Africa is rich in both natural and human resources, yet nearly 200 million of its people are undernourished because of inadequate food supplies. Comprehensive strategies are needed across the continent to harness the power of science and technology (S&T) in ways that boost agricultural productivity, profitability, and sustainability -- ultimately ensuring that all Africans have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. This report addresses the question of how science and technology can be mobilized to make that promise a reality.
A number of universities in Europe such as Wageningen University and Research Centre, have pioneered the sandwich training model as a means of lowering costs and increasing the returnee rate. This approach allows African PhD students to take a year of postgraduate course preparation at their home university and then go overseas for 12-18 months to pursue further course work and return home for thesis research. The student and local co-supervisor travel between the home country and Wageningen as required during the four-year program. This has the advantage of allowing the student to focus on national priorities while building capacity and decreasing the chances of a brain drain. Further examples of sandwich programs in Africa are provided in the first InterAcademy Council (IAC) report (IAC 2004: 52-53).
There are some drawbacks. Supervisors may want students in their labs for two to three years of concentrated work, and it may be difficult and time-consuming for co-supervisors to visit a student in the field. But is has worked well at Wageningen University and Research Centre, which over the past five years has had more than 200 MSc and at least 50 PhD graduates from Africa. Many have gone into senior positions in government and universities in their home countries.
In addition to cost-cutting sandwich training models there are other innovations to reduce the cost of postgraduate training. These include increased use of distance education and information and communications technology and summer institutes; and encouragement for students to form human capital chains via the Internet - an effective way to remain in contact with their thesis supervisors and gain ready access to the global scientific literature. Here again the recent IAC report has insightful suggestions for virtual networks, digital libraries and the like (IAC, 2004: 59-60, 66-68)
Joint appointments of recent PhD graduates for a few years after graduation at their home university and Wageningen offer mutual advantages of continuing professional linkages and development. Interchange programs of post-doctoral fellows with a variety of foreign universities and local ones have proven to have impact, both from the view point of intellectual gains as well as of the establishment of long-term academic relations once the visiting post-doctoral staff return to their respective institutions.
There is also high value in twinning and mentoring arrangements between faculty from a developed country and African universities. This is also desirable between the stronger African universities and those less strong. By institutions sharing their strengths and receiving help where they themselves are not so strong, the quality of training can be improved. This cooperation would also be effective in raising morale and retaining staff as it removes professional isolation and the feeling of belonging to an institution that delivers inferior products. Perhaps by working with New Partnerships for Africa's Development (NEPAD), the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), subregional organizations and advanced research institutes, the IAC could develop and maintain databases to facilitate the identification of North-South and South-South partners in such collaboration, with the associated benefits of pooling resources. The IAC (2004: 54-58) has some encouraging examples where such programs are working in other fields.