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.
Today, the lack of political commitment in the State House is the biggest single missing ingredient in building a strong and productive agricultural science base in Africa. China showed the way when its State Council recently issued a decree to pursue a new round of radical reforms to create a modern, responsive, internationally competitive and fiscally sustainable research system (Huang et al., 2003). Foreign aid can certainly assist the national agricultural research systems of Africa, but aid and foreign experts are no substitute for political leadership, time, learning by doing and learning from others. In short, building a science-based agriculture is an indigenously led, accretionary process.
Many national agricultural research systems in Africa are highly reliant on foreign aid, with most salaries supported from national budget allocations but nearly all operating costs and most capital purchases covered by donor grants or loans. Foreign assistance can be viewed in positive and negative terms. In positive terms, foreign aid has trained thousands of agricultural scientists. But erratic and large flows of aid to national agricultural research systems have created aid dependency in many countries in Africa. A recent study of Swedish foreign aid has found that, although Tanzania received about US$2 billion of aid from Sweden over the 1970-96 period, it remains one of the poorest countries in the world (Catterson and Lindahl, 2003). In short, Swedish aid has contributed to aid dependency in Tanzania.
What is urgently needed is a radical rethinking of how Africa can best organize itself to take advantage of the world's rapid scientific progress. Clearly, Africa's scientific community cannot flourish if it continues to be heavily dependent on erratic foreign aid for 40 percent or more of the budget of its national agricultural research systems.
Some hard analytical work is needed on the tough questions of how to determine the long-term scientific and financial sustainability of a national agricultural research system. At present, economists do not have a practical appraisal tool to determine what size national agricultural research system a borrower should aim for and to define the indicators of success for achieving long-term scientific and financial sustainability. There is a dearth of information on how to analyze the borrower's long-term capacity to sustain its national agricultural research system without donor support. Since the issue of sustainability is masked in the early years of donor projects, when the donor pays a large share of the project, many national agricultural research systems have added hundreds of scientists without realizing that once the infrastructure is built, the main cost of research is salaries.