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African Agriculture and Medicine: Modern Orphans
in a Globalizing World

Thomas R. Odhiambo


Africa must take a leadership role in tackling its scientific issues, such as

  • Ebola and other orphan diseases
  • use of traditional methods in modern agriculture
  • research facilities that address regional problems
  • control of its own scientific development

June 2001

Zambia has been called the cradle of the orphan crisis with 2 million AIDS orphans left to fend for themselves and their siblings. Photographer: Michael Mistretta, Creative Commons

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

Revised, shortened version of the 8th Rajiv Gandhi Science and Technology Annual Lecture, delivered by the author in Trivandrum, Kerala, India on 25th November 2000.

The orphans

Scientists are primarily concerned with diseases in industrialized nations.

During the three months of October, November, and December 2000, over 195 people, including the crisis management doctor, died in the District of Gulu, in northern Uganda, of Ebola, an acute viral disease. First reported in 1976, in a village near Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it has subsequently spread to other parts of Africa. Because Ebola kills its victims faster than it can spread, being terminal within 48 hours with internal and external bleeding, it has acquired the notoriety of being the most virulent disease known to humans. The disease, of which 4 sub-types exist, is transmitted through direct contact with the infected person’s blood, fluids, secretions, and organs. It has no known wild host. It has no known cure. Doctors can only provide basic health support, such as rehydration and good nutrition. The Ebola victims therefore fight their infections alone.

Many Africans can’t pay for medical treatment, so science ignores them.
  • Orphan diseases: In addition to Ebola, other tropical diseases, such as malaria, are major killer diseases in Africa (and other parts of the tropical developing world). They have acquired the epithet of orphan diseases, because the great instruments of science, and the brilliant brains in science and technology (S & T), have not yet turned their innovative instruments and creativity to challenge them in a sustained manner. Why? Because these diseases are endemic in zones of the world where the inhabitants are largely income-poor and may not, therefore, easily pay for the resultant science-based therapies.1
No profits in tropical crops or indigenous medicine, says the industrialized world.
  • Orphan food tropical crops: Such crops, including cassava, banana, millet, and the leafy vegetables, are not receiving attention from modern biotechnology, because these commodities are not important in the temperate industrialized countries, nor are they immediately profitable to food-related transnational corporations (TNCs).1

  • The orphaning of the accumulated indigenous knowledge and technology systems (particularly those related to Africa’s living resources): Taking one example, that of healing, it is not difficult to discern the origin of such orphaning and exclusion, as John Janzen (1997) states so openly:2

“Just as Muslim crusaders had attacked ‘pagan’ African forms of healing and religion, so Western Christian missionaries discredited the basis of knowledge as well as the overall approach to ritual healing. Assumptions that human relations could cause sickness were dismissed as superstition or ‘witchcraft’ at a time when the first steps of positive science were discovering the causes of contagious diseases… [But now] in medicinal plant research African scientists and other scholars search for ways to modernize uniquely African solutions to their needs.” (page 281)

In this context, let it be known that the conservation of medicinal plant diversity occupies a major concern of most communities in Africa — even during the several centuries of external interference with the African indigenous healing practice.

  • Metallurgy: Finally, there is the stark reality of the orphaning of the practice of metallurgy in Africa in the course of the last 500 years or so. Objects of gold, copper, and iron have always been at the core of African political, economic, social, and religious affairs - all the way from about 2000 B.C.E.3

Thomas R. Odhiambo, Ph.D., is the Honorary President of the African Academy of Sciences and Managing Trustee of The Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development in Africa (RANDFORUM), Nairobi, Kenya. He was the first professor and head of the department of entomology at the University of Nairobi and was the first dean of the faculty of agriculture. Among his many honors, Dr. Odhiambo was the 1987 laureate of the Africa Prize for Leadership. He received his M.A. in natural sciences and Ph.D. in insect physiology at Cambridge University, UK. (Update: Upon the passing of Dr. Odhiambo in May 2003, Africa and the world lost a great scientist and science education activist.)

African Agriculture and Medicine: Modern Orphans
in a Globalizing World

Science in Africa

Africa’s first online science magazine, free to all users. Articles change on a monthly basis. Second link takes you to their calendar of events.

Africa and biotechnology

A 4/99 article on how biotechnology could be Africa’s route to riches, by Dr. Thomas Odhiambo.

African science organizations

Contact one of the organizations listed to find out more about science in Africa.

The African Conservation Foundation

“The portal for the conservation of Africa’s flora and fauna.”

Why natural systems agriculture?

A 4/01 article about traditional agriculture methods by The Land Institute (Kansas, U.S.) whose mission is “to develop an agriculture that will save soil from being lost or poisoned…”

Science for the 21st Century

This 7/99 online report by Unesco examines the need for all countries to share scientific knowledge and encourage its peaceful, ethical application.

The state of subsistence agriculture in Africa

An undated presentation by Sean Redding; she is an activist and scientist in Africa.

Parliamentary Declaration on the occasion of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD)

Dr. Thomas Odhiambo chaired a panel discussion at WSSD in 2002. This link takes you to an the panel’s final report, which focuses on Africa’s sustainable development.

BioNET-INTERNATIONAL: the Global Network for Taxonomy

“Concerned with helping developing countries to recognise and know the organisms that constitute & threaten their biodiversity [in order to] support national programmes for sustainable agricultural development, and conservation & sustainable use of the environment.”

African Conservation Foundation
Linking people and conservation.

For educators: African science Ideas on how to include African scientific knowledge in the curriculum.

Teaching about Africa

The project gives high school students a view of Africa and the world.

  1. Persley, G. J. (1992) “Beyond Mendel’s garden: Biotechnology in agriculture,” pp. 11-19. In Biotechnology: Enhancing Research on Tropical Crops in Africa (ed. by G. Thottappilly, L. M. Monti, D.R. Mohan Raj, and A. W. Moore). Wageningen, The Netherlands: Technical Centre for Agricultural Research, and Ibadan, Nigeria: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture.
  2. Janzen, J. J. (1997) “Healing,” pp 274-283, In Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, volume 2 (ed. By John Middleton). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  3. Kusimbsa, C. M. (1997) “Technology,” pp. 149-153. In Encyclopedia of Africa South of the Sahara, volume 3 (ed. By John Middleton). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  4. Veit, P. G., T. Nagpal, and T. Fox (1998) “Africa’s wealth, woes, worth,” pp. 1-25. In Africa’s Valuable Assets: A Reader in Natural Resource Management(ed. By Peter Veit). Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute.
  5. Abiodun, A. A. (1998) “Human and institutional capacity building and utilization in science and technology in Africa: An appraisal of Africa’s performance to-date and the forward.” African Development Review 10 (1): 10-51.
  6. Sachs, I. (1995) “Developing in a liberalized and globalizing world economy: An impossible challenge,” pp. 199-227. In Conditions for Social Progress: A World Economy for the Benefit of All. Copenhagen: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DANIDA.
  7. International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria and at the International Centre of Insect Science Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya
  8. Sanders, S. R. (1997) “Lessons from the Land Institute.” Audubon March - April, 76-79.
  9. Odhiambo, T. R.and T. T. Isoun (editors) (1989) Science for Development in Africa: Proceedings of the Consultation on the Management of Science for Development in Africa, Duduville, Nairobi, Kenya, 21-24 November 1988. Nairobi: ICIPE Science Press and Academy Science Publishers.


Understanding Science