News - March 30, 2011

Plant Sciences wants to close down Prota

The management council of the Plant Sciences Group has announced that retrenchment will take place at Prota, the institute which dispenses information on seven thousand useful plants in Africa. The reason is the uncertainty of how to finance Prota - which depends on external fund providers - in the future.

The Plant Resources of Tropical Africa, or Prota, has been hanging by a thread since two years ago. At that time, the Plant Sciences Group also had a reorganization plan ready, but Prota managed to get a subsidy from the Gates Foundation in the nick of time. This subsidy ended on 1 January. 'We were hoping for a follow-up phase', says Roel Lemmens, director of Prota. 'But the Gates Foundation wants to concentrate on investing in raising the yield of major crops, while we, on the other hand, focus on unknown local plants. So there will be no follow-up.' Prota staff is employed by Wageningen UR, which, however, has not put any money into Prota for several years.
Prota made profits last year, says Lemmens. 'But it's getting more difficult to find new financers.' Two weeks ago, the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation confirmed that it will provide a subsidy for this year and the next. For this year, the institute is short of 100,000 euros, out of a budget of 800,000 euros. However, as two of the seven Prota staff members will be getting an early retirement next year, one wonders if reorganization is necessary from a financial point of view.
Prota was set up by a network of European and African institutes which together form the management board. Besides the office in Wageningen, Prota has an office in Nairobi, employees in six research institutes in Africa and contacts in many countries. The office in Nairobi has had to terminate its contracts because of a lack of funds, says Lemmens. The Wageningen group now stands on the verge of being disbanded.
The group is currently involved in making an inventory of African tree species with funds from ITTO, an international forestry organization. Prota is also working on a book about fibre plants, with funds from Cofra, the charity arm of clothing store C&A. With money from the Gates Foundation, a database with interactive tools has been developed to enable people from all over to obtain information about plant species. 'This information still needs a lot of evaluation and cleaning up by the specialists at Prota to ensure its quality', says Lemmens.
Prota has been around for eleven years. About fifty percent of the useful plants have been covered and classified into usage groups. 'We haven't done anything yet about the edible fruits, for example.' Lemmens does not know if the Prota office will get a chance to make a comeback on a smaller scale.