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Kenya: Gates Foundation and Monsanto to develop GM seeds for small farmers

KARI is one of the main partners in a new programme funded by the Gates Foundation to develop genetically modified (GM), drought-resistant maize for small farmers in Africa. Monsanto has committed to providing the seeds without royalty payments. Rachel Keeler looks at the implications for the local and regional market.

Many of the emotionally charged headlines that drive Africa’s food security debate are intricately connected to the critical and complex Kenyan seed industry: Kenya is the second largest seed consumer in sub-Saharan Africa, and a key driver of agricultural research on the continent. For decades, donors and private interests have been funneling millions of dollars into the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), in an effort to develop new plant varieties that can repel pests, withstand disease and produce higher yields.

KARI is now one of the main partners in a new programme funded by the Gates Foundation that will attempt to develop genetically modified (GM) maize that can withstand drought. The plan is to distribute the seeds to small farmers in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. The technology is coming from Monsanto, the American corporate seed giant that does a lot of work for the Gates Foundation in Africa. Normally Monsanto’s patented seeds come at a high price, which has inspired an endless stream of vitriol from activists who accuse the company of exploiting poor farmers for obscene profits. This time, farmers will receive the seeds royalty free – indefinitely – as part of Gates’ push for a “green revolution” in Africa.
But that has not stopped the critics from questioning the wisdom (and motives behind) introducing expensive farming technology to poor African countries. They also question the implications for human health and the environmental safety of GM food. Anytime you cross poverty, aid, science, and big business, the debates are bound to be endless, and indeed they have been (for a good overview, see recent articles in the Nation , and Economist ). But what is often missing amidst all the rhetoric is a basic look at how the markets might respond to these developments.
GM seeds are not yet legally available in East Africa. Regulations for Kenya’s Bio-Safety Act are still being developed. Nonetheless, Monsanto has been testing GM cotton with KARI for three years already, and plans to launch trials for GM corn next year. Kinyua M’Mbijjewe, the company’s corporate affairs director for Africa, says he expects legislation to be functional soon, and expects the commercial cotton and corn varieties to hit markets even before Gates’ drought resistance maize is ready – probably within the next five years.


Publication date: 11/27/2009


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