Author Archives: Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu

About Uwagbale Edward-Ekpu

An Industrial Chemist, Science Communicator, Digital Technology Commentator, Social Media Strategist, Entrepreneur and a Researcher with a huge interest in Food Chemistry and Technology.

Nigeria Presents First Home Grown Genetically Modified Crop

After years of research, the Agricultural Research Council of Nigeria (ARCN) presents to Nigerians Pod Borer Resistant (PBR) Cowpea. The first home-grown Genetically Modified crop in Nigeria.

PBR Cowpea has been under research for the last 8 years and according to the Executive Secretary of the ARCN, Professor Ambrose Voh, PBR Cowpea has passed all scientific tests and poses no danger to humans or the environment.

The National Agriculture Research System (NARS) has also declared the crop safe as the country prepares to commercialize it.

The cowpea was genetically modified to resistant pod borer called Maruca which reduces farmers’ yield as much as 80%.

The Maruca vitrata is a major Lepidopteran pest that inflicts severe damage to the cowpea plant.

The PBR project was carried out in four countries in Sub-Saharan Africa-Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Ghana and Malawi. Several Confined Field Trials, (CFT) was conducted annually in Nigeria, since 2009; Burkina Faso since 2011; and Ghana since 2013. Efficacy and agronomic potential of the genes was evaluated.

The PBR trait was introduced into some farmer preferred cowpea varieties through conventional breeding and the efficacy of the trait was evaluated in multi-location CFTs in Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ghana.

In line with regulatory requirements, farmers in Nigeria across three locations were involved in the evaluation of the cowpea seeds. In addition, various environmental and food/feed safety assessments were conducted.

The Principal Investigator of the PBR Cowpea, Prof. Mohammed Ishiaku of the Institute of Agricultural Research (IAR), Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria said that if the PBR Cowpea is grown by one third of Nigerian Cowpea fields, the nation would save N16 billion from the cost of insecticide alone.

He added that if there was 20% increase yield over normal non-resistant Cowpea, the nation would get financial benefit not less than N48 billion every year.

The Pod-borer Resistant Cowpea Project is a public private partnership coordinated by African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), with the funding support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote technological interventions that will optimise cowpea productivity and utilisation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Kudos to African biotechnologists for this big step in the advancement of biotechnology as a tool to ensure food security in Africa. This achievement demonstrates the ideology, Biotechnology for African by Africans.

This approach is the best way to encourage Africans to embrace GMOs by showing them that it is not a western conspiracy to harm Africans but a Scientific solution Africans can use to solve food problems by themselves.

When we do our own researches using our own researchers to solve our own problems we would not need GMOs from companies with bad reputation like Monsanto or be entangled in their dirty dealings and politics.

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Are African Tech Companies Really Tech Companies? – The Answer is Complicated

The word “Tech” has increasingly been used in recent times to describe some startups in Africa. This is because Africans are starting more businesses around digital technology. We have many African startups like Jobberman, OXL, Jumia, Tolet, etc. that are referred to as Tech companies, some have been categorised as edtech (Tuteria‎, Prepclass), fintech (FarmDrive, BitPesa), healthtech (Ubenwa. HealthThink), nuerotech (Koniku), agritech (AgroData, Farmerline), etc.

But when you put these companies side by side with prototypical tech companies like Oracle, Microsoft, Apple, IBM, Google; the differences may make you want to check the meaning of the term “Tech company”.

So what type of company is really a tech company?

The Definition of a Tech Company is Complicated

Marli Guzzetta, Research director of Inc. Magazine complied some definitions of Tech company as defined by some big players in the tech industry in her article, Why Even a Salad Chain Wants to Call Itself a Tech Company.

“You are a technology company if you are in the business of selling technology–if you make money by selling applied scientific knowledge that solves a concrete problem.”

– Alex Payne, Co-Founder, Simple and an early Twitter engineer.

“Tech means more than just producing hardware or software…It is synonymous with innovation, research and development, long-term thinking.”

– Mark Zandi, the chief economist at Moody’s Analytics.

“It’s generally a company whose primary business is selling tech or tech services. A more nuanced definition is a company with tech or tech services as a key part of its business. It’s a hard question.”

– Todd Berkowitz, VP of Research, Gartner.

“A tech company uses technology to create an unfair advantage in terms of product uniqueness or scale or improved margins. Ask the question: Could this company exist without technology? If the answer is no, it has to be a tech company.”

– Greg Bettinelli, Partner, Upfront Ventures.

“I think there’s a false dichotomy in the idea that a company either is or is not a tech company. I think it’s possible for a company to be a hybrid if tech is giving it an edge over incumbents.”

– Hayley Barna, Venture Partner, First Round Capital.

Hard Tech and Soft Tech Companies

To make the definition of Tech company less complicated, I divided tech companies into two categories: Hard Tech and Soft Tech companies.

Companies that meets the descriptions of the first three definitions made by Alex Payne, Mark Zandi and Todd Berkowitz can be categorised as Hard Tech companies. These Tech companies are mainly into electronics, computers and scientific research.

They are the foundation of digital technology and are the prototypes of tech company, and Software, hardware, (of recent) wetware production and sales, and internet services are the core of their operations. Examples of these companies are Oracle, Microsoft, Apple and IBM.

Some startup companies that deliver food to your door with operations that have nothing to do with making of computers or phones or software have also been labelled as Tech companies (Foodtech) because they use (digital) technology in their businesses.

The same can be said of Uber, that helps you get a ride in a car using an app on your phone. Like Greg Bettinelli said, these company uses technology to create an advantage in terms of product uniqueness or scale or improved margins.

however in today’s world most business use one form of digital technology or the other. For instance, newspaper publishers have from print to digital media and their businesses are now structured around computers, smartphones and the internet.

But while companies like the newspaper company have been around before the advent of computers, many of new companies like Uber or the food company wouldn’t exist without the development of smartphone apps and ubiquitous Internet access.

Therefore, a Soft Tech is a company that doesn’t have production or sales of (mainly digital) tech as the key part of its business, cannot exist without the use of (digital) technology, but depends mainly on (digital) tech to create value, and an advantage over incumbents.

This category of tech companies can be referred to as a hybrid. They have two sides; Uber for example can be called a transport company or tech company depending on side you are looking at it from.

African Tech Companies are Mostly Soft Tech Companies

In Africa, our tech companies are very much on the soft side. We have not built a known ingenious business that invests heavily in scientific research and creates technology, but we have built many businesses that uses digital technologies to create valuable products and services.

Much Ado about the Label ‘Tech Company’ and ‘Tech Start-up’

While many startups are in a rush to identify with the label, the label may not mean much in the near future. There will come a time when there will be so many tech companies (especially Soft Techs) that the label Tech company’ and ‘tech start-up will not be necessary. According to Alex Payne in 2012,

“‘Tech company’ and ‘tech start-up’ are over applied labels that have outlived their usefulness…Calling practically all growing contemporary businesses ‘technology companies’ is about as useful as calling the enterprises of the industrial era ‘factory companies.’”

Well, in Africa, we just started applying the label and we are obviously enjoying all the goodies that comes with it.

Lab made meet

Why Developed Countries Are Moving Food Production Away from Farms to Labs

While developing countries are advocating for, diversifying to and investing in Agriculture for food security and job creation, developed countries are moving food production from farms to laboratories. “Laboratory!” Someone in Africa would scream. Yes, laboratory, thanks to food biotechnology, a field African countries haven’t gotten a grip on yet. In short biotechnology is not getting enough support from the continent due to religious and cultural believes.

Developed countries are the highest emitter of Greenhouse gases, gases responsible for global warming, and are taking steps to reduce the emission of these gasses to the atmosphere. To do so they must cut down activities that produce greenhouse gases by turning to relying on a novel type of agriculture – Cellular Agriculture.

Agricultural Industry and Methane Gas Emission

global_emissions_sector_2015

Traditional Agriculture industry is a major contributor to global emissions. Source: IPCC (2014); based on global emissions from 2010.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Other Land Use (24%) ranked only behind Electricity and Heat Production (25%) in 2010 global greenhouse gas emissions according to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s website.

The animal agriculture industry is the primary source of methane (CH4) gas emissions. Agriculture and livestock combining contributes 35% of total methane emission. Domestic livestock such as cattle, buffalo, sheep, and goats produce large amounts of methane as part of their normal digestive process. Methane is also produced when animal manure is stored or managed in lagoons or holding tanks.

Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is much shorter than carbon dioxide (CO2), but CH4 is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2. Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 is more than 25 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.

According to the World Bank report, agriculture is a major source of methane emission. In its report in 2008, three countries that have maximum methane emission due to agriculture include Solomon Island with 96.80%, Uruguay 92.80% and Namibia 92.00%.

Reducing Greenhouse Gas in Agriculture

Advanced countries are investing in Cellular agriculture, a field that capitalizes on breakthroughs in tissue-engineering, material sciences, bioengineering, and synthetic biology to design new ways of producing existing agricultural products like milk, meat, egg, coffee, silk leather, fragrance etc. from cells and microorganisms.

This may sound new to you or give you a ‘woowish’ feeling but the concept was conceived many years ago. Winston Churchill even predicted the advent of a mainstream cellular agriculture paradigm of meat production in his 1931 essay, Fifty Years Hence.

“Fifty years hence…we shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium.”

A study by researchers at Oxford and the University of Amsterdam found that lab-made meat was “potentially much more efficient and environmentally friendly”, generating only 4% greenhouse gas emissions. This is in contrast to cattle farming, which according to FAO is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases.

Read: Bio-Hacking: We Can Now Have Milk Without Cows and Eggs Without Chickens

Several cellular agriculture start-ups have been created applying cellular agriculture to make a number of agricultural products and consumables. They include meat producers: SuperMeat, Future Meat Technologies, and Meat the Future (all Israeli); Memphis Meats (United States) and Shojinmeat (a Japanese biohacker community), and also San Francisco-based startups Muufri which produces milk from yeast instead of cows and Clara Foods which produces is making egg whites from yeast instead of eggs.

China is Interested in Lab-Made Meat

China this week signed a $300 million trade agreement with Israel — a home 3 of the 8 companies in the world working to produce a scalable version of lab-made meat.

Lab-made meat—the kind being produced fiber-by-fiber in laboratories, is also called cultured meat, synthetic meat, cell-cultured meat, clean meat, vat meat, lab-grown meat and in vitro meat.

In a recent article by a state-run China Science and Technology Daily the discussing encouraged the embracing of lab-made meat for reasons that included food safety, food security, and environmental reasons.

“Imagine the future…you have two identical products; one is that you have to slaughter the cattle to get. ‘The other’ is exactly the same, and cheaper, no greenhouse gas emissions, no animal slaughter, which one would you choose?”

The article asked.

2014_emissions_by countries

China is the world largest emitter of CO2 greenhouse gas. Source: Boden, T.A., Marland, G., and Andres, R.J. (2017). National CO2 Emissions from Fossil-Fuel Burning, Cement Manufacture, and Gas Flaring: 1751-2014, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, doi 10.3334/CDIAC/00001_V2017.

The Chinese government recently the UK, France, and India in taking steps to decrease the number of petroleum-powered cars sold in the country and this deal signed by India and Israel will give Chinese companies the opportunity to partner with the Israeli Lab-made meat companies to tackle issues relating to greenhouse gases emissions which some think is a signal that China is serious about tapering the amount of greenhouse gases it emits.