech products for agriculture.
What particular private sector strengths are necessary? Why is the project not possible with public resources alone?
The private sector has entrepreneurial skills and capital. These crucial factors for wealth creation may not always be sufficiently available at public sector research institutions. Modern biotechnologies will help us to solve problems in agriculture where conventional means are not very effective. Seed companies are using Bt technologies in cotton and other crops, in partnership with small and large-scale farmers. Yield increase and reduced pesticide use financially outweigh the increased seed cost. The private sector has the ability to source funding and manage the relationship with small-scale resource-poor farmers.
What brought you into contact with the SFSA?
My contacts date back many years. In 2001, I helped review the Foundation’s IRMA Insect Resistant Maize for Africa (IRMA) project in Kenya. SFSA had also already visited me as director general of the Ghana Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. I now advise the Forum for Agriculture Research in Africa (FARA) on biotechnology and biosafety policy, and helped to develop SABIMA.
In the set-up stage of the SFSA PPP, what was most challenging? How did you solve this?
Getting the buy-in from the countries we invited to the trainings was not easy. FARA was just beginning to understand what stewardship was all about and needed to explain this top-down to stakeholders. That took a lot of time. Once countries understood the concept they were ready to sign on, and were glad that they received training.
What has been unexpected in this PPP?
Work has come full circle – some countries are already doing their own training and have developed their stewardship policies for internalization. Burkina Faso officials already had links with a private company, but told us that their product development would have been even more successful if the training had been available earlier. We were pleasantly surprised!
What would you do differently if you started the project over again?
We would get together and explain the issues before the project launch, to get buy-in from the countries sooner than we did. That would also enable us more objectively to assess countries’ readiness to receive and apply the knowledge.