Realizing the Promise and Potential of African Agriculture

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.

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.

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  • 3. Creating and Retaining a New Generation of Agricultural Scientists

    Recommendation 3.1: Focus on current and future generations of scientists in Africa

    A greater effort must be made to retain current and future generations of African scientists to reduce the brain drain, rather than trying to regain the current African scientific Diaspora. This can be done by implementing policies that create more personally and professionally rewarding scientific opportunities in Africa. This will require competitive levels of compensation, opportunities to advance professionally based on rigorous but fair and transparent evaluation systems, well-equipped laboratories, access to current global sources of scientific information, and adequate operating funds. Professional growth funds should be available to actively encourage and enable young scientists to attend international conferences, summer institutes in Africa conducted by renowned professors, workshops and seminars in order to enhance their professional competence and self-confidence by interactions with peers.

    There is scope for effective and efficient capacity building and strengthening the involvement and commitment of advanced research institutions and organizations by 'sandwich programs,' institutional twinning and visiting scientist arrangements using the proposed African centres of agricultural research excellence and advanced research institutes. Professional associations of agricultural scientists should be strengthened and encouraged to develop in Africa and to become more politically aware and constructive policy advocates. To stimulate professionalism, it has become essential that codes of conduct/ethics are developed and enforced by the professional associations as a condition of membership. In an era of expansion of the scope of intellectual property rights and genetic engineering, and marketing of proprietary products (e.g., pesticides and biochemicals), this has now become an urgent need.

    The number of young scientists completing overseas graduate programs and returning home to pursue careers in national institutions can be increased if on arrival they have access to modern scientific infrastructure, information and communications technology (ICT), adequate research funding, and attractive monetary and non-monetary incentives. The ICT private sector could be especially helpful in this respect. To enhance the professional motivation and social recognition of agricultural scientists in the national agricultural research systems and universities, a professional career service is required to provide recognition and reward for outstanding and innovative scientists. Leadership training should be a feature of the career services. The scientific infrastructure for effective and lasting academic partnerships includes post-degree networking and mentoring. Start-up research grants and a clear career path are key elements in a strategy to reduce further brain drain. The priority aim would be to cultivate young African scientists rather than expect senior academics and researchers to leave the Diaspora and return permanently to Africa.

    Recommendation 3.2: Broaden and deepen political support for agricultural science

    Real improvement in agricultural education and research requires strong support from top political leaders. A coalition of supportive agricultural constituencies must be formed, including farmers associations, producer groups, national agribusiness companies, educators and researchers. Deans of agricultural faculties and directors of research must become more politically savvy and entrepreneurial, building political support among farmers, government ministers and donors. The international agricultural research centres, such as International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR) could assist this process by provision of leadership and media communications training.

    Recommendation 3.3: Reform university curricula

    To improve the effectiveness of agricultural scientists, the undergraduate curricula of agricultural universities should also stress production ecological and multidisciplinary approaches to better prepare them for the innovation, information, knowledge and education quadrangle. Students should be better sensitized to the socio-economic and policy environments in which agricultural development occurs and in which they will be working during their careers, including the role of gender. Virtual universities and colleges on a regional basis could be resource centres for such a pedagogic revolution to better prepare students to collaborate with colleagues in related fields and to competently bridge the gaps separating farmers, educators, researchers and extensionists. The aim would be to supplement narrow disciplinary-based 'bamboo' graduates with more holistic 'baobab' graduates with a problem-solving focus. Field research work with farmers using participatory approaches, exposure to indigenous knowledge systems and linking them to modern science, would be of great value in many areas. Strong training in information and communication technology is essential. Disciplinary specialists will continue to be required for the strategic research challenges of the future. These skills will be primarily developed at post-graduate levels.

    Recommendation 3.4: Mobilize increased and sustainable funding for higher education in science and technology, minimizing dependence on external donor support

    Curricula reform, improving faculty and scientist compensation, and modernizing teaching and research infrastructure are expensive, and require stable funding over time. Lasting improvements in higher education in the agricultural sciences must ultimately be funded from national resources.

    There is an urgent need for increased investment in and enhancement of both the numbers of students and quality of agricultural education (i.e. science, food, processing, natural resource management, rural development) at primary, secondary and tertiary levels. The international financial institutions, United Nations and bilateral agencies should play a particularly important role in this revolution in education. The African Land Grant University model may need to be reinvented as part of this, with the focus on strengthening and adapting existing universities rather than creation of additional ones.

    African educators need to become much more familiar with experiences in educational reform throughout the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America. But models used elsewhere can rarely be imported successfully. Rather they need adaptation to fit local political, social, institutional and economic environments. Participatory planning and close monitoring to guide mid-term corrections are essential. Human and institutional capacity building is a gradual and often incremental process that takes time to have real impact.

    There is good scope to explore the potential for efficiencies in regional graduate training models. The large number of small countries in Africa means it is often difficult for individual universities to achieve a critical mass of teachers in specialized areas such as biotechnology. Appropriately designed regional training approaches may provide a solution. However, rather than creating new regional institutions, self-initiated efforts-building 'regional specializations' within existing universities and then developing networked training programs that attract students from a regional watershed - are generally more successful. Such initiatives may initially rely on external support for design, launch and fine-tuning, but must generate adequate national or regional resources to be sustained over time. They must be professionally competitive with global training alternatives; they must have strong buy-in and commitment for regional cooperation from a critical mass of partner universities; and they have to do business in a fully transparent, apolitical, unbiased and accountable manner.

    Because of greater relevance, lower cost, less attrition and the residual long-term benefits of strengthening national institutions, priority should ideally be to provide graduate training in African universities whenever competitive programs exist. Foreign degree programs should generally be reserved for highly specialized areas where competitive programs have not yet been developed. Sandwich-training approaches, already alluded to in Recommendation 3.1, should be adapted where appropriate - to lower costs, increase the relevance of thesis research and to increase graduate returnee rates. The international agricultural research centres in Africa already provide opportunities for thesis research.

    Recommendation 3.5: Strengthen science education at primary and secondary school levels

    An essential base on which to support the emergence of future generations of agricultural scientists, educators and indeed farmers, is stronger science training from the start. Improved curricula focusing on agriculture, and combining the best of modern and indigenous scientific knowledge, can help attract the brightest young Africans into the agricultural sciences and farming. A special emphasis must be placed on improving the accessibility and friendliness of science training to young women. Farm science schools where the pedagogic methodology is 'learning by doing' are urgently needed for the knowledge and skills empowerment of semi-literate and illiterate farmers.

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