November 12, 2008

Expert Looks to Africa’s Green Revolution

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Yesterday afternoon, in the Plant Sciences Building, Pedro Sanchez Ph.D. ’68 gave a talk “The African Green Revolution Moves Forward” to a standing-room-only crowd of about 200. Sanchez, director of tropical agriculture for the Earth Institute at Columbia University, discussed the aspirations of his current projects in the poverty-stricken continent of Africa.
Sanchez — who received all three of his degrees from Cornell — has held various professorships since leaving the University. He has also held prestigious board positions, most notably as Co-Chair of the Hunger Task Force of the Millennium Project, an advisory council to the United Nations. Sanchez’s research goals, as defined by CALS Dean Susan A. Henry, include “lessening hunger in Africa using agricultural productivity.”
After his introduction, Sanchez delved into his 45-minute presentation, in which he discussed the development and analysis of 80 “millennium villages” in Sub-Saharan Africa. These millennium villages were developed through a U.N. initiative as part of Kofi Annan’s proposed Green Revolution in Africa.
In July 2004, the UN released a report enumerating objectives African countries should take to fight the challenges of hunger, lack of clean water and prevalence of diseases like malaria and HIV/AIDS. Sanchez and his team at the Earth Institute established and funded programs in these millennium villages, effectively giving assistance to 400,000 Africans.[img_assist|nid=33506|title=Pointed remark|desc=Pedro Sanchez, a director of Columbia’s Earth Institute, speaks about hunger in Africa yesterday in the Plant Sciences Building.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
The program’s success, according to Sanchez, will come in two phases. The first goal is to empower the community by helping the people get access to clean water and adequate health care. And second, Sanchez wants these African communities to enter the global market and leave poverty behind.
Sanchez ensured that the project’s phases would be organized by “community leaders, but be science based.”
The team of 150 native African scientists, professionals and specialists, led by Sanchez, has been working for four years to establish agricultural procedures in African villages. Sanchez used research to show that if Africans produced their own goods, as opposed to importing from other countries, production costs would decrease by one-eighth and a significant profit can be turned.
Through the work of Sanchez’s team, these millennium villages have turned into thriving communities, with new houses, banking systems, small businesses, and a revamped education.
“The future of the world depends on education,” Sanchez argued.
After Sanchez’s presentation, a brief question and answer period, one of his post-doctoral fellows, Leigh Winowiecki, gave a talk about the Hunger Task Force’s new initiative, A Globally Integrated African Soil Information Service (AfSIS).
“Believe it or not, there is more satellite imagery of Mars than of Africa,” Winowiecki said.
Just 10 days ago, $54 million of funding from the Gates Foundation was secured to create a global, open access, free source of soil maps of Africa. Winowiecki believes that this system will modernize the way research is done. She hopes that the AfSIS, once developed, will help native Africans, in all fields, to properly cultivate the land and develop a strong agricultural system.
After Winowiecki’s presentation, there was another question and answer session. Faculty and students shot questions and Sanchez and Winowiecki, attempting to validate their research and proposed work. However, many audience members were skeptical of Sanchez’s work. He self-described his presentation as optimistic, but even so, more than one questioner pondered the merits of Sanchez’s argument.
Many believed that based on the lack of success of previous attempts to help Africa, Sanchez’s goals would not be achieved. However, Sanchez urged that there is a likely chance that the agricultural techniques that his team taught the native Africans would spread throughout the continent.
Sanchez did say that, pragmatically, the Hunger Task Force’s projects will not be self-sustainable by Africans for at least ten years. “This is not easy. We’re learning as we go along,” he said.