'I wish we could clone her,' says a Biotechnology Industry Organisation Vice President about Dr Florence Wambugu. And the US magazine Forbes even named her as one of fifteen people around the globe who will 'reinvent the future'.
But evidence continues to emerge as to how that 'reinvention' takes place - through bogus and unsupported claims that serve to create a deceptive fiction.
And while the industry may not be able to clone her, Florence Wambugu is far from a lone actor when it comes to deceptive fictions involving biotechnology and poverty.
Biotech's deceptive fiction
Earlier this year the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted a consortium led by the lobby group Africa Harvest and its CEO, Dr Florence Wambugu, the better part of $16.9 million to develop a GM sorghum.
A key part of the Wambugu consortium is DuPont, the GM and chemicals giant. And this is not the first time that DuPont and Dr Wambugu have collaborated.
In mid-August, a subsidiary of DuPont's, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, put out a press release entitled: 'Harvesting Hope: Kenyan Farmers Celebrate First Banana Harvest Using New Growing Technology'. In it DuPont's Chairman and CEO, Charles O. Holliday, Jr, was quoted as saying, "DuPont is proud to partner with Africa Harvest in bringing tissue culture banana technology to the Chura community".
Dr Wambugu is also quoted in the press release, saying that tissue culture technology in Africa has increased banana productivity from 20 to 45 tons per hectare. For the typical Churan family, according to Wambugu, this remarkable increase in production can translate into a tripling of income - from the current average of $1 per day per family to as much as $3 per day per family.
"For these families, this additional income can mean the difference between sending their children to school or being forced to keep them home," says Wambugu. "It is important to understand that the difference tissue culture bananas make is far beyond the field."
According to Wambugu, tissue cultured bananas are reversing a dire situation in Kenya. "Banana production in this country has been in decline over the last 10 years," she says. "Yields can be reduced by up to 90 percent from using the same suckers on multiple farms, and this of course, means a major income loss for farmers."
Elsewhere Dr Wambugu has written of an even longer decline in yields, "This project was conceived in response to the rapid decline in banana (Musa) production experienced in Kenya over the last two decades."
Dr Wambugu has also emphasised the importance of bananas as a staple crop in Kenyan agriculture, the centrality of this crop to small holder farmers and their incomes, and the important calorific contribution of bananas to rural people's diets in Kenya. (Wambugu and Kiome, Benefits of Biotechnology for Small-Scale Banana Producers in Kenya)
Against this disturbing background of a rapid decline of a key crop for food security in Kenya, Wambugu notes that the success that has already been attained by her tissue cultured banana project is "incredible to say the least."
Although tissue culture is a relatively unsophisticated, and largely uncontroversial, biotechnological technique that does not involve genetic engineering, Dr. Wambugu has been keen to draw the widest possible conclusions from the project. For instance, in a 'Statement on Biotechnology in Africa' submitted to the Committee on Agriculture of the U.S. House of Representatives she argued, "programs such as the tissue culture banana project in some East African countries have demonstrated that biotechnology can have a positive impact on hunger, malnutrition and poverty. In some cases, rural farm incomes have tripled as a result of biotech techniques."
According to DuPont's Chairman, the success of this project makes it "a model for other sustainable agricultural and developmental projects that can benefit many more communities and farmers throughout Kenya, Africa, and the developing world."
However, in November 2004 a paper was published that cast serious doubts on just about every one of the claims of Florence Wambugu and her collaborators. In 'The Anti-politics Gene': Biotechnology, Ideology and Innovation Systems in Kenya, James Smith - an African Studies specialist at the University of Edinburgh - carefully analyses Wambugu's tissue culture biotechnology project.
Smith's findings are also usefully summarised in 'Smoke, Mirrors and Poverty: Communication, Biotechnological Innovation and Development ' (2005), by Joanna Chataway and James Smith, as part of a discussion of how projects involving innovation and development are communicated. (It is not our intention to deal with the main points of Chataway and Smith's paper here but we will draw on its summarising.)
According to Smith, Wambugu and her collaborators have promoted their project by creating what Smith terms a "crisis narrative" - an attempt to paint a picture of "a situation that is inexorable, inevitable and above all cannot be managed with the existing portfolio of development interventions".
This "crisis narrative" is created by establishing the banana as an important crop in East Africa and by documenting a very serious decline in yield. However, this decline is a complete myth. "It is important to note that both broad data on banana yields in Kenya and data gained from speaking to many small-scale farmers in the areas surrounding Nairobi do not in any way back up the disastrous declines in yield documented by Wambugu and Kiome (Food and Agriculture Organisation Data, 2004)."
In his paper (2004), Smith notes that the "progressive yield declines" claimed by Wambugu et al are not, in fact, "measured, referenced or sourced in any of the literature concerning the project", and he concludes that the yield declines "have little or no statistical or empirical basis". Indeed, he contrasts Wambugu's claims with FAO time series data of mean annual yields for Kenya between 1975 and 2003, which shows "there is no discernable decrease in banana yields over the past 20 years... In fact, if anything there has been a significant increase in yields in Kenya... over that period." The exact opposite of what Wambugu and her collaborators claim.
Having established a mythical decline in yields Wambugu then asserts that the decline can largely be attributed to the infestation of Kenya banana orchards by pests and diseases - something tissue culturing bananas could counter. The only problem is, "They provide no empirical evidence for this assertion."
Just as fictitious as the declining yields is the importance Wambugu claims for bananas in Kenyan agriculture and the centrality she says this crop has for small holder farmers: "the majority of rural households only cultivate very few banana plants. Banana is almost never the primary crop, and in fact, agriculture as a whole is usually only one of several livelihood activities that a household engages in." In short, "it is clear the banana is not an important crop within the majority of agricultural system".
Equally fictitional is Wambugu's claim that bananas make a significant contribution to rural people's diets in Kenya: "data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation indicates that the mean nutritional contribution of bananas has been in the order of 11-12 calories per capita per day over the past 25 years... It is likely that the poorest percentiles of rural households consume proportionately more bananas than the FAO figure, but it appears highly unlikely that the banana forms the main component of either their diet or their income."
In other words, there is no sound basis for any of Wambugu's claims for the banana being an important crop for rural development, for food security or for income generation.
What then of Wambugu's claims for the project's "incredible" successes, for its more than doubled yields and for its ability to triple farmer income?
The evidence Wambugu bases such claims on is difficult to assess because, "No published peer reviewed papers seem to exist to document the impacts of TC banana projects in Kenya."
Smith accepts that an increase in yield seems likely, not least given that such projects involve increased time spent on orchard management, irrigation etc, but the total absence of any peer reviewed research means "this is not quantifiable in the context of small-scale production and market access".
Indeed, Smith provides a number of reasons for doubting the reality of the "incredible" successes Wambugu claims: "we have found a mixed reaction amongst farmers involved in the projects and documented considerable disappointment from many of them."
Although tissue culture bananas were judged to have positive attributes, "problems with growth cycles of tissue culture bananas and lack of marketing outlets meant that farmers had gluts of bananas" that they were unable to sell or consume. "Quotes from interviews with small farmers carried out for this research included the following: 'TC bananas are not meant for local cultivation', 'Kenya needs some mechanism to add value to its bananas', 'No one thought ahead about surplus bananas.'"
Smith also found that, "farmers who planted TC bananas were encouraged to greatly increase their investment in banana growing, this involved not only purchasing the TC plantlets (c. $1.50-2.00 per plantlet) but also introducing more labour and capital intensive orchard management practices such as weeding, irrigation and intercropping. Without viable markets this clearly left farmers in a vulnerable position."
Wambugu and her collaborators appear to have both overestimated the importance of tissue cultured bananas "in terms of subsistence and diet and ignored some of the production and marketing constraints... Essentially, TC bananas were pushed as a technology solution and not examined sufficiently from a demand perspective."
In a sense then, Wambugu and DuPont are quite right to say this project offers wider lessons for Africa and the developing world. The most obvious lesson is to beware of corporate-connected scientists bearing crisis narratives. They may come pushing biotech solutions in search of a problem.
Unfortunately, though, such narratives can be very seductive. Dr Wambugu has had enormous success in promoting another project in Kenya - the GM sweet potato - and in an exactly similar fashion. Once again she has used low figures on average yields in Kenya to paint a picture of stagnation.
This time in constructing her crisis narrative Wambugu repeatedly claimed that only 4 or perhaps 6 tons of sweet potatoes were being produced per hectare in Kenya - without ever mentioning the data source. However, as the development specialist Aaron deGrassi has pointed out, FAO statistics indicated average yields in Kenya of "9.7 tons, and official statistics report 10.4 tons" per hectare. In other words, Wambugu's figures on average non-GM yields massively understate the reality.
The contrasting success of the GM sweet potato was very widely reported on the basis of the claims of Wambugu and her collaborators, even though no peer reviewed reports or official figures were published during three years of trials in Kenya. These results were said to be "astonishing" - just how "astonishing" only finally emerged at the end of the Kenyan trials: the GM sweet potatoes, which supposedly yielded more, had been outperformed by the conventional crop. They were worse than useless.
It would be easy to conclude from this that Dr Wambugu is a particular case - a specialist in crisis narratives and hyped solutions, but she has not acted alone. As well as Dupont, Wambugu's collaborators have included Martin Qaim, Monsanto, USAID, ISAAA, the Rockefeller Foundation, and DfID. And, as James Smith tellingly notes, this type of "narrative prevails amongst a whole range of literature supporting biotechnological development in Africa."