|Prof Sheunesu Mpepereki: Pulling out all the stops for the sake of worthwhile science|
|Wednesday, 19 February 2014 21:00|
Some months ago, Dr Nelius Boshoff paid a visit to the University of Zimbabwe and interviewed Prof Sheunesu Mpepereki, the Chairman of the Research Board, about a project on science funding councils in African countries. During the discussion Prof Mpepereki also started to speak about his involvement in soya bean research. Dr Boshoff found the project fascinating and on topic for DRUSSA, so he wrote this article.
"I have always lived this philosophy—that agricultural science must deliver food on the farmers’ tables, money in their pockets. That is the only way it can be worthwhile science. If hunger and malnutrition continue to ravage the village where I grew up, I cannot claim to be a scientist who knows about agriculture and production."
Prof Sheunesu Mpepereki, the Chairman of the Research Board at the University of Zimbabwe, means these words—that’s for sure. The first prize he won in the 2009/10 Impact Research and Science in Africa (IMPRESSA) Award competition attests to that. The award—under the auspices of the AU’s Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and NEPAD, and organised by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM)—was awarded for his outstanding soya bean research and development combined with community outreach in Zimbabwe. All because he took the challenge to drift into unexplored territory with his soya beans, leaving no stone unturned in securing the economic welfare of many Zimbabweans; an endeavour that bestowed upon him the Zimbabwean Presidential Award for Distinguished Contribution to Research in Science and Technology in 2013 as well.
"I’m a soil scientist by training," he continues. "That’s how it started. My interest was soil fertility and soya bean is a crop that fixes nitrogen. You can do a rotation with maize and then have a healthy maize yield. So after the first season we were going to continue doing that but then the farmers suddenly asked, what do we do with all the beans we’ve harvested? I said, what do you mean? You can sell them. There is a market for them, an industry that extracts oil. But the people in the village have never been into Harare, so they would not know about such an industry. The most dramatic thing was that the chickens didn’t eat the soya beans either. If you dropped a pip of maize they would run for it, but completely ignore the bean!"
Prof Mpepereki suggested that the soya beans, being a source of protein, be used for human consumption. The challenge was that the beans did not cook or smell well. He therefore called upon the assistance of food scientists and nutritionists from a neighbouring university department. This spiralled into a research programme on the nutritional properties of soya beans for both humans and livestock. Together with the community they developed training programmes for the women to prepare various dishes from soya beans. Meanwhile the oil extraction industry in Harare, after intervention by Prof Mpepereki, had provided an undertaking to purchase soya beans from all farmers in the remote communal lands thereby guaranteeing a market. All these developments inspired several NGOs to adopt the university as a technical partner, resulting in the benefits of soya bean spreading far and wide in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. Impressed by the impact of the soya bean promotion program, a number of donors made funds available for the university to conduct appropriate research and train farmers and provide them with technical support and links to viable markets. The university also mobilized and co-ordinated a Soya Bean Promotion Task Force, involving both public and private organisations and NGOs. The soya bean initiative thus spread to more distant districts and parts of sub-Saharan Africa where the NGOs and donors already had established development projects. Prof Mpepereki’s soya bean research and development initiative has also inspired other projects exploiting soya and other legumes for soil fertility improvement and food and income security, all to the benefit of smallholder farmers across many parts of Africa. An example is the Bill Gates-funded N2 Africa Project which seeks to promote use of legume N fixation to improve its availability in African soils.
The initiative has also attracted the interest of financial institutions. "The bank came in and said, if the university can produce a certificate saying the farmers have received training, we’ll give them money to produce this crop. So we are linking now with the banks and we have a well-structured course, a short course, and the farmers now have a certificate. They go to the bank and the bank says, yes, at least the knowledge is there, we’ll give you money."
Inevitably, transport also became part of Prof Mpepereki’s concern, since the harvests had to get to Harare for processing.
"I wanted those beans to get to the market so the farmers could make money. I had to go to these transport companies to talk to them. What business did I have to talk about transport logistics!" He smiles at recollecting the event, explaining that his involvement did not stop there. "At some point we decided to go really big—small and medium enterprises. We identified small machines that could convert soya into milk. They sell on the international market for a very reasonable price. We encouraged farmers to add value to their soya, only to discover that the government was charging 100 percent duty on these small machines. So I went to the Zimbabwean Revenue Authority. I told them that the farmers want to make soya milk but can’t do so because of the duty. We talked and negotiated and eventually it was removed."
Asked whether he believes a scientist should facilitate all these things, Prof Mpepereki’s response is enthusiastic. "If you give birth to a child, saying I’ve done the job, the birth was very painful, I’m finished, this is the baby—thinking someone else is going to look after the child—the baby will die. Things need to flow. It is like a pipeline where there are various strictures and you just keep opening and making sure that you ask other people with expertise to keep open the way so that the water can flow." Prof Mpepereki’s strategy was to adopt a value chain approach, incorporating not only production and processing but also utilisation and marketing. That is how the research results ended up as healthy food on the farmers’ table and as money in their pocket. What better can agricultural research and science deliver to the people in the village?
Dr Nelius Boshoff is a senior researcher at the Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST) at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa