April 26, 2018 - Author: Joy Landis
As an undergraduate with biochemistry as major, Ruth Mbabazi had plans to be a researcher, someone who could solve basic scientific problems. Instead, after graduation, Mbabazi was hired by the government of Uganda to work as a regulator and policy analyst in the agricultural sector. She soon realized that much of the technologies and knowledge generated by scientists was not reaching smallholder farmers in places like her home country of Uganda. The country lacked a framework for assessing, regulating and delivering university and research institution generated technologies.
“I changed my graduate studies focus from research to work with those setting policy and regulations that enable biotechnology products to reach the end-users,” said Mbabazi. “During my graduate studies, I was fortunate to receive funding to work with a team of experts from Queensland University of Technology and Ugandan National Agricultural Research Organization for developing provitamin A biofortified East African Highland bananas, a staple crop in Uganda, using biotechnology tools. Through different collaborations, I interacted with biosafety experts on regulatory and commercialization aspects of biotechnology products and that is when I first interacted with Michigan State University’s WorldTAP team and Karim Maredia.”
Today, her scholarship crosses disciplines and has global impact. She has assisted in diversifying soybean varieties in Uganda and cotton varieties in Ethiopia, Sudan and Swaziland. Her interactions with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the NEPAD/ABNE Project have produced collaborative research in 14 countries, touching a variety of fields, from biotechnology and regulation to malaria mosquito control. She has excelled at bringing together regulators, scientists, policy makers and farmers to create frameworks for adopting technology in a variety of settings. For these successes, she was chosen by Michigan State University’s International Studies and Programs to receive its John K. Hudzik Emerging Leader in Advancing International Studies and Programs Award.
Mbabazi is now an MSU Entomology research assistant professor and a member of the WorldTAP team. She is beginning to see countries build on her past collaborative work.
“Through our project, NEPAD/ABNE, we worked with the government of Ethiopia on their biotechnology regulatory system. They had proclamations (laws) in place that had strict provisions on using modern biotechnology tools. Revisions made on their law resulted in a framework that attracted a private company from India to do confined field trials on biotech cotton. The Indian company has conducted multi-location trials and we hope this technology will become commercialized in Ethiopia soon to support the cotton ginnery industry in Ethiopia,” said Mbabazi.
That appears to be the case as regulators in Ethiopia are assessing other technologies. One of them involves corn, Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA). Ruth and her colleagues plan to conduct technology transfer and commercialization workshops in different countries in Africa to equip scientists and regulators with skills for successful adoption and deployment of safe biotechnology products.
“For cotton, recently in Ethiopia, we trained scientists and regulators on the issue of product stewardship and commercialization. Science and regulations must address environmental concerns such as the development of insect resistance and impacts on non-target organisms,” she said. “It’s exciting when we find solutions that help small farmers advance.”