RUFORUM: An Innovative Mechanism for engaging African Universities for Development

Okori +Adipala

Prologue: The promise of Africa, as a vibrant strong player in the global economy, remains steadfast, especially, after an impressive 15-year period of steady economic growth. During that period, per capita GDP surged to an average of 3%. However, more recently, this remarkable upturn in the continent’s development fortunes, have diminished, raising concerns about Africa’s renaissance. Nevertheless,  the continent, through its vision 2063, the“ Africa We Want,” remains steadfast in its efforts to build a viable and prosperous home for her people and at the at the same time, contribute to the global economy.

 This grand vision for Africa, notwithstanding, requires that the fundamental levers for development be engaged. Agriculture is one of the fundamental levers needed to actualize Africa’s Vision 2063. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth originating in agriculture is twice as effective in benefiting the poorest half of a country’s population as growth generated in non-agricultural sectors. Moreover, because most poor people depend on agriculture for a living, as countries develop, per worker agricultural GDP will grow faster than per worker GDP in other sectors. Accordingly, making agriculture work for Africa’s farming communities is essential to sustain its development trajectory. It is in that regard that the engagement quality of an Africa University in development is important. The journey for deeper engagement of African Universities in the continent’s development process, is a long one, but it has to be made. Today, that journey is more or less synonymous with the growth and role of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), whose 85 majority agriculture and allied science teaching and research university members, are found in 35 African countries.

RUFORUM’s first steps to innovate for development impact: RUFORUM sees a vibrant agricultural sector linked to African universities which can produce high-performing graduates and high-quality research responsive to the demands of Africa’s farmers and agribusiness sector for innovations and able to generate sustainable livelihoods and national economic development. This vision of success is underpinned by the fact that “a one-year increase in the tertiary education stock can raise the long-run steady-state level of African GDP per capita by 12%”. Accordingly, towards the start of Africa’s renaissance, in the early 1990’s, the RUFORUM network was born out of necessity by African Universities, who collectively created an innovative framework to advance their engagement in development processes and impact delivery. The main challenge at that time, a weak human resource, limited and or disintegrated education systems and aging and understaffed agricultural research systems, among others, are still relevant in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa today. Many countries of sub-Saharan Africa thus see the urgency to reinforce their development imperatives, in which, the quality of human resources is critical for sustained growth and development.

To be sure, universities today must train human resources who will underpin attainment of the UN’s Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development and Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. Indeed, the UNDP at its 2014 Commission on Population and Development placed primacy on the role of youth for Africa’s development. The UNDP noted that, “Africa’s young people have the potential to be a powerful engine for development. But to realize this potential, we must invest in them, address their particular needs, include them in decision-making and empower them to become agents of change.” Indeed, the African Union named 2017 as the “Year of harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth.” To that extent, RUFORUM supports the implementation of African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024), to eradicate hunger and achieve food and nutrition security. It is our considered view that the RUFORUM network is well positioned to dynamically contribute to Africa’s development vision, having the scope and mandate to do so.

RUFORUM’s wheels of innovation. Africa through the STISA-2024, the Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa, and the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Programme (CAADP), embody the continent’s aspirations to harness science for development. The continents’ remarkable 15-year macro-economic progress places most countries on the right growth path. Some of the remarkable results that can be latched-on to catalyse growth include for example strong performance (20%) in primary education enrolment. Between 1990 and 2012, the number of children enrolled in primary schools more than doubled, from 62 million to 149 million children, the highest for the UN’s MDG 2, and this has increased literacy levels; Africa enrolled 49 million secondary students out of 552 million youth globally in secondary schools in 2012; Burgeoning population has renewed the call to invest in youth for development. There has also been expansion in the number of universities (public and private)-between 2000 and 2010, higher education enrollment more than doubled, increasing from 2.3 million to 5.2 million. More recently there has also been upsurge in access to disruptive innovations such as ICT’s, mobile phone based banking and service delivery systems, among others. RUFORUM is well placed to leverage these opportunities for STISA-2024 implementation. Figure 1 illustrates RUFORUMs’ integrated approach for producing entrepreneurial youth, policy and innovations to underpin development.

Figure 1: RUFORUM’s integrated innovation model for higher agricultural tertiary education

In the model, to improve development impact: (i) Youth are recruited into agriculture via undergraduate targeted entrepreneurial internship training programmes; (ii) Youth entrepreneurship programmes engage Africa’s college educated youth in innovation and investments in agriculture; and (iii), Leveraging University competencies to improve science quality of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

To improve science quality, policy and leadership, RUFORUM manages a graduate research programme that focuses on Master’s degree training. To date, the RUFORUM universities, collectively host and or manage eighteen joint regional degree programmes that link to other individual university programmes to train a pool of young scientists to support, teaching, and research and development process. This has mainly been through the joint regional training programmes and the Graduate Research Grants (GRGs) scheme which to-date have graduated 1716 mid-career scientists and staff to replace the aging and or devoid placements in the agricultural sector, and other public and private bodies. Using a regional approach, in 2005, six PhD programmes were developed to train strategic leaders for Africa’s agriculture sector. Since then, 12 more PhD programmes were established and to date (August 2017), 436 PhD graduates have been trained with virtually all of them (97%) retained within the continent.

In order to inculcate relevance of research and development processes and strengthen university engagement with communities, the network has developed Community Action Research Projects (CARPs), a strategic mechanism that allows young researchers under training and their university supervisors, to conduct research using an innovation systems approach. This way, PhD, MSc and BSc graduates get directly in touch with development challenges and opportunities. They then graduate ready to deliver relevant development science solutions. RUFORUM further recognizes the centrality of providing young people a platform for demonstrating their agility in business; thus, through the Young African Entrepreneurs and Innovators competition, young agribusiness innovators are demonstrating their ability in entrepreneurship and enterprise development. In 2016, RUFORUM received 756 young innovators applications, awarded 15 who have since then been able to engage with 9,500 farmers. A second round of call for innovators will be undertaken in 2018.

RUFORUM recognizes the need to engage policy at the highest level from country to continental and global level. To engage this critical lever, the network through its highly respected meetings, is shaping Africa’s Higher Agricultural Education (HAE) agenda. One year after its founding in April 2004 RUFORUM in 2005 brought together the Ministers responsible for Education and Agriculture from its then five member countries (Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe) to present its agenda of aligning its training and research to the CAADP priority areas. In May 2010, RUFORUM convened the first ministerial conference on higher education in agriculture in Africa (CHEA); in 2014, over 40 Vice Chancellors from RUFORUM member universities met with the African Union Commission leaders and resolved to intensify university engagement in the continent’s development agenda.

Subsequently, in July 2015, the 25th African Union (AU) Assembly in South Africa established the Committee of 10 Heads of State and Government (two from each geographic region of Africa) as African champions of Education, Science and Technology and endorsed President Macky Sall of Senegal as the first coordinator of the group champions. In November 2015, Higher Education, Science and Technology Ministers and Senior Government leaders met in Lilongwe Malawi to discuss the STISA 2024, that RUFORUM had signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the African Union to support its implementation. These efforts have led to increased investments in Africa’s higher education such as the creation of the World Bank supported regional centers of leadership / excellence for graduate level training. Such efforts are innovative in their own right and in fact, align to the continent’s economic resurgence. These are some of RUFORUM’s innovation wheel spinning to success.

Conclusions: RUFORUM’s story, from the time of its transformation in 2004, from the Rockefeller Foundation’s initiated Forum on Agriculture Resource Husbandry (Forum), whose mission was to strengthen graduate research and training in east and southern Africa, to its current scope and scale of operations, is one of a learning organization. The Forum’s MSc graduate training that focused on crop and soil sciences in agriculture, has since expanded under RUFORUM to cover whole value chain capacities, included new competencies needed by the 21st century graduates such as soft-skills, leadership and networking, are now part of training programmes as RUFORUM trains “fit for purpose” graduates. The network has also harnessed the power of leverage, engaging diverse stakeholders within its network and others from within and outside Africa for strengthening research and training to provide solutions for local problems. Through higher level policy engagement, larger investments in Higher Agricultural Education are being made. These examples, though not all inclusive, show RUFORUM’s systematic approach to finding solutions to Africa’s Higher Agricultural Education innovation. In effect RUFORUM has since 2004 weaved an “Ariadne’s thread” to find practical solutions needed to engage African Universities in development process and practice. Click here to download the full digest.

About the Authors:

Dr Patrick Okori, a PhD Graduate from the Swedish Agricultural University, is the former Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Makerere University, where he led the founding of both MSc and Regional PhD Programmes in Plant Breeding, Biotechnology and Seed Systems. He released a number of sorghum varieties that are wide grown in the region today and is the current ICRISAT Country Director in Malawi.

Professor Adipala Ekwamu is the current Executive Secretary of RUFORUM (, an organisation created to forge collaboration among African Universities to train scientists and leaders to support Africa’s agricultural development, and to strengthen engagement of African Universities in National Innovation Systems.  He has actively engaged with other actors to catalyse transformations in African universities for development relevance. RUFORUM is today a leading voice for Higher Agricultural Education in Africa, with a membership of 85 universities in 35 African countries spanning all the five regions of Africa.

This is our fifteenth 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


3 thoughts on “RUFORUM: An Innovative Mechanism for engaging African Universities for Development

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  1. My salutations to the visionary leadership at the RUFORUM secretariat. While attending the just concluded Middle level Academic Leaders Training in Lilongwe Malawi, I am pleased to learn that RUFORUM dedicates itself to achieving significant improvements in agricultural productivity, marketing and competitiveness by generating appropriate technologies and policy options, promoting innovation, establishing a knowledge management capacity and strengthening the agricultural research system. This is the only sustainable pathways to a middle-income economy that Uganda is clamoring to achieve come 2040. Best wishes to Prof Adipala and Team.
    Prod Buyinza, Director of Research, Makerere University


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