Public-private partnerships, a fair deal?

A-AO-Farm-manager-fmt © Anne Wangalachi/CIMMYT

During the past 10 years, multinational food corporations have taken a greater part in agricultural research within ACP countries, often partnering with public research institutes in need of funding. Does this mean that they dictate the law to them? Many farmer organisations and NGOs think so, pointing out that these partnerships are almost exclusively about cash crops, usually genetically modified, ignore local farmers’ needs and raise major intellectual property issues within these countries.

Although the entry of agribusiness in ACP public agricultural research is not yet quantifiable, it is nonetheless real, following a developing trend within industrialised countries. This private sector interest is a consequence of cutbacks in public agricultural research spending, especially in Africa. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the situation has improved since 2000, however major challenges still constrain African agricultural research development. For instance, growth in investments – 20% between 2001 and 2008 – has only occurred in a few of the 32 countries examined by IFPRI, namely Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Furthermore, the majority of funds have been used to raise low salaries and restore infrastructure after years of neglect. 

The brain drain and ageing of highly qualified and experienced researchers is another tremendous challenge for Africa considering the high number of senior executives who will retire within the next decade. In addition, in 2008, only eight of the examined countries – Botswana, Burundi, Kenya, Mauritius, Mauritania, Namibia, South Africa and Uganda – had invested more than 1% of their agricultural GDP in research, meeting the goal set by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). To increase investment in the agricultural sector, NEPAD established the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme with the fourth pillar – dedicated to research – entrusted to the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), which has a mandate to coordinate agricultural research among national, sub-regional and international organisations.

To address these deficits, research centres (whether national, regional or international institutes, universities or NGOs) are increasingly teaming up with the private sector. The former organisations focus on increasing agricultural output and improving farmer livelihoods, whilst the private sector primarily seeks a profit. The benefits of such public-private partnerships (PPP) are numerous: not only supplying additional funding, but allowing local researchers to increase their skills and creating a good environment for promoting research findings. PPPs also enable knowledge exchange and identification of new research areas.

Some of the major international research organisations such as the International Livestock Research Institute or the World Agroforestry Center, for example, are located in Kenya. According to IFPRI, the presence of a critical mass of researchers and public investments – Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont – or foundations such as Rockfeller, Bill and Melinda Gates and recently Google, is a key factor to attracting agrifood giants. Syngenta, a world leader in crop protection, is developing a variety of genetically modified maize in partnership with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute in collaboration with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. 

In Côte d’Ivoire, Nestlé took the lead by launching its Cocoa plan. The Swiss group opened a research and development centre in Abidjan that is working closely with some 30 cooperatives, more than 18,000 producers and the research institute CNRA to improve quality and productivity of cocoa (see Spore no. 160). Affected by a severe deterioration in plantation productivity, along with a disruption of the coffee-cocoa chain which accounts for about 20% of GDP, Côte d’Ivoire had to take urgent action; for Nestlé, it was the opportunity to guarantee its supply of raw material. 

Other PPP’s have been launched, focusing on new sectors, e.g. organic products. This is particularly the case in the Caribbean. In the Dominican Republic, a PPP agreement has been concluded between the Dominican agricultural and forestry research institute IRDIAF and the cooperative Francisco del Rosario to produce bananas that are organically certified.

Towards fair partnerships?

Biotechnology intellectual property (IP) rights are a major issue for public institutes that collaborate on research programmes with the private sector. Varieties obtained by farmers are considered to be within the public domain, whereas varieties developed by public or private research centres are increasingly under patent protection. In 2008, Monty Jones, executive director of FARA, expressed the concerns of his organisation about the consequences of IP on access to seeds and knowledge for research and development. National agricultural research institutes (NARI) have been created to conduct research into priority products in agriculture, livestock and fisheries, and natural resources management in their respective countries. These products are essential components of poor farmers’ food and nutrition even if they are not necessarily of commercial value. IP can lead publicly funded NARIs to redirect research towards more commercially profitable products but do not necessarily address the agricultural and nutritional challenges of their country. However, these institutes can also reap the benefits as IP enables them to protect their rights to use their innovations as well as their efforts to protect local knowledge and crops of low commercial value such as legumes and tubers.

On the ground, PPP’s which benefit local communities have also been developed in the environmental sector. In the Fiji islands for example, one project is combining environmental conservation with drug research and economic development. Villagers immerse artificial corals into the sea, which are quickly colonised by plants and other living organisms to be sold to specialist suppliers for aquariums. In this way, the villagers secure an income and are able to conserve their natural corals, while scientists at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the USA (Georgia Tech) may continue to search for new drugs in species colonising the coral reefs. 

Farmers are key players

A PPP may also fail if it ignores the interests of the primary stakeholders - farmers and the local community. In Senegal, Senhuile (a group owned by the Italian group Tampieri Financial and Senegalese private stakeholders with 51% and 49% shares respectively) together with the Senegalese agricultural research institute INRA launched, in 2011, a sunflower plantation project with part of the production to be processed into biofuel. The partnership ended in a violent conflict between supporters and opposers of the project in Fanaye, a village in the Senegal River Valley, in which two people died. According to the Fanaye land defense committee, the 20,000 ha granted to the project constituted one-third of the total farmland. NGOs have denounced land grabbing by politicians and businessmen that occurred without the consent of the affected population.

The Fanaye tragedy reminds us how important it is to take farmers’ interests and their indigenous knowledge into account when developing public - private agricultural research programmes. The Platform for African-European partnership on Agricultural Research for Development (PAEPARD) programme aims to address the marginalisation of ACP researchers. Overseen by FARA, PAEPARD notes that agricultural research between Europe and Africa primarily serves European researchers’ interests and does not take sufficient account of other players. PAEPARD, principally funded by the EU (contributing 80%), has €5 million for 2010-2013 and aims to facilitate partnerships between farmer organisations, civil society groups, private and public research institutes, and help partners prepare research proposals to address the real needs of farmers. 

In Nigeria, a pilot project involving European and Nigerian researchers with farmer organisations and local industries proves that the local PPP can work. The Nigeria Poultry Feed Research and Development project, launched in the southern state of Imo, “aims to reduce poultry feed production costs by 30% to 40% by replacing maize flour supplements imported from Denmark with locally produced vegetables and by improving the quality of local maize flour,” explains Ifeanyi Charles Okoli, professor at the Federal University of Technology in Owerri. According to François Stepman, European co-manager, “The project is still in its test phase, however the close working relationship between the researchers and industry players, notably poultry organisations, is very encouraging.”

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