Analysis & Opinions - Public Service Review

Sowing the Benefits

| March 26, 2012

Harvard Kennedy School's Calestous Juma proposes measures for upgrading the continent's national institutes to grow an improved generation of African agricultural universities

Africa has historically been known for its mineral wealth, which although important for economic development, has been associated with economic dynamism. However, policy attention across the continent is now shifting toward fostering agricultural innovation through enhanced research support and entrepreneurship. However, bringing these to bear on agricultural innovation will require a radical transformation of the higher education system for this sector.

Currently, the most important obstacle facing agricultural innovation is the separation that exists between research, which is carried out mostly in national research institutions, and education, which is conducted in universities. To overcome this challenge, an alternative approach is needed to facilitate the creation of a new generation of agricultural universities under the relevant line ministries. These new institutions will be guided by higher education authorities, but will be embedded in the ministries responsible for agriculture, livestock and fisheries. The seed for such universities already exists in the form of national institutes, which can be upgraded to combine research, teaching, extension and commercialisation under one roof.

The African agricultural challenge
In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture directly contributes to 34% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 64% of employment. Growth in agriculture is at least two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than in other sectors, while also stimulating productivity elsewhere, such as in the food processing industry. Agricultural products also constitute approximately 20% of Africa's exports.

Even before the global financial and fuel crises hit, hunger was increasing in Africa. In 1990, over 150 million Africans were hungry; as of 2008, the number had increased to nearly 250 million. Moreover, starting in 2004, the proportion of undernourished began increasing, reversing several decades of decline, prompting 100 million people to fall into poverty. One-third of people in sub-Saharan Africa are chronically hungry — many of whom are smallholder farmers.

High food prices in local markets price out the poorer consumers — forcing them to purchase not only less food but less nutritious food, in addition to making them divert spending from education and health, and sell their assets. Moreover, this hunger-weakened agricultural sector cycle is self-perpetuating.

However, the challenge for Africa to overcome these problems is not the absence of scientific and technical knowledge; it is the lack of appropriate institutional arrangements through which scientific and technical knowledge can be transmitted from research facilities to farms.

Starting afresh
Moving forward will require fundamental changes in the way universities train their students. It is notable that most African universities do not specifically train agriculture students to work on farms in the same way that medical schools train students to work in hospitals. Part of the problem arises from the traditional separation between research and teaching — the former is carried out in national research institutes, while the latter is conducted in universities.

National Agricultural Research Institutes (NARIs) operate a large number of research programmes that provide a strong basis for building new initiatives aimed at upgrading their innovative capabilities. In effect, what is needed is the strengthening of the educational, commercial and extension functions of the NARIs. More specifically, clustering these functions would result in dedicated research universities whose curriculum would be modelled along full value chains of specific commodities. For example, innovation universities located in proximity to coffee and tea production sites should develop expertise in the entire value chain of the industry.

This could be applied to other crops, as well as to livestock and fisheries. Such dedicated universities would not have a monopoly over specific crops, but should serve as opportunities for learning how to connect higher education to the productive sector.

Internally, the new universities should redefine their academic foci to adjust to the changes facing the continent. This can be better done through continuous interaction with farmers, businesses, the government and civil society organisations. Governance systems that allow for such continuous feedback to universities will also need to be established.

Making the change
The reform process must include specific measures. First, the universities for agricultural innovation need a clear vision and strategic plans for training future sector leaders with a focus on practical applications. Such plans should include comprehensive roadmaps on moving research from the lab to the marketplace. They also need to define how to best recruit, retain and prepare future graduates, and should be prepared in partnership with key stakeholders.

In addition to this, the new universities need to improve their curricula to make them relevant to the communities in which they are located. More importantly, however, they should serve as critical hubs in local innovation systems or clusters. They should also give students more opportunities to gain experience outside of the classroom. This can be achieved through traditional internships and research activities; however, the teaching method could also be adjusted so that it is experiential and capable of imparting direct skills. Such training should also include the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills and other forms of experiential learning.

NARIs have extensive programmes that involve working directly with farmers. This outreach is a large part of both their mandate and their efforts to reach farming communities. In addition to this, a 'reverse outreach' approach under which farmers and entrepreneurs can selectively participate in 'open classroom' programmes would help to strengthen extension services. Under this approach, farmers and entrepreneurs would join classes of their choice as participants, giving faculty and students the opportunity to interact with them in a classroom setting.

As well as offering degree courses, universities for agricultural innovation will also need to extend their reach into the sphere of vocational training. This can be achieved directly through various programmes, such as 'farmer schools', or in conjunction with high schools. The link with high schools and other educational institutions is particularly important considering Africa's demographic structure — in most parts of Africa the majority of the population is in school, which makes educational institutions an integral part of the community.

Genuine innovation systems
Over the last decade, considerable work has been carried out to redefine the role of the government in agricultural research, decentralise research activities, increase stakeholder participation, identify new financial instruments and strengthen system-wide links. These measures have been purposed on an incremental basis, and have indeed yielded commendable results.

The next challenge, however, is to build on these achievements and pursue bold steps aimed at upgrading the status and performance of agricultural institutes by creating genuine innovation systems that involve research, training, extension and commercialisation. This process will require bold political action involving high-level leaders, and will come with political risks and debate.

Another way to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from universities to farming communities is through internships and community service, which should be structured so that they are part of the academic calendar. These activities would serve two main purposes. Firstly, they would transfer knowledge from universities to farmers; and secondly, returning students would provide feedback and lessons that could be used to adjust the curriculum, pedagogy and interactions with farmers.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Sowing the Benefits.” Public Service Review, March 26, 2012.