From Invention to Innovation in African Agriculture

Photo credit: ICRISAT / C. Wangar

By Catherine Mloza 

It was interesting to note that RUFORUM had a side session that addressed the issue of strengthening partnerships for research and higher education. By and by, it is  un-disputable that agriculture in Africa,greatly  depends on how successfully knowledge is generated, disseminated and applied. Traditional agricultural knowledge management systems models situate the role of knowledge generation (mainly technology development) in the domains of the university and research institutions. Extension, on the other hand, is entrusted with the role of knowledge dissemination, and farmers as end users of this knowledge.

While this model has persisted over the past decades, the changing context of agriculture has necessitated a paradigm shift in the way agricultural research and extension is conducted. The private sector has become more and more involved in developing agricultural technologies and inputs for farmer use. In addition, Africa has experienced a proliferation of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that have taken on the roles of technology dissemination. These changes are welcome, considering how eroded public research and extension force has become. However, it implies that public research, education and extension cannot remain the same. Knowledge generation, dissemination and application cannot be continually seen and a linear process with a single outcome.
Thus, agriculturalists in all these sectors need to seek better and new ways of working together. Education institutions , for instance, need to redefine their role, mission, and strategy as agents and facilitators of rural economic growth. Current agricultural development models focus on redefining the knowledge process. It shifts its focus from technology development or inventions by universities and research institutions, to innovation, emphasizing that innovation is neither research nor science and technology, rather, it is the application of knowledge of all types in the production of goods and services to achieve a desired social or economic outcome. Further, the generation, dissemination and application of this knowledge involves a wide range of actors who have various interests and stakes all of whom are involved in the innovation process at one point in time.
A classic example of an agricultural innovation would be conservation agriculture (CA). CA was introduced by researchers into the African context as a ‘technology’ that would build the resilience of smallholder farmers in the face of climate change. Simply, an extension worker would assume that all they need is a CA manual to refer to, and a farmer to teach. However, by and by, CA was found to also aid in soil and water management. As farmers continued to practice, and try it out, it was found to also contribute to soil fertility, and the reduction of labor requirement at household level. In other areas, remarkable yields were brought about when herbicides were used. Thus private sector was brought in as suppliers of inputs. When a number of farmers registered success and had bumper yields, they were all looking at the extension worker to help them access markets. Thus, it could be seen that suppliers, buyers, extension workers, subject matter specialists and even researchers feature very highly at any given time in the CA innovation process. This is true even for other innovations that are being introduced into the smallholder context.

There has been a recognized need for new public–private–civil society partnerships that are formed on the basis of whatever is necessary to improve opportunities, productivity and income generation capacity of poor rural households. From the discussions that took place in the session, it is apparent that African organizations in higher education and research are in the right direction in operationalizing agricultural innovation systems and shifting from focusing on technologies and inventions to innovation.

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