An alliance of agricultural biotechnology corporations, charities and aid organizations is pledging to help provide African farmers with the latest technologies at prices they can afford.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has been set up in Nairobi following an initiative led by the New York-based Rockefeller Foundation. Rockefeller president Gordon Conway says it will help to “unjam the logjam” of intellectual property rights that often prevents poor countries from exploiting advances in agricultural technologies such as plant breeding and transgenics.

Four companies — DuPont of Wilmington, Delaware; Dow AgroSciences of Indianapolis, Indiana; Monsanto of St Louis, Missouri; and Syngenta of Basel, Switzerland — say that they will provide the AATF with patented technologies and technical information without demanding royalties.

Eugene Terry: pledges to meet farmers' needs.

Eugene Terry, former director-general of the West Africa Rice Development Association in the Ivory Coast, who will head the new organization, says its priorities will be driven by the demands of Africa's farmers. “We don't want to push any technologies,” he says. Farmers' organizations and African governments will be asked to suggest projects for the AATF, which will then help them to negotiate rights to the necessary tools and technologies.

The complex patent arrangements surrounding transgenic crops, as well as the technologies used to produce them, hamper efforts to devise practical solutions to the problems of farmers in poor countries, experts say. But the AATF says it will offer conventional management techniques, as well as new technologies, in response to farmers' problems.

Conway says he doubts that transgenic crops will be the new foundation's principal contribution, and points to the benefits of less advanced technologies. Researchers, for example, have created banana plants that are free of fungi and parasites by using tissue-culture techniques, and have used genetic markers to develop crops with increased levels of vitamins and minerals.

“What Africa needs is a diversity of approaches, and the AATF is an important addition to the portfolio,” says Calestous Juma, director of science, technology and innovation at Harvard University's Center for International Development. Reliance on traditional farming methods alone will lead the continent to a “fateful destiny of isolation”, he warns.

The Rockefeller Foundation has donated $1 million to plan the operation, and the US Agency for International Development has put in $550,000. Both will match these contributions this year, and Terry says he is in negotiations with other donors to raise the rest of the AATF's $2.5-million annual operating budget.

The foundation will not have to pay royalties to the four biotechnology companies. But William Neibur, Dupont's vice-president of product development, warns that some patent arrangements will involve parties that will not necessarily provide intellectual property for free. “There will be royalty-free agreements, but there may also be ones that incur royalties,” he says.