The role of Higher Education Institutions in catalysing agricultural innovation systems

Higher education institutions in todays’ world need to produce knowledge and skills that effectively engage and empower communities to achieve sustainable livelihoods within their rural contexts.

The World Bank in its Investment Sourcebook on Agricultural Innovation Systems spells out the critical role of agricultural education and training as a creator of capacity and supplier of the human resources that populate key segments of the agricultural innovation system (AIS) and enable it to function more effectively1. Apart from the provision of technical knowledge, which is the traditional focus of higher education, what can institutions of higher learning offer key stakeholders in the agricultural sector in Africa?

To better answer this question, I will analyse the changes that agriculture is going through which necessitates the need for an innovation systems approach to development practice.

African agriculture today is facing new and complex changes. Agricultural development is gradually shifting towards being driven and motivated by globalization, urbanization, and markets more than by mere production. In addition, issues of climate change, conflicts, and migration are increasingly dominating the global agenda with both ‘cause’ and ‘effect’ underpinnings on the African population. In this regard, the central development question facing continental agricultural development practitioners is how to catalyze a more responsive, competitive, equitable and sustainable growth within the context of smallholder production systems amid a degradation-prone natural resource base2.

These changes are also creating spill-over effects to extension and advisory services. It is no longer representative to blanket the smallholder population as ‘a group of farmers’. Extension workers are increasingly aware of what was supposed to be an obvious fact that these farmers are human beings who not only farm, but also have families to feed, school fees to pay, and ambitions to achieve, however small. Thus the nature of extension services needs to be uniquely packaged to holistically suit different needs and contexts.

Based on this analysis, we can safely say, that firstly, higher education institutions in todays’ world need to produce knowledge and skills that effectively engage and empower communities to achieve sustainable livelihoods within their rural contexts. This requires new and revitalized ‘soft skills’ such as leadership, communication, facilitation and networking.

Secondly, development partners are increasingly interested in improving the visibility of the private sector in the arena of development practice. However, there are no ‘gives’ in private sector without ‘takes’. Private sector is also looking for ways and means to better improve their services and products through innovative solutions that Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) can provide through their students and research projects.

The list of how HEIs fit into innovation systems could go on and on. However, most importantly, HEIs could also benefit from partnering with different stakeholders in the innovation system. This way, two way linkages can be created where both parties benefit for the betterment of the African society as a whole.

Through its African Universities’ Agenda for African Higher Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (AHESTI), RUFORUM has set out a model can better work with other stakeholders to promote inclusive growth and sustainable development, by working with and empowering multi-stakeholder partnerships.  Through the Vision2030 strategy, the agenda intends to consolidate the position of RUFORUM as a network that will effectively contribute to the development of quality human resources and capacity required to intensify and increase Africa’s agricultural productivity. The network will also ensure that the products, processes and knowledge developed through university research reach down to value chain actors in the agri-food systems to catalyse transformation.


1 World Bank (2012) Agricultural Innovation Systems: An Investment Sourcebook. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / International Development/ The World Bank, Washington D.C., USA

2 Mloza Banda. C. B. (2011) Agriculture in Changing Times: Fostering knowledge sharing amongst various Stakeholders. Conceptual paper presented at Farm Radio Malawi 3rd Annual Symposium, 23-24 November 2011. Lilongwe, Malawi

Written by Catherine Mloza-Banda, Onsite Reporter for the RUFORUM AGM 2017

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