AFRICAN researchers, working to find ways of increasing food production on a continent whose population is expected to double in 24 years and to find better ways of using Africa's resources, have scored some important gains in recent years.
For example, a berry disease ``nearly wiped out the coffee industry from the 1950s to the 1970s,'' says Thomas Odhiambo, out-going director of the International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, Kenya. A disease-resistant variety developed by private foundations in East Africa not only restored coffee as a major crop there, but also was later used in parts of South America, in Vietnam, and in Paupa, New Guinea.
Scientists have made progress on combating insect- and disease-caused damage to wheat and corn and have developed methods to trap the tsetse flies that kill cattle.
But funding for agricultural research in Africa is on the decline, Dr. Odhiambo says, and many trained scientists have left the continent for jobs abroad.
Other problems include lack of equipment, lack of reference publications, and often lack of interest by their own governments in putting research findings to practical use, says Calestous Juma, director of the Nairobi-based African Centre for Technology Studies (ACTS).
At the same time, hit by their own budget problems at home, donors are cutting back on the research they support the most, agriculture, Dr. Juma says.
In interviews with the Monitor, a number of African and other research specialists here and in the United States proposed a variety of ideas for supporting African research. Among their ideas:
* Supplement low pay for researchers with donor per-diem payments for work in the field, where they are most needed.
* Solicit help from African scientists living abroad to counteract the brain-drain effect.
* Use an African fund-raising agency to promote research.
* Give government research units more autonomy from the often-stifling effect of the central bureaucracy.
* Expand efforts to apply research in a practical way and not leave it on the shelf.
For example, P.K. Ngugi, a Kenyan researcher completed a national collection of data on the marketing of bananas a few years ago for the University of Nairobi. But after the data were compiled, his supervisor lost interest in the project. ``It never went to solving any problem in the banana industry,'' he says.
There's another problem, Mr. Ngugi says. ``Most of the research is done in academic circles. There is little interest to go to the field and do the work.'' He suggests researchers do more field work in contact with those who stand to benefit from it, such as farmers, to make their work more ``relevant.''
Others say there is tension between what African researchers think is important - food production and malaria control, for example - and Western-donor interests, which are often linked to the environment.
``There probably isn't enough equal weight for African agenda setting,'' says John Lynam, a program officer with the Rockefeller Foundation in Nairobi. ``But donors have pressures as well.''
Donor funding to one of the world's largest nongovernment research agencies, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has been cut by about 8 percent for 1994, Dr. Lynam says.
Juma contends that donors are reluctant to fund research in Africa on a crop or product that can be exported from the donor country. ``You don't strengthen your competition,'' he says.
``In the next five to 10 years, support for African food research is going to decline,'' as recession-hit donor nations seek to expand their food exports to Africa, Juma predicts.
``Most of our donors have budgetary problems, says Heinrich von Loesch, a spokesman for CGIAR, based in Washington, D.C. But he challenges Juma's contention that donors won't fund products that compete with their exports, citing substantial research in Africa and other places on wheat and maize, both exported from donor nations.
One current study that does not compete with Western interests is an ICIPE project to further test cotton impregnated with permethrin to kill mosquitoes in malaria areas. The fabric, used in the form of wall hangings, has proved effective in controlling mosquitoes in the Baringo District of Kenya, Odhiambo says.
To seek more funding for research in agriculture, Odhiambo has formed a small agency here, the Research and Development Forum for Science-Led Development (Randforum). The agency received promises of support from a number of nations at a meeting in Botswana on African science and technology, which ended Nov. 1.
He plans to negotiate an agreement between Randforum and the African Development Bank (ADB) in the Ivory Coast to raise funds for African research projects. Among those he hopes to tap for funds are Africans living abroad.
Odhiambo also plans to contact expatriate African scientists to persuade them to devote research time where they live to topics of use in Africa.
Both ideas are worth developing, according to African and other research experts.
SCIENCE-led development, the focus of Odhiambo's new project, however is not enough, says Njuguna Ng'ethe, a Kenyan and director of the University of Nairobi's Institute for Development Studies.
``Science alone will not do, without necessary cultural trimmings and dressings, especially in an African country where you are trying to change a mode of thought to a scientific mode of thought,'' Dr. Ng'ethe says. He recommends closer cooperation between social scientists and agricultural and economic re-searchers. Overall, Lynam is optimistic about the progress of research in Africa.
In several countries, including Kenya, he says, research units are being pulled out of government bureaucracies and given more autonomy, making them more efficient. He cites Kenya's establishment of a semiautonomous agricultural research unit as an example. It was formerly under the total control of the Ministry of Agriculture.
And, Lynam adds, scientists working in Africa are no longer looking for the single-fix cure to food production. Instead, a broader, more practical approach is increasingly being used, involving not only improved seeds, but also better farming practices, including retaining more soil moisture, and improving fertility without expensive fertilizers, he says. Such practices are commonly used by Kamba farmers in the dry, eastern Kenya region around the town Machakos, where using terraces and small dams has increased food production.