Higher Education for Agricultural Transformation

Author: Daniel Sherrard, Provost, EARTH University

It could very well be that the first half of the 21st century will be remembered as the period when Africa came into its own. These five decades could be a period of steady economic growth and one is which the rapid increase of the working age population actually pays the long promised demographic dividend.  Whether this dream is realized will of course depend on a multitude of political, social, economic and environmental variables.

Since two-thirds of Africa’s population depends on agriculture and economic growth derived from agriculture is far more effective in benefiting the poor as growth generated in non-agricultural sectors, there can be no argument that agriculture represents an essential element in the development equation.

However, moving beyond subsistence agricultural production that currently predominates in many parts of the continent to a vibrant commercial agriculture requires fundamental transformations.  These transformations range from significant investments in areas such as infrastructure, education and the availability of credit, to social transformations including elevating the role of women in agricultural production, processing and marketing.

While primary and secondary education are essential to the success of any social and economic transformation strategy, it is only relatively recently that the importance of higher education to agricultural development has been widely recognized (Juma, 2015).

The challenges inherent in developing a dynamic and vibrant food system are numerous, complex and interconnected and include:

  • Increasing productivity and profitability for farmers, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable fashion;
  • Developing breeds and varieties needed for sustainable production in the context of a planet confronting climate change;
  • Decreasing food loss and waste through more efficient and equitable distribution and consumption systems;
  • Developing efficient agricultural value chains with an emphasis on adding value to commodities and integrating women farmers;
  • Addressing nutrition challenges including under nutrition and obesity.

Meeting these challenges requires the formation of a generation of change agents, young people equipped with the knowledge, skills and values required for transforming African agriculture.  Meeting this challenge will require both significant investments in agricultural higher education as well as profound changes in how universities currently train their students.  Yet, the majority of higher education programs in agriculture on the continent are poorly prepared for training the change agents needed.  Too often their academic programs are characterized by a reliance on rote learning, an emphasis on theoretical study at the expense of practical experience, a focus on particular disciplines rather than a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach, and populated with many students who have little interest in pursuing a career in the sector.

While university leaders often speak about the equal importance of the three-part mission of their institutions embodying education, outreach and research, the reality on the ground is often quite different with the education and outreach functions taking a back seat to research.   For example, the evaluation, promotion and remuneration of faculty is often driven more by the number of their research publications rather than a lecturer’s skill in facilitating their student’s learning, or their efforts to engage with the external community.

In much the same fashion, university reform and modernization efforts frequently ignore modernizing the educational model and the curriculum or building capacity for engagement with the community. Instead they focus on building research and technological capacity and infrastructure improvements (both of which are of course essential) and expanded enrolment (often carried out without proper planning and facilities expansion).

To educate the leaders of tomorrow for agricultural transformation, current educational practices must likewise be transformed.  In 2002, an international group of university leaders, representatives from government, the private sector and farmers meeting in Jinja Uganda, drafted the “The Jinja Consensus on the Need for Change in University-level Agricultural Education in Africa”[1].  After intensive discussions, the group reached a broad consensus on the urgent need for change in Africa’s tertiary agricultural education systems. Such a change would enhance the capacity of universities to respond to society’s changing needs, making agriculture more economically competitive, socially responsible, and environmentally sustainable in an increasingly globalized world economy, and able to provide effective contributions to food security and poverty reduction strategies.

The key principles in the Jinja Consensus include the following:

  • A focus on developing students with high ethical values with a vocational interest and commitment to rural activities and in producing graduates who are capable of independently accessing and using knowledge.
  • Agricultural programs must provide students with a market orientation. A key curriculum objective is for students to develop leadership, entrepreneurial and management skills that embrace social and environmental responsibility. Graduates should be able to generate activities that can become important sources of income growth and employment in rural areas.
  • These changes will require a stronger emphasis on new or revised student selection criteria and admission policies to ensure that agricultural faculties and universities prioritize admission for students interested in careers related to African agriculture and rural development. The admission of lower income rural applicants, particularly women should be emphasized.
  • A student-centered approach to learning and discovery will include flexible and practical approaches to problem-solving, effective communication skills and strong linkages to rural communities and the developmental needs of key stakeholders such as women farmers. Through experiential learning methods, universities should focus on facilitating student development rather than simply transferring knowledge. New student and faculty evaluation systems will be necessary to reflect these goals.

The principles outlined in the Jinja Consensus are as relevant today as they were 15 years ago.  Likewise, the challenges in implementing them are equally difficult.  Achieving them will require a commitment on the part of university administrators, a significant shift in the mindset of academic staff and increased levels of financial support from government.

There is significant interest on the part of educators and others in changing the way agricultural higher education is currently offered in Africa (see for example: Juma, 2015; Maguire, 2012; RUFORUM, 2012; Swanepoel, 2014.; Wallace, 1997;). RUFORUM, as an African led and Africa-wide network of universities is ideally positioned to promote such changes. Particularly notable are efforts such as RUFORUM’s TAGdev project (Transforming African Agricultural Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s growth and development) focusing on developing a new model of agricultural education that connects tertiary agricultural education to rural communities and strengthening agribusiness and entrepreneurship through student and community enterprise projects.  This and other similar projects bode well for creating models capable of catalyzing change, energizing innovation and motivating young people for careers in agriculture.  RUFORUM has also developed strong collaborations to take advantage of educational innovation around the world.  EARTH University, in Costa Rica, Central America, has partnered with RUFORUM for over a decade and has modeled an educational approach that has generated significant interest on the continent.  EARTH’s highly experiential and student-centered undergraduate program focuses on the formation of ethical, values driven leaders for sustainable rural development.  Over the past 10 years EARTH, RUFORUM and many of its member universities have had the opportunity to exchange experiences and build strong south-to-south relationships.

Africa has tremendous potential and achieving it requires that Africa’s young people are provided the educational opportunities to facilitate their development as agents of change for sustainable development.  Agriculture is a key sector in realizing the continent’s potential, but to attract young people, the image of agriculture must change from one of drudgery and poverty to one of science, technology, business and opportunity.  Likewise, at the university level, agriculture is often identified as the lowest status field of study in the institution.  Many students enroll in agriculture programs because they were unable to gain entrance to fields of study perceived to be of higher status.  This situation clearly needs to change.  Agricultural programs need to include elements that are attractive to students, such as entrepreneurial training, exposure to modern technology, exciting internships and other opportunities.  At the same time, admission criteria should focus on identifying candidates with a sincere interest in agriculture and rural development.  Universities and agricultural training institutes are key actors to effect this change, but to do so, they must dedicate undertake a process of profound transformation.

If the first half of the 21st century is indeed to be remembered as the period in which Africa begins to achieve the ambitious goals outlined in the Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa Agenda 2063, it will depend on the actions of the leaders of the continent’s agricultural transformation. These are the young people studying today in the university and those who will be entering in the next decade.  The time is now to transform the university to insure they receive the education they need. Click here to download the digest.


Juma, C. 2015. The new harvest: agricultural innovation in Africa. Oxford University Press, UK.

Maguire, C. 2012. Agricultural Education and Training to Support Agricultural Innovation Systems. In: Agricultural innovation Systems: an Investment Sourcebook.  World Bank, Washington, DC

RUFORUM, 2012. Global Change and the Future of African Agriculture: What Role for Higher Education?  RUFORUM, http://www.ruforum.org/documents/global-change-and-future-african-agriculture-what-role-higher-educationUganda

Swanepoel F., Stroebel A. and Zenda Ofir (Editors). 2014.  Towards Impact and Resilience: Transformative Change In and Through Agricultural Education and Training in Sub-Saharan Africa, Cambridge Scholars Publishing,

Wallace I. and Nilsson E. 1997. The Role of Agricultural Education and Training in Improving the Performance of Support Services for the Renewable Natural Resources Sector. Overseas Development Institute, UK.  https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/2919.pdf,

About the Author

Dr. Daniel Sherrard, Provost, EARTH University. Daniel Sherrard received his Doctorate in Agricultural Education from Iowa State University. He has been with EARTH University since its founding in 1990.  He was appointed Provost in 2005.  In this capacity he has served as the University’s chief academic officer, has led the institution’s strategic planning processes and participates in many other areas of the University’s operations.  He has held many other positions in the University including Academic Dean, Director of Admissions and Professor.  Daniel has coordinated EARTH’s collaboration with RUFORUM and other efforts in Africa over the past decade.  He is also active in environmental conservation activities in Costa Rica as President of Costa Rica’s second “debt for nature swap” supervisory committee. He is the author of publications related to agricultural higher education including, “The Change Agenda: A New Approach to Higher Education in Agriculture”, “The University-Community Alliance for Sustainability”, and “The Need for a New Focus in Agricultural Higher Education in Latin America”, among others.

This is our eighteenth 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 http://www.ruforum.org/AGM2017/ and more information about RUFORUM at www.ruforum.org. You many also join us online using Social Media for real time updates. Our Official hashtag is #Visioning2030

[1]The seminar that produced the Jinja Consensus was convened by the Sustainability, Education and the Management of Change Project (SEMCIT) jointly convened by EARTH University and the Salzburg Seminar.  The complete document is available at:  Jinja Consensus, 2002. http://www.sadc-reep.org.za/MESA%20Toolkit/3)%20Module%201/Higher%20Education%20and%20Education%20for%20Sustainalbe%20Development/Jinja%20Consensus.pdf


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: