Building scientific capacity for African agriculture: Start with basic science

Dr Yemi Akinbamijo FARA’s Executive Director

By Jackline Nnam

If the world were to be re-sized according to science output, Africa, the world’s second largest continent in area and population, would disappear. This is worrying for Africa’s development, considering that science and technology is essential for economic and social transformation of any society. Science provides the basic ingredient, the “DNA helix”, for many disciplines including agriculture.

With agriculture as the key driver of most economies, Africa is focusing on transforming its agricultural sector to leap frog in development. To achieve this a lot of emphasis has been placed on development and adoption of technologies to enhance productivity. Without a critical mass of scientists on the continent, this may remain a dream.

Africa’s low science output is partly due to its low number of scientists. With the declining popularity of sciences versus arts courses in schools the situation could worsen. Moreover, agriculture as a discipline is more at risk as students do not find it attractive enough and opt to join other disciplines. Cases abound of students who study agriculture as a last resort because they could not get admission to more prestigious courses like engineering and human medicine. This leaves a very huge capacity gap in the agriculture sciences.

Africa’s shortfall in agriculture science expertise is well recognized and efforts have been made to remedy it through supporting training at the tertiary level. However, little attention has been paid to the basic sciences which provide the basis for all science disciplines including agriculture. How can Africa increase its pool of agriculture scientists from which specialists in agriculture can emerge?

The African Union Commission as part of efforts to bring science to the forefront of agricultural transformation, conceived the Science Agenda for Africa (S3A) an initiative being led by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA). Speaking at the 4th RUFORUM Biennial conference, FARA’s Executive Director, Dr. Yemi Akinbamijo, described the Science Agenda as a “reference articulating the science, technology, innovation, policy and social learning that Africa needs to meet its goals of agricultural transformation.” One of its pillars is developing capacity at the national level through developing and sustaining basic science.

The Science Agenda seems to have one foot in the door as ministers from Ghana, Mozambique and Uganda who also spoke at the event stated that their countries are already taking action to promote science education whose popularity seemed to be dwindling vis-à-vis the arts. Ghana, for example has a policy requiring that university admissions comprise of 60% of students science, although it has not been reached. In Mozambique, the government supports the education of children with potential to pursue science and technology courses.

Three key actions that emerged to promote basic science were:

Demystify science, technology and innovation as something everybody can do
Extend reforms in science teaching down to the lower education levels
Encourage specialization in the various science disciplines only at the higher levels

The development of basic science expertise will not only benefit agriculture, but other science disciplines as well. Careers in agriculture should therefore be aggressively marketed so as to become attractive to the budding generation of scientists. It would be a loss to the cause of the Science Agenda if Africa were to train scientists who end up shunning agriculture at the stage of specialization. Furthermore, as agriculture is a convergence of many scientific disciplines like engineering, biotechnology and medicine the sector should devise means to take advantage of expertise in these disciplines to compliment its interventions if a technologically-driven transformation is to be realized.

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