Realising the potential of Africa’s hidden talent

Prof. Malcom Blackie
Malcolm Blackie is a Zimbabwean agriculturalist who has worked in much of East and Southern Africa as well as the Pacific Islands. Malcom serves on the RUFORUM International Advisory Panel (IAP)

Much of agriculture in Africa is in the hands of poor, scattered populations served by inadequate infrastructure for agricultural research, outreach and training. The national institutions serving agriculture often lack the capacity to undertake research and technology transfer on a meaningful scale. In addition, much work undertaken in Africa is lost as a rapid turnover of staff (a consequence of poor working conditions and facilities) destroys institutional memory. This is huge burden on an already poor continent.


Agriculture and agribusiness will play a central role in sustainable development and wealth creation for most countries in Africa. In 2010, agriculture and agribusiness in Sub-Saharan Africa represented a US$313 billion industry but this is a fraction of its potential. AgBiz, a South African business think tank, estimates the potential to be around US$1 trillion by 2030. Realising this potential can be jump started through the development of agro-industries that create jobs and broad-based income and welfare gains. Successful agribusiness investments in turn stimulate agricultural growth through the development of new markets and a vibrant input supply sector. The future economic growth in Africa will be from making smallholder farming commercial, supported by initiatives in communications, IT, transport and logistics, finance, distribution, health and education.

If these investments are to succeed, young people with new skills, together with enabling policies and infrastructure, will be essential to build globally competitive agro-food value chains. The absence of such skills is a critical constraint in Africa, where there is also an urgent need to modernize food systems to address the food security situation.

There is an enormous waste of Africa’s talent. Many (if not most) African children attend schools that are poorly resourced and where teaching is poor. The students that achieve university entrance qualification standards rarely come from such schools; a common problem in the developing world. Even the stronger economies in Africa rate poorly in terms of youth education; an OECD study in 2015 ranked South Africa as second from bottom of a group of mainly rich countries, with over a quarter of pupils who had attended school for six years unable to read.

The starting point for the African Green Revolution must be the provision of a high quality education to the youth of Africa, with an emphasis on what is arguably Africa’s most important business – that of agriculture. This will enable Africa to use its major resource – its youth. Africa’s young people are its biggest asset. The challenge to Africa’s agriculture faculties is, while maintaining a strong focus on technology development and transfer, to develop a significant body of young, motivated ‘job creators’. Data from the Zimbabwe cotton industry and other effective interventions to engage smallholders in profitable and productive agricultural systems show that for every researcher, around 8-10 professionals (many in private sector activities such as market development, input supply, and financial services) are required to move a promising research technology from concept to widespread adoption.

There is an important opportunity. Largely as an outcome of advances in modern sanitation, childhood mortality rates have fallen sharply, creating a substantial cohort of young people entering the labour market on the continent. The demographic dividend created by increased child survival in Africa can be captured by innovative change to education skilfully implemented. The faculties of agriculture can play a lead role in transforming African universities to sites of knowledge and innovation serving both the private sector and government. The core principle is ensuring that fair access to resources of knowledge and learning are made accessible to as many as possible of the poor and disadvantaged, but motivated and committed, potential students.

There are three important steps. First, the faculties need to reach out actively to smallholder groups, and to small and medium sized businesses, learning from the EARTH University and other models. Student attachments need a formal structure, with proper feedback and follow up between universities and industry. Attachments should be formally and collaboratively assessed by both the universities and industry. The second and critical step is to widen the entry process by providing young people, who show a clear commitment to, and vocation for, rural development, and who come from disadvantaged areas to gain the opportunity for advanced study. Motivation and commitment become core attributes in the selection process. This will involve a drastic, but not impossible, change to the manner in which students are selected; together with well-designed experiential leaning processes which enable the bright, motivated, but poorly educated, student to move quickly and securely into tertiary education. There is good evidence both within Africa and internationally that this is entirely possible. And finally, an emphasis on experiential learning initiatives pioneered by EARTH University, Aseshi University and others needs to be fully institutionalised. In an experiential learning environment, theory and ‘real world’ practice are combined to give the student both tools for investigation as well as the confidence to explore and think widely in problem solving. Experiential learning has three main elements. First, innovation generates the ideas, products, and processes from academic research. Second, the innovations are modified to fit real life situations rather than the generalised blanket recommendations which are typical of much advice given to farmers. Then, through adaption to fit specific problem issues, practitioners are constantly (and speedily) learning from their own, and others’, experiences. Experiential learning focuses on the process rather than content, making it particularly well suited to the complex and dynamic world of agriculture and rural development. The learner, not the teacher or the discipline, is the focus of experiential learning.

Each of these steps is entirely achievable but require new leadership and vision from the universities themselves. Fundamental to this strategy are strong universities building economies of scale and scope and reaching out to weaker institutions. This breaks sharply from the conventional agricultural knowledge transfer model (which has its roots in the top down colonial period of much of the continent) where information flows from specialists down to farmers and field workers. In simple terms, the poor, many of whom are farmers, are told what to do by experts. The new African university is one in which all individuals and organizations in the system continually learn and innovate. It is a system to which all contribute knowledge and which relies on the efficient transfer of information throughout the system in a non-hierarchical manner. And it is one which welcomes the poor and disadvantaged as students, as colleagues, and as partners. Click here to download the full AGM digest in English or French.

Malcolm Blackie: Malcolm is a Zimbabwean agriculturalist who has worked in much of east and southern Africa as well as the Pacific Islands. He studied in the UK and the US, gaining his PhD in 1974. In 1980, he returned to Zimbabwe to set up a new faculty of agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe where he became dean. His development programme for the faculty involved a major building programme, a comprehensive curriculum review, and the purchase of a working farm for student and faculty use. In 1986 he joined the Agricultural Sciences Division of The Rockefeller Foundation to set up a new programme in the region. Since his retirement in 2000, he has continued an active involvement in agricultural development in Africa, with a particular emphasis on creating attractive career opportunities for young Africans in the agricultural industries.

This is our ninth issue in a series of articles we are releasing as part of our RUFORUM AGM Digests. You can get more details about the meeting at and more information about RUFORUM at You many also join us online using Social Media for real time updates. Our Official hashtag is #Visioning2030


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