How science can contribute to fix social ills

Dr Simphiwe Ngqangweni

Dr Simphiwe Ngqangweni

Chief Executive Officer: NAMC

Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for humanity to collaborate, using science to find solutions to common and pressing threats.

According to the World Bank, more than 700 million people still live in extreme poverty. The poorest bear the largest cost of global challenges such as disease and malnutrition. Despite access to modern scientific tools, there does not appear to be a collective willingness to address these challenges.
Why can’t science be used to solve long-standing ills such as poverty, inequality and hunger? Science has made, and continues to make, a positive impact on society.

The way we communicate, travel, the clothes we wear, the food we eat and the houses we live in are but a few examples. In the agricultural sector, we are enjoying the positive impact of the Green Revolution, a decades-long period of technology transfer that saw a dramatic increase in agricultural production and crop yields.

However, is science beneficial to all? Are scientific advancements only for those who can afford them? These are broad questions not directed only to scientists. Policy makers, the private sector, civil society, scientists and academia must collectively account for ways in which science is used for the betterment of society.

The 2022 edition of the World Science Forum (WSF), held in Cape Town in December – the first on African soil – provided the scientific community, public policy makers, industry, civil society and other stakeholders, a platform to exchange ideas.

The theme for WSF 2022 was “Science for Social Justice”. I participated in one of the pre-events on “Science for Inclusivity, Innovation, Food Security, Nutrition and Social Justice”.

My talk as a panellist sought to highlight the importance of real partnerships in ensuring that the benefits of science and innovation benefit all stakeholders. For this goal to be achieved, the foundation must be laid at the level of policy making. Policies must be crafted through a “co-creation” model, where all stakeholders participate fully and meaningfully.

As the head of the National Agricultural Marketing Council (NAMC), a policy-advisory entity of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, I experienced policy co-creation in action during the drafting of the latest agricultural sector blueprint, the Agriculture and Agro-Processing Master Plan (AAMP).

The AAMP document reflects a consensus among partners about what the agricultural sector needs to do to grow in an inclusive manner. Central to this is ensuring that partners jointly invest in technological innovation to increase food security – at national and household level. Its signatories committed to setting up platforms (to be overseen by the NAMC on which government, civil society, labour and business will each make resource contributions – real and in-kind) to its implementation, and active monitoring and evaluation.

Another good example of an effective partnership in science is the statutory measures that the NAMC oversees on behalf of the Agriculture Minister. One of these is the regulated collection and expenditure of levies by designated commodity bodies in the agricultural sector. Enabled through legislation, the sector collects and spends close to R1 billion, half of which goes towards research and development.

To ensure inclusivity, the NAMC ensures that at least 20% of the total levy expenditure goes towards black participants. The benefits of the statutory levies – especially for marginalised groups – are evident in many agricultural value chains.

As part of the AAMP, the government is committing to contribute towards the funding of black participants in the sector on a rand-to-rand basis to ensure maximum impact. Implementation is no longer the responsibility of only the government or private sector – it is a joint responsibility. If there is no meaningful participation by all stakeholders in dictating how the benefits of policy accrue – including those of science and innovation – there is likely to be a continued schism and perhaps even mistrust between those perceived to be exclusive beneficiaries and those who feel left out.

Dr Ngqangweni is the chief executive officer of the National Agricultural Marketing Council.

The original version of this article appeared in the Cape Times, Pretoria News and The Mercury newspaper on the 21st of February 2023