By Sara Delaney
At the launch of the new book Science and Innovation for Development on 19 January, co-author Sir Gordon Conway said: “It doesn’t matter where the technology comes from, it matters that it is appropriate.”
Too often international development researchers, policymakers, and practitioners get caught up in the source of a technology, and use this as the metric for whether it will be successful. The way a technology is designed, the country it comes from, the type of institution that produced it—while all important considerations—are not as important as whether the product is appropriate.
An appropriate technology is accessible, affordable, easy-to-use and maintain, effective—j and most importantly, it serves a real need.
A rice seed, for example, that has been bred or engineered to mature faster can be appropriate anywhere the variety thrives. Local farmers have a need for such characteristics and will usually want to buy this seed, regardless of whether it comes from local seed breeding and seed saving efforts or from global centers like the International Rice Research Institute.
Many scientists and policymakers in developed countries also often hold on to the idea that you can’t apply different types of technology to the same problem. In fact, this is often exactly what is needed.
For example, in drought-prone areas, where farmers deal with persistent and increasing water shortages, they need “traditional” water conservation techniques and planting methods such as the zai system in West Africa, where farmers use small holes filled with manure and the extensive underground termite tunnels that result, to both capture water and recycle soil nutrients.
But there are also “intermediate” technologies such as drip irrigation, where plastic tubing is used to apply small amounts of water to each individual plant, and existing and upcoming “new platform” technologies, such as cereal varieties that are genetically modified to survive, and even prosper, in drought conditions.
Farmers should have access to all types of solutions. In fact, farmers around the
world are constantly looking for ways to tweak, invest in, and improve their land and what it yields. And they are often positioned to pick and choose the best combination for their own field, and adapt and innovate as conditions change.
I came across a telling example of the strong bias that some hold for particular sources of technology at a recent plant biotechnology conference. A number of presenters at the event introduced the methods they had been working on to control weeds, in particular the parasitic weed Striga.
On one side was the biological systems approach: intercropping the maize crop with plants that suppress Striga. The other side advocated a technological solution: breeding resistance to the herbicide that kills the weed into the maize seeds themselves, so that the seeds can be dipped into the herbicide. The treated maize seeds kill the parasitic seeds in the ground, allowing the maize to grow and the environmental impact to be minimized.
Both systems have drawbacks—more labor and skilled management needed for biological control, and higher research costs and risk of resistance developing for the seed modification approach.
So why not use both? Why not work together?
Instead, I saw the two sides actively arguing. Then, when another presenter introduced the idea of increasing the use of conventional herbicides in Africa, it was met with immediate derision, due partly to the source of the herbicides (U.S. manufacturers). Most did not consider the fact that, if applied in an educated and selective manner, conventional herbicides may be a great tool for poor farmers.
But this may be changing. As Science and Innovation for Development’s other co-author Jeff Waage stated in the book: “Between the extremes of a technological ‘silver bullet’ approach to development science, and the belief that local and intermediate technologies are the only legitimate approach, there is emerging today a new community of scientists dedicated to an inclusive view of appropriate science for development.”
Sara Delaney joined Imperial College in July 2009 to work on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded project “Africa and Europe: Partnerships in Food and Farming.” She is assisting Gordon Conway with the writing of a second edition of his 1999 book The Doubly Green Revolution. She recently completed work with the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) and the London International Development Centre (LIDC), supporting publication of the book Science and Innovation for Development. Sara studied biological and environmental engineering at Cornell University and Science, Society and Development at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). From 2005–07 she served as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, working in the water and sanitation sector.