Wambugu, Florence 1953–
Florence Wambugu 1953–
Dr. Florence Muringi Wambugu is one of the most eminent African woman scientists in the world today, well known for her expertise and advocacy in biotechnology. She is currently serving as the chief executive officer of A Harvest Biotech Foundation International (AHBFI), a nonprofit foundation with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, Johannesburg, South Africa, and Washington, D.C. Dr. Wambugu is an agricultural plant pathologist who specializes in virology and genetic engineering for viral diseases crop protection. The foundation’s vision is to fight hunger, malnutrition, and poverty in Africa and the developing world. Their mission is to use tools of biotechnology and the latest available information to introduce crops, trees and other products that increase the harvest and income by utilizing the most safe procedures available in biotechnology.
Wambugu, recognized worldwide as a researcher, and scholar in biotechnology, has lectured and made numerous presentations on every continent. She is also the author and publisher of Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology Can Benefit the Poor. In her book, she strongly puts forth her beliefs convincingly in favor of biotechnology and concludes that Africa should not allow itself to be bypassed by this powerful agricultural revolution. As four million people die of starvation in Southern Africa, she strongly believes that the agritechnology transfer is more urgent than ever. Her strategy as outlined in A Harvest News is to “use foremost and safety procedures in Biotechnology to produce sustainable disease free crops of high nutritional value. Our aim is to make constant and lasting impact on food security and environmental safety in Africa and the developing world.” The foundation she heads acts as a pan African voice, and a clearinghouse for information, education, and awareness on everything farmers and leaders should know regarding the benefits of biotechnology.
Born in 1953, the sixth of nine children, Dr. Wambugu and her siblings were raised on a small farm in Nyeri, just outside Nairobi, Kenya. In 1963, when she was ten years old, Wambugu’s father had to go work on a white settler’s farm, leaving her mother and nine siblings to survive on their own. They cultivated the farm by growing sweet potatoes. Typically in an African village, this means the family used hoes to dig and weed by hand, which was a very slow and tedious task, especially since they were hungry most of the time. Working hand in hand with her family, Wambugu saw early on the damage caused by disease and pests which ravaged their meager crops. As reported on the New Scientist Magazine website, she would later write, “My mother would always look for ways to increase production. We didn’t have chemicals but she’d use things like ashes from burned wood and various concoctions to control insects.” So when Wambugu talks of hunger, she knows how it feels going a day without eating, which she and her siblings experienced often when she was growing up. She credits sweet potatoes’ richness in calories, vitamin A, and beta carotene, for helping them to stay alive.
At a Glance…
Career; Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, senior research officer (pathologist) and coordinator of plant biotechnology research, 1978-91; Monsanto, postdoctoral fellow, 1991-94; A Harvest Biotech Foundation International, CEO, 1994-.
Memberships: Private Sector Committee (PSC) of CGIAR; DuPont Biotech Advisory Panel-USA; board of trustees, IPGRI and vice chair of the African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF); Science Board of the Grand Challenges in Global Health initiative.
Awards: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture’s (HTA), Nigeria, Africa) Award, 1981; Crop Science award, KARI, 1989; International Potato Center’s (CIP) Regional Research award/grant ($10,000), 1989; Farmers Support Award, Pyrethrum Marketing Board of Kenya, 1990; recognized as an exemplary Ph.D. candidate, Virology Division of Horticultural Research International in England and KARI, 1991; Monsanto Company Outstanding Performance Award, 1992, 1993; first place medal winner, Global Development Network Awards, KARI Year 2000; Woman of the Year, American Biographical Institute, 2002-03.
Addresses: Home —PO Box 642-00621, Village Market, Nairobi, Kenya. Office —1205 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Ste. 102, Washington DC 20036.
Having no resources, and overcoming all odds, Wam-bugu excelled in primary school which led to her being selected to attend secondary school away from home at Kabare Girls’ High School, in Kenya. Yet, it was not that simple. Unfortunately in rural Africa, girls were supposed to get married and were not encouraged to attend school let alone boarding school. Determined to see her daughter continue her education, Wambugu’s mother had to seek permission from a tribal tribunal and persuaded the family to sell their most prized possession—their only cow—in order to fund Wambugu’s secondary education. Speaking of this gesture which has left a lasting impact on Wambugu, she said of her mother in Biotechnology: A Solution to Hunger & Starvation, “She believed I’d be able to do more for the community than this cow was worth. She believed in me and it inspired me.”
Inspired by her mother, in 1975 Wambugu became the first woman in Kenya to attend the University of Nairobi, Kenya, where three years later she obtained a B.S. degree in botany and zoology. Upon graduation she joined the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) as a research officer and coordinator of plant biotechnology. Besides research experience, KARI provided Wambugu crucial contact with international scientists from Centre International de la Papa (CIP) who gave her the opportunity to work on the very crop she claimed helped to save her family—the sweet potato. As she learned about tissue-culture, it aroused her interest in the processes potential to better the supply of high quality planting materials to farmers. She was later named KARI’s Outstanding Scientist of the Year.
Wambugu took an opportunity to further her studies by attending North Dakota State University in Fargo, where a couple of years later, she earned a master’s degree in plant pathology. She returned to Kenya to continue her work at Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and CIP but again seized another opportunity to study virology at the Biotechnology University of Bath in Britain, where, in 1991, she received an exemplary Ph.D. candidate for outstanding dissertation. Appropriately she conducted her theses research on sweet potato diseases, placing her closer to the Kenyan farmers and the problems they were facing in dealing with the complex viruses that were destroying their yields. While in England, she was also awarded Recognition by the Virology Division of Horticultural Research International and would go on to be honored and receive many more awards.
Armed with her Ph.D. and more determined than ever, Wambugu continued to try various hybridization techniques to outbreed the viruses but nothing really worked. In 1992 she received a grant from the U. S. Department of Agriculture to study trans-genetics in St. Louis, Missouri, in collaboration with Washington University and Monsanto, the agrochemical giant. Washington University shared with Wambugu its already developed technology to protect crops from viruses. Wambugu would labor for three years in Monsanto labs, two years to test the transgenic tubers in greenhouses, and still two more years for the Kenyan government to permit planting the crops for field testing. The results were astounding. The resistant-to-virus sweet potato crop is the first genetically modified crop in the sub-Sahara Africa whose yield far exceeds that of the regular plant thus offering hope to the developing Africa. More important, when utilized properly, genetically modified food could prove to be a bonanza but also empower countless rural African women who spend a great deal of the day stooped, using hands and archaic tools like hoes in their attempt to produce food.
Unfortunately, both genetically engineered food and Wambugu have not escaped criticism from anti-biotech groups, including the Greenpeace Movement, and other non-government organizations who believe that there is plenty of food in the world, it just needs to be distributed properly. Wambugu contends that idea to be a deliberate campaign of misinformation and whose victims are African farmers and consumers. The hunger problem in Africa is complicated. Africa is the only continent where people are getting poorer because of the disproportion rate of population growth at 3.5 percent as opposed to 2.5 percent annual food production rate. The problem in Africa is further compounded by regional wars, drought, corruption, mismanagement, and the worst famines as well as the lack of infrastructure necessary for food distribution; roads, railways, and shipping are often nonexistent in rural areas.
Critics also worried that transgenic foods are unsafe and biotechnology will lead Africa to become not only a dumping ground but also exploited by big multinational corporations. A very good example is Zambia, which when in 2002 was faced with widespread hunger, the government refused to distribute donated genetically modified corn fearing people would get sick. Yet, transgenic foods are consumed on a daily basis without any reported problems in the United States, Canada, Australia, Mexico, and other countries. Wambugu responds that there is no evidence showing they are unsafe, since they undergo rigorous testing for toxins before distribution. The Washington Post quoted her as saying, “It is time for Africa to begin thinking and operating as a stakeholder, rather than accepting the ‘victim mentality’ created by opponents of biotechnology. The priority of Africa must be to food its people and to sustain agricultural production and the environment.”
Wambugu laments that the biotechnology protesters are bent on denying the developing countries the resources to develop a technology that can help end hunger, malnutrition, and poverty. In the Los Angeles Times she is quoted as saying that “genetic engineering of plants has sparked a revolution in agriculture, one that can play an important role in feeding the world’s hungry. As an African I know that biotech is not a panacea. It cannot solve problems of inept or corrupt governments, underfunded research, unsound agricultural policy or a lack of capital. But as a scientist I know that biotech is a powerful new tool that can help address some of the agricultural problems that plague Africa.” The European criticism also is not fair, especially since they have not experienced starvation. The comparison is between illiterate African farmers who can not read or write to the educated European farmers who utilize high technology and state of the art equipment to produce abundant food. For the Africans the answer lies in transgenic technology which is after all, user friendly and the results could be immeasurable.
The United Nations Human Development report 2001 unequivocally states that biotechnology offers, “the hope of crops with higher yields, pest and draught-resistant properties and superior nutritional characteristics, especially for farmers in ecological zones left behind the green revolution.” The Los Angeles Times reported that since then the European Commission, after an analysis of 81 research projects concluded that, “The use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make ‘biotech crops’ even safer than plants and foods.”
During the 1980s, Wambugu attended numerous courses and seminars on biotechnology offered by different universities and institutions around the world. From a personal experience of growing up poor and hungry, to her education, training, research and working side by side with farmers, her main objective is to educate others to a technology that will help Africa combat hunger and poverty. Testifying recently at the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture she emphasized the need for African countries to create checks and balances and establish appropriate policies to deal with multinational companies but also regulatory agencies to deal with bio-safety and consumer education.
Wambugu is extremely proud of the banana tissue culture project whose development brought together key players—KARI, South Africa’s Institute of Tropical and Subtropical Crops, the John Innes Center of the United Kingdom, non-governmental organizations, women’s groups, and private sector organizations in Kenya and South Africa. The result was adaptation by farmers of cultured banana plants, which are disease free, require no chemical sprays, grow faster, and produce more. This technology is above all changing the profile of banana growers in Kenya who have primarily been men. Doubling the banana harvest has provided equal opportunity and created a fair market share for rural women, prompting Wambugu to conclude during a lecture at Toronto University, “We introduced a technology that does not discriminate.” Banana and plantains are widely used as the staple food for millions of people outside of Kenya, including Tanzania and Uganda. Raw bananas can be roasted in an open fire, and mixed with meat they make a nutritious stew high in carbohydrates and protein.
Dr. Wambugu is the recipient of numerous international research honors, awards, and grants which include the World Bank Award for global development in 2000 after introducing the tissue-culture banana in Kenya and Woman of the Year 2001 by the American Biographical Institute. She is a board member of DuPont/Pioneer Company Biotech Advisory Panel, USA; and also African Biotechnology Stakeholders Forum (ABSF) and the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). Wambugu was recently appointed to the Science Board of the Grand Challenges In Global Health, a new initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wambugu has managed to juggle and balance her career and family life, she is a single mother of three children.
Modifying Africa: How Biotechnology Can Benefit the Poor, Green Ink. 2002.
“Protesters Don’t Grasp Africa’s Need,” Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2001.
Globe and Mail, July 5, 2003, p. A17.
Harvest Newsletter, First Quarter 2003.
Los Angeles Times, November 11, 2001.
New Prospects for Prosperity: ISAAA Biennial Report 1997-1999, p. 54
“Biotechnology: A Solution to Hunger and Starvation,” FB News, www.fb.com/views/focus/fo2001/fo1126.html (November 5, 2003).
“Green Menace: Anti-Biotech Groups Are Blamed for Holding Back Africa’s Farmers,” New Scientist Magazine, www.newscientist.com (November 5, 2003).
“Millions Served,” Forbes www.forbes.com/forbes/2002/1223/302_print.html (November 5, 2003).
“Statement of Dr. Florence Wambugu President, A Harvest Biotech Foundation International Nairobi, Kenya,” Biotechnology Industry Organization, www.bio.org/foodag/statements/20030326.asp (November 5, 2003).
“Taking Food Out of Our Mouths,” Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/opinion/A59811-2001Aug24.html (November 5, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Daniel Kamanga, AHBFI Communications Director in their Johannesburg Office.