Editor’s note: Rory Herron is one of two UK interns spending their summer at Monsanto’s global headquarters, under a program with Scotland’s Saltire Foundation. The Saltire Foundation is an independent charitable organization representing a new vision for Scotland, providing invaluable opportunities through experience, learning and business networking. Its undergraduate internship programme offers Scotland’s students the chance to spend 8 weeks working at a top multinational company with the aim of encouraging candidates to develop their confidence, skills and capacity to succeed.
By Rory Herron
I’m the youngest of seven children. Before I was born in Ireland, my parents and six older siblings lived in Zambia for a number of years and three of them were even born there. They often talk about their time spent in Africa and my brother Ronan’s adamant claims of “Afro-Irishness” still amuse me to this day. This is perhaps one of the main reasons why I have always been intrigued by the African continent and its peoples – my family loved their time in Zambia and their stories and tales about the friends they met and the things they experienced do well to paint a pleasant picture of life there.
It is obviously no secret however, that there is much pain and suffering on the continent with the vast majority of people living below the poverty line and millions suffering from malnutrition and often starvation. In recent weeks, famine was declared in parts of Somalia. Ten million people are thought to be at risk of starvation there, making it an international emergency. While NGOs and non-profit charity organizations work tirelessly to bring aid to these people, I’ve always felt it’s important that large corporations, especially those who operate in these countries, should be doing what they can to help people in these situations as well.
It therefore comes as no surprise that I have been extremely interested to learn about Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) project si
nce I first heard about it last week. If you familiar with the project it has been ongoing since 2008 and is a public-private partnership led by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) to address the devastating effects of drought by developing drought-tolerant maize. Included in the project are Monsanto, The International Maize & Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) and The National Agricultural Research Services systems (NARS) in Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Mozambique and Uganda. This represents a new paradigm of technology-sharing within the agriculture sector where Monsanto’s molecular breeding, genomics and biotech platforms are hugely beneficial. Five years in total will be spent developing new African drought-tolerant maize varieties, incorporating the best technology available internationally to allow maize to grow successfully.
This is a wonderful concept, but is made even better by the fact that the drought-tolerant maize is available royalty-free to small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, meaning farmers will not have to pay for the traits in Monsanto’s seeds. The goal of the project is to achieve a 20-35% increase in productivity under moderate drought conditions, which translates into an additional 2 million more tonnes of food production, providing for 14 – 21 million people.
In Africa, 300 million people rely on maize as their main food source. Currently their harvests are generally unpredictable and insufficient as drought often causes crop failure, so this could be the difference between life and death for a lot of people. Further to the WEMA project’s main focus on producing drought-tolerant maize, it also intends to provide farmers with improved training and support including pest- and disease-management techniques.
Severe drought is having catastrophic consequences in Africa. Whilst many farmers in the US have access to sophisticated irrigation systems, developing countries rely solely on rainfall to irrigate their crops. Projects such as WEMA propose a new and exciting way to alleviate the situation and learning about it has been fascinating. It hadn’t previously occurred to me that despite working in a for-profit environment, there are people within companies such as this one whose job is to help the world’s poorest people.
I am not trying to claim that WEMA is a solution for world-hunger or that companies like Monsanto couldn’t be doing more. Last year, there were approximately 240 million malnourished and hungry people in Africa so there is always more that all of us could be doing. But from the perspective of a summer intern at Monsanto – it is inspiring to see that the people here are passionate about doing their bit.