How an Australian mentoring program is improving plant biosecurity in Africa

By Lisa Cornish 25 January 2017

Scientists work in a laboratory at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya. Australia provides funding to the Institute through the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, to improve African food security. Photo by: Kate Holt / Africa Practice / DFAT / CC BY

Plant biosecurity management can be a boon to agricultural economies in sub-Saharan Africa, and Australia has a wealth of expertise to share. That’s the logic behind a mentoring program that helps the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the Plant Biosecurity CRC partner with fellows working at agricultural institutions in 10 African countries.

The resulting program, the Australia-Africa Plant Biosecurity Partnership, aims to transfer skills in designing, delivering and managing plant biosecurity — measures to safeguard plants from pests and diseases. 

Australia’s experience is particularly relevant for sub-Saharan Africa, according to Andrew Campbell, CEO of ACIAR. “Australia is one of the few rich industrialized countries that still has a big agricultural sector which runs from the deserts to the tropics largely unsubsidized,” he told Devex. “So many of the solutions our farmers have come up with are quite relevant in developing countries.”

Creating strong foundations for technical expertise

In 2014, ACIAR contracted PBCRC to deliver a mentoring program to help improve biosecurity capacity in Africa, particularly in Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. That project would have a budget of $1.2 million through 2017, jointly funded by ACIAR and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. PBCRC formed a consortium to deliver the program, including the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International and The Crawford Fund.

The new program was advertised to biosecurity organizations in each of the 10 African countries to seek applicants. The project team, including leaders Bill Magee and Roger Day, then selected 15 senior fellows to visit Australia for an initial six-week training in Nov. and Dec. 2015. The initial applicants came from the public sector. “They are the regulators who [are] responsible for the decisions that will control biosecurity, both regionally and internationally,” Magee said.

The fellows were placed with Australian host institutions — including universities and government entities and departments — that specialized in their areas of interest, for example how to deal with fruit flies or how to manage banana crops, Magee told Devex. The broad range of hosts allowed participants to form relationships with scientists across Australia.

Mary Githinji, from the Phytosanitary Department with the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service, was among the fellows. “Australia is well known for its strong biosecurity systems and has been my reference even in the course of trying to develop documents and application of plant biosecurity measures,” she told Devex. Githinji said she valued the opportunity to travel to Australia and establish direct connections with mentors.

More than just tech

A key to building capacity, according to Magee, has been to focus on more than just the technical skills required for biosecurity monitoring and research. Understanding how to communicate with people and influence change is critical for long-term biosecurity success.

“In these countries, getting the biosecurity message into the political sphere or the senior echelons of the public sector requires confidence and representational skills to structure an argument and connect plant biosecurity issues with real trade and economic issues,” he said.

Partner organizations play a key role in delivering these skills. The Crawford Fund, for example, “has expertise in this area internationally and they’ve done a wonderful job to build these communication and engagement skills to sit alongside the technical skills,” Magee explained.

The training has built confidence and opened channels internationally, Githinji said. “Communicating with the Australian and other relevant plant protection organizations has been easier,” she told Devex. “Having interacted with the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources of in Canberra, I now understand how the imports and biosecurity processes operate in Australia. In Kenya currently there is a lot of interest in market access for some of our products to Australia.”

Ongoing support and an expanded network

Once participants returned to Africa, their new international network continued to be in contact to provide ongoing mentoring and support, including by visiting the fellows in their home countries at times.

The 15 senior fellows have also become mentors. The program selected 30 people as associate fellows in 2016. This time, their training was held on the continent, utilizing Australian experts, as well as the senior fellows.

“An additional 30 associate fellows we now have represent a good mix of private and public sector representatives,” Magee said, explaining that the fellows came from a range of national plant protection organizations and private sector agricultural firms within Africa.

“What we have learned in Australia is that all of our really successful biosecurity programs share a common element — active involvement and contribution from the private sector. In the end, importers and exporters need to be compliant with biosecurity rules.”

How the program is impacting biosecurity

Magee told Devex that he expects the program to improve and increase the sustainability of biosecurity practices in the long term. But there are immediate results as well.

“Some of the immediate impacts are that the African countries are now in very close contact with each other, because government regulators in each of the 10 countries have become personal friends,” Magee explained. “There is a lot of informal exchange of information. If there is a new pest or disease in one country they can let another country know so that the other country can plan early to minimize the risk of it entering their country. This was not always happening before.”

“The most successful aspect of the training is the relationships that [have] been built within the countries participating in the program,” he continued. “It builds a strong regional focus.”

Githinji told Devex that the program has also seen greater awareness and interest in plant biosecurity programs among stakeholders, including traders who want to be more involved.

Understanding each country’s particular context is key to lasting change, Magee said. “The way you might approach a problem is one country may be very different to another. In some countries, the government and private sector historically have a more suspicious or adversarial relationship. For those countries you would be looking to build bridges while in another you can get straight on with the job.”

Beyond 2017

As each of the African participant countries work to develop and implement individual action plans, the project partners will be looking for a future host of the program and network.

In 2017, they will seek to partner with a major African institution, such as the Common Market for East and Central Africa or Food and Agriculture Organization. “Our two and a half years of funding from ACIAR is expected to finish and we need to preserve, and hopefully expand, what we have created in terms of network between these two countries,” Magee explained. “Preferably, we want to have it hosted by an institution within Africa to give our program a longer life.” What the program will look like beyond 2017 will be in the hands of the new host.

Australia still has a lot more to give as host to research areas relevant to Africa, such as seed-borne diseases, management and treatment of fruit flies and banana disease. Magee is hopeful their model of training and mentoring can be used wider in providing development support to Africa and beyond. Githinji, too, wants to see continued Australian involvement in African biosecurity programs.

“The experts are very valuable and have been very committed,” she said. “They have imparted knowledge in very practical ways.”

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About the author

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Lisa Cornishlisa_cornish

Lisa Cornish is a Devex reporter based in Canberra, Australia. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane and online through news.com.au. Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.


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