AFRICA ON THE MOVE: The role of universities in transforming Africa’s agricultural sector

By Charles Owuor, RUFORUM

Charles Owuor: Manager Planning, Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning, RUFORUM

According to Brookings foresight for Africa’s agriculture, food production in Sub-Saharan Africa needs to increase by 60% in the next 15 years to adequately meet the future demands of the continent’s skyrocketing population. To achieve this feat, there is growing consensus that investments should be made in strategic sectoral areas to create synergy and cause major technological breakthroughs and transformation of the agricultural sector.

Secondly, African national governments and Regional Economic Communities should implement sound policies that not only address short-term political gains, but stimulate genuine and positive long term structural changes. At the minimum, there should be facilitated platforms for collective action to address the underlying causes of the dismal performance of the agriculture sector among different actors to share knowledge and initiate collective action.

At the core of this major thrust is the need to develop human capacity to innovate and manage food systems for greater resilience and achieve the much needed nutritional improvements for a healthy continent. This space, presents opportunities for African Universities to build the optimal capacities to address the skills gap, develop Africa-relevant and home grown technologies, interrogate and engage in and increasingly more dynamic policy environment.

Despite the current massification of higher education across the continent, less than 8% of higher education graduates study science-based disciplines of which approximately a paltry 4% study agriculture and science related disciplines. The smallholder-anchored farming system in Africa demands for new skill sets, mental orientation of graduates and appropriate technologies that deliver high yields and are resilient to the uncertainties caused by vagaries of climate change, but is the current agriculture higher education system well positioned to meet these evolving demands?

The neglect of agricultural higher education sector, as has been the rest of the higher education sector, has no doubt impacted negatively on other human development dimensions. Higher education institutions potentially provide specialised training in agriculture and related subjects, produce qualified and capable graduates to meet the skills requirements for an innovative agricultural sector leading to the structural transformation of the economy. Tragically, the sub-Saharan region is witnessing escalating food imports estimated at USD 50 billion annually and this demand is predicted to rise threefold in the next decade.

This demand will not be met by an agricultural sector as it stands now due to superior global competition in terms of price, quality, reliability and uniformity which all demand for an innovative stock of human capital to catalyse the much needed transformation. In the private sector, there is already an outcry from multinational agricultural companies on the lack of skilled labour to man investments.

This has to a great extent impeded the “Africanisation”, the inclusion of local content and expansion of the strategic agro-processing sector to support rural income and economic development. Throughout the value chain, there is shortage of agribusiness specialists, veterinarians, agronomists, water and irrigation engineers, and food preservation and processing specialists. This trend needs to be urgently reversed if Africa is to benefit from the dividends of science and technology, and play a central role in a knowledge based economy. Existing evidence indicates that there is slow adoption of new technologies in geographical regions with skills shortages. Therefore, to cause the required major transformations in Africa’s agriculture sector to achieve and sustain higher growth rates and reduce the technological frontier gap, there is an urgent need to build a critical mass of skilled labour force with tertiary education.

Despite the above realities, emerging public financing models demanding for stringent accountability and demonstration of value for money have left very many higher education actors, including universities, hard-pressed to demonstrate their relevance in national development processes. The challenge is compounded by the fact that whereas investments in physical infrastructure such as roads and government buildings are relatively easy to evaluate and appraise their impact, it is relatively inappropriate to apply the same evaluation instruments and models to appraise “soft” infrastructure such as human capital development, innovation support, research and development. Secondly, the current evaluation instruments for appraising innovation capacity and innovation are less suited for the development context of developing countries. The sectoral budgeting and public financing strategies that seek to demonstrate results at policy goal levels and are forward-looking, are diluting universities’ role into the sectoral crowd of priorities. The need to reinforce sectoral complementarity and mutually reinforcing impacts of public investments further fizzles the university clout and clouds its contribution to national development.

Therefore African universities need to master the art of generating evidence of their contribution to national and regional development processes to attract the necessary financing beyond the national subventions. The hard evidence-based data of universities’ outputs, articulation of outcomes and visualisation of impact are critical, but African universities have been slow to this reality, yet it is mundane for western universities. It is imperative that reliable data is a building block of successful knowledge economies. Critical decisions that drive global processes be it in business or politics are supported by evidence-based data that is routinely collected on parameters of interest and analysed for further interpretation. In virtually all sectors of the economy, data collection and management has become a strategic business operating procedure motivating investments in data management ventures in both public and private sector. Despite the fact that universities are at the core of national science and innovation systems and they contribute to key functions of knowledge production, transmission and transfer, data on their performance is very scanty.

The scarcity of data transcends the universities to the higher education sector as a whole. Analytics on parameters such as student load, completion rate over time, relevance of academic programmes, performance of faculties, student liability status, numbers and characteristics of staff, investments, and research activity are largely non-existent and difficult to obtain from even well-established African Universities. At national level, this is the mandate of the respective national councils’ of higher education that are unfortunately faced with numerous problems such as lack of strategic planning and vision, limited financing and poor ICT infrastructure.

It is therefore not surprising that where data is available, it is extremely limited to support any strategic decision making, let alone inform higher education investment choices. The respective national bureaus of statistics have also not done much on this front either, as they only seem to concentrate on collecting data to explain and project economic scenarios, and higher education is distantly considered. In some of the annual statistical abstracts, there are some muted lines on higher education.

One of the major barriers to analytics in higher education is cost. Many universities and other tertiary institutions view analytics as an expensive endeavour rather than as an investment with much of the concern centred around the affordability of data collection tools and methods. Other barriers include inadequate and inappropriate resources to build information capabilities, limited ICT infrastructure and out-of-date information resources. And yet this is what African universities need to invest in and be able to demonstrate their relevance in concrete terms.

Once this is done, it has potential to lead to more effective advocacy for funding from governments, new partnerships, opportunities for investment, improved operational efficiencies, competitive advantage over other academic institutions and in, broad terms, support universities to achieve their strategic benefits. African universities need substantial efforts in funding, human resource planning, tracking research investments, demonstrating effectiveness and efficiency as well as gauging performance of faculty. With many voices saying that “Africa is on the move”, universities need to reclaim their centre apolitical stage, generating capable human capital, relevant knowledge and appropriate technologies. Demonstrating their innovation and performance capacities based on well tested metrics and indices is thus critical.

This article was originally published in Africa Higher Education Insights, a quarterly newsletter of the RUFORUM Network. Read the original article and more here:


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