Prof Sir Gordon Conway recounts highlights of an extraordinary career dedicated to finding solutions to feeding the world’s population sustainably.
These days, most if not all research-intensive universities and scientists pride themselves on being wholly international in their outlook – and focussed on solving big global challenges such as climate change for the benefit of wider human society.
Yet for Professor Sir Gordon Conway FRS, his entire 50-year career has been dedicated to pioneering sustainable agriculture in developing countries around the world – ever since he found himself in Borneo in the 1960s as a fresh-faced 23-year-old graduate helping the government tackle its devastating cocoa crop failure.
“On arrival I was met with cocoa plantings infested by a variety of insect pests – despite them being sprayed with a cocktail of insecticides. But we soon realised that was part of the problem. It was indiscriminately killing the insects’ natural predators and parasites. Our solution was an integrated pest management solution which involved ceasing spraying, encouraging re-introduction of natural predators and parasites, and only using a highly selective insecticide for very resistant pests. That solution was very successful and has lasted for some 40 years.”
More recently, Sir Gordon has been focussed on achieving food security in Africa, where over 200 million people are chronically hungry, childhood malnutrition is widespread − in some countries as many as 40% of children under five show stunted growth − and there are imports of food into the continent of around $40 billion a year.
“We certainly know in theory how to grow crops in Africa with high yields; that’s the easy part in a sense. But the challenge in implementing that is enormous.”
Typically, smallholders in Africa might have a hectare or two of land at most, where they grow maize, which traditionally has produced a yield of 750 kilos per hectare. But if you grow a hybrid maize with drought tolerance, and use a fertilizer mix that’s appropriate for the soil conditions − also correcting for boron deficiency or lime deficiency in the soil − it’s possible to get four, five even six tonnes per hectare.
“Just imagine, the farmer wakes up in the morning and looks out at his field. He and his ancestors over the centuries, have been getting less than a tonne per hectare, and now he’s getting five tonnes. You can replicate that throughout Africa with the right kind of support and investment.”
Some of that support comes in the form a new programme, part developed at Imperial with Dr Erik Chavez, alongside the World Food Programme, Word Bank and the Government of Tanzania − where it is being trialled. It aims to address the issue that many farmers struggle to get loans to pay for vital seeds and fertilizers, or are understandably reluctant to take out loans when they have to put their entire farm up as collateral and stand to lose everything in a draught. That traps them in a cycle of low productivity and semi-subsistence.
But a special type of a loan packaged alongside a weather-based insurance product allows the farmer to invest and scale up − and if a drought means they cannot produce crops to sell and repay the loan instalments, the insurance automatically pays out. That gives both lenders more confidence that they will be repaid come-what-may and the farmers reassurance that they need not worry about collateral.
That programme, called Winners, is now expanding into neighbouring countries and the team hopes to be supporting up to 200,000 farmers in Africa next year.
Sir Gordon is also involved with an organisation called the Malabo Montpellier Panel which seeks to create cross-departmental, cross-ministerial committees on agriculture, health, nutrition and economics in countries in Africa as a way of tackling malnutrition in a holistic, joined-up way.
Lessons in leadership
Such consensus building skills, and the ability to see the wider context of problems, have helped elevate Sir Gordon to a number of leadership roles in science and international development over the years, including President of the Royal Geographical Society (2004-2009), Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID; 2005-2009), Vice-Chancellor at Sussex University and perhaps most notably President of the Rockefeller Foundation (1998-2004), steering an endowment of more than $4 billion dollars towards philanthropic causes.
“At Rockefeller, we had a large programme for treating pregnant women in Africa with antiretrovirals, which was incredibly effective. If you treat women with antiretrovirals when they are pregnant, the babies are born without HIV – it really is as simple as that. But at the time, there were still many people dismissing AIDS was a lifestyle disease. It used to drive me absolutely mad when I heard that – those babies that have got HIV and AIDS are not suffering a lifestyle disease. We did a lot of other positive things like that along the way.”
Despite these lofty positions, or perhaps because of them, Sir Gordon has never remained office-bound for long, and has always endeavoured to get out in the field and visit the communities around the world he is trying to help – indeed, at 80, he still visits Africa around once a month.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life just sitting and talking to farmers over the years. I’ve developed certain techniques – for example you get villagers into groups and ask them to draw a map of their village with chalk and coloured powder. They often get very animated and excited about that task and I remember one group of farmers, they’d actually gone and got soil from the different individual fields and put it on this little map. They then started saying “this is where we think we might need a well, this is the problem we’ve got here,’. They’d take charge and you were there to assist. That is very rewarding – dealing with people who’ve got enormous knowledge and experience of the land, who lead pretty rough lives a lot of the time. It’s quite a privilege to listen to them and hear what they’ve got to say. I have to say I get a kick out of that, and that’s partly why I’m still active at this age and not just playing golf!”
While much of Sir Gordon’s work is focussed on agriculture programmes, he also takes an interest in enterprise and entrepreneurship more generally in Africa. On a recent visit to Rwanda he witnessed an enterprise programme that encourages 17-18 year olds to become entrepreneurs. It provides basic training in running a business over the course of two or three months followed by a loan from the government bank to enable them to pursue their individuals ideas – not dissimilar to Imperial’s own accelerator programmes such as WeInnovate and the Venture Catalyst Challenge.
“I sat talking to them for a while: there was a cooperative selling seed potatoes, one person breeding rabbits, another growing garlic. One women piped up, and said: “I’ve just bought a bar with my loan, and I’ve hired a very strong man to run things for me!’ In some curious way it was like being in Silicon Valley, with people who were using their skills and enthusiasm to create decent living for themselves and other people. I found that very encouraging. When I first visited Rwanda, it wasn’t long after the Genocide and there were some awful things still bubbling under the surface. But now there’s a great deal of positive things happening there; it’s very exciting and could be a model for other parts of Africa.”
Sir Gordon frequently talks about building resilience into systems – both in terms of resilience of agriculture to local weather fluctuations as well as a much broader definition of resilience encompassing global climate change.
He points to research showing that changes in the jetstream − which broadly speaking, divides the cold of the north from the hot of the south − are producing extreme weather events all over the world and particularly in Africa.
Farmers growing maize lose yield for every degree above 30degC and coupled to that growing seasons are becoming ever shorter. In Ghana, the rains came a month late last season and finished a month early, leaving only 100 days to grow rice. That’s just about possible if you are an Asian farmer on a really well irrigated piece of land, but in Northern Ghana it is big ask.
Part of the solution, says Sir Gordon, is to have a number of different crops, rather than a monoculture, and also several streams of income where possible.
He recently visited a farm in the Sundarbans regions of India where the woman of the household was growing rice in the fields as well as a variety of root crops dotted around the house including taro and yams. Meanwhile her son was producing Chepala Vepudu (fish fry) for sale while the husband was running small bicycle taxi service. On the thatched roof of the house was a solar panel - a fairly unusual sight in those parts.
“I do what I always do and ask lots of obvious questions: ‘why do you need a solar panel?’ and he looked at me incredulously and replied: ‘electricity!’ Then I asked: ‘but why do you need electricity?’ and he said: ‘It’s for light bulbs so the children can do their school work after their household chores’.
“It then dawned on me that if the son does his homework, he might become an apprentice at a college in a nearby town, and if the next cyclone comes and wipes everything out, at least they’ll have that money from wherever the son is. That’s the reality of resilience. Even in the West we have to build a greater diversity of systems that can cope with extreme weather in the future.”
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