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.
One of the greatest handicaps for African scientists and educators is their remoteness from global sources of scientific literature. To conduct research efficiently, scientists need current access to information on recent discoveries and methods. University professors, staff and students need access to recent peer-reviewed literature to align curricula with world standards and to write quality research proposals and reports. Due to such difficulties, African faculty has been isolated from the international academic community, with adverse effects such as inbreeding.
Unfortunately, access to such useful information in most African countries is limited. Much of the agricultural science literature is found in several hundred international peer reviewed journals that are prohibitively expensive. As a result, students graduate from many African universities without knowledge of the most recent findings and methods in their fields, also scientists design research that repeats earlier work or they use outdated and inefficient methods. The revolution in genomics has created a wealth of useful information that is relevant for crop improvement worldwide, but this is scattered over many diverse, usually web-based, databases that often require high-speed access and are difficult to interpret.
Accelerating developments in information and communications technology hold the promise of integrated global systems that provide rapid and low-cost access to information by anyone anywhere in the world. This can provide opportunities to develop new models for postgraduate education. This could include encouragement of private investment in agricultural higher education, including virtual and open universities, as is being explored by the CGIAR and its partners in Africa. But the digital divide, often reinforced by inappropriate policies and regulations of African countries themselves, contributes to an information apartheid that separates most developed countries from many developing ones.
Several initiatives have already been launched to enhance developing-country access to such information. In 1997, with Rockefeller Foundation support, Cornell University built The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library (TEEAL), consisting of CD-ROMs that contain the full text of 140 key agricultural and life science journals. The TEEAL is currently used at 62 institutions in 32 developing countries, including 41 institutions in Africa. The Rockefeller Foundation, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), CGIA and Cornell University are now working together with major publishers to design an on-line platform, similar to the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative (HINARI), for free access to a comprehensive collection of agricultural and food security journals. The initiative has been christened Access to Global On-line Research in Agriculture (AGORA).
Without question, there is significant potential for web-based distance education to both complement and supplement courses given in African universities. A number of US universities are offering courses and degrees over the Internet. However, this is not yet a proven model for granting degrees in most African countries. Graham Till (2003) in his recent review of information and communications technology in Africa wrote:
"There has come to be a simplistic but widely held notion that information and communications technology will automatically benefit African education. The reality, however, is that information and communications technology can't go it alone: quality assurance, provided by adequate human resource infrastructure, is an essential part of the equation. Regrettably, such infrastructure is presently inadequate to meet the demand for post-secondary entry to higher education across the region in most of Africa."
The World Bank financed establishment of the African Virtual University (AVU) in 1997 to provide quality higher education in science and engineering. The AVU has offered courses but does not yet offer full degree programs. The Institute for Food Laws and Regulations at Michigan State University has created six distance education courses on food laws and regulations, which are only US$794 per course. USAID's dot.com initiative and the investment of other donors will add substantially to the information and communications technology infrastructure of developing countries. As this infrastructure grows, there will be more opportunities to test the benefits of providing education electronically.
Another recent ICT application is providing lectures and seminars via teleconference. Now African students can hear, and indeed interact with, global leaders in their fields while remaining in their home settings. Cornell University professors now provide lectures on cutting-edge topics in breeding and biotechnology to students participating in a regional PhD program offered by the University of Natal, with support from The Rockefeller Foundation. There is scope to enlist more support from private sector ICT companies in these type of initiatives.