“Africa’s young people are our greatest asset”

How can Africa feed its growing population when climate change and environmental degradation are making agriculture ever more difficult? African researchers are working on solutions.

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  • Text: Jan Berndorff
Saturn-ähnliches Dekortationsbild

Romain Glèlè Kakaï

Professor Dr Romain Glèlè Kakaï from Benin teaches and conducts research at the Faculty of Agronomic Sciences at the University of Abomey-Calavi. He is the head of a Humboldt Research Hub with a budget of 750,000 euros and chairman of the African German Network of Excellence in Science (AGNES). From 2008 to 2009, he was a Humboldt Research Fellow at the University of Freiburg.

Humboldt Research Hubs in Africa
Humboldt Research Fellowship
Georg Forster Research Fellowship for researchers from developing and emerging countries

Looking to the future, the biomathematician Romain Glèlè Kakaï identifies three particular challenges: how to feed a growing population, how to protect the environment and how to contain pandemics like COVID-19. These are the questions that also occupy him in his roles as head of both the Laboratoire de Biomathématiques et d’Estimations Forestières at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin and the Humboldt Research Hub “Socio-ecological modelling of COVID-19 dynamics in Africa”.

In Benin, as in many African countries, population figures are rising significantly. At the same time, the forests and agricultural land are disappearing – not only because climate change is increasing temperatures and aridity but also because of overexploitation of the soil and forests by humans. It is thus becoming ever more difficult to provide enough food for everyone. To remedy this, researchers in industrialised countries often think in terms of genetic engineering or multilevel vertical greenhouses in cities. But Glèlè Kakaï thinks there is a much simpler solution in Africa: instead of focusing on modern varieties of forced crops that cannot cope with the changing climate, we should be falling back on plants like Synsepalum dulcificum, known as the miracle berry, or the horseradish tree, which are both drought- and heat-resistant and highly nutritious. “They’ve been around for ages. Farmers in the countryside have been growing them for many decades in some cases. With targeted cultivation, we could keep developing these plants and cultivate them on a larger scale.”

Fighting for the last forests

Another way of meeting the challenges in Africa, Glèlè Kakaï believes, would be to not only give young researchers a good education but also to offer them a future in their own countries, as well. “We have so many talented young people here in Africa. They are our greatest asset. And now we need to utilise it.” He, himself, recently conducted a national forest assessment of Benin forest reserves for the government. He travelled to rural regions of the country with several graduates and postdocs and recorded structural parameters of tree stands in order to be able to better protect the surviving forests in his country. “When we’re working, it is common to meet local people who think we are on their land and we want to take their forest away from them. You need a good deal of tact and cultural knowledge to convince them how important it is to protect the forest both for themselves and everyone else.”

We have so many talented young people here in Africa. They are our greatest asset. And now we need to utilise it.
Romain Glèlè Kakaï, Professor for Agricultural Studies and chairman of the African German Network of Excellence in Science (AGNES)

Young researchers from the area who know their way around and are trusted by the people there are the best way of convincing them. This is why, according to Glèlè Kakaï, it is essential to prevent university graduates from permanently moving abroad to find more lucrative work. And that, he believes, is also why the Humboldt Foundation’s activities are so important: “They offer incentives to African postdocs to return home at the end of the fellowship and use the knowledge they have gained to drive development in their own countries.”

Defying the next pandemic

In his capacity as head of the Humboldt Research Hub, Glèlè Kakaï also works together with young research talents. “By investigating how COVID-19 has spread in Africa, we are learning how to manage future pandemics like that even better.” Admittedly, COVID-19 never acquired the dynamic in Africa that it did in Southeast Asia, Europe and America. “Probably because, among others, we have a long experience with epidemics like Ebola and Lassa,” Glèlè Kakaï suspects. “Apart from this, other continents were hit first, and we had more time for epidemic preparedness.” Even so, he now considers it important to analyse the effects of the various control measures such as vaccinations and social distancing, so as to be better equipped to deal with pandemics in the future.

Glèlè Kakaï is certain: “If we are going to overcome the global challenges, science must cooperate internationally. And this also means that young researchers with their knowledge of the local situation should be active in their own regions. This would benefit the international academic community, as well.”

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