AFRICA: Improved agriculture, better food security

Lack of funding and staff freezes, low academic pay and large classes, inappropriate courses and lack of collaboration have undermined agriculture faculties in African universities. As a result they have been unable to contribute sufficiently to the Millennium Development Goals, according to Dr Guy Poulter, director of the Natural Resources Institute at the University of Greenwich in London.

Investment needs urgently to be channeled to faculties and colleges of agriculture so they can produce much-needed skills and drive agricultural innovation, he told the Association of Commonwealth Universities conference of executive heads in Cape Town last week.

Millennium Development Goals to halve poverty and hunger by 2015 are not going to be met unless there is investment in agriculture. Poulter said 80% of Africa's population depended on agriculture and 30% suffered from hunger daily. But extreme poverty and hunger could be reduced by introducing tailor-made solutions.

African governments and international donors had long neglected agriculture. This had begun to change in the new millennium, and in 2003 the Maputo Declaration committed African governments to invest 10% of their gross domestic product in agriculture.

But it was not until 2008 that the World Bank, in its annual development report, recognised need for greater investment in agriculture. "Donors and governments now agree that the MDGs might not be achieved unless support is given to agriculture," he said.

One of the reasons for the neglect of agricultural faculties was the difficult of demonstrating evidence of the impacts on agriculture of research and development programmes, which were long term and complex.

He described the impacts on universities as disastrous.

Poor funding eroded the enabling environment for agricultural researchers and development experts and the production of skills desperately needed to improve agricultural production. With staff recruitment frozen for decades, the academic cohort was approaching retirement, and academics were underpaid.

"You find that staff spend time on other activities to supplement incomes and the reward system favours scientific publications rather than outreach," Poulter said.

Class sizes grew bigger but faculties did not, and opportunties for students to gain practical experience in agriculture shrunk. A trend took hold for students to choose agriculture as a last result, if they failed to be selected for other courses, resulting in low-performing students being admitted.

Teaching of outdated curricula and methods became common. "Many universities run theoretical not practical masters and few are able to offer PhDs relevant to national development," Poulter said.

Another problem was poor collaboration in agricultural research between universities and national agricultural research institutes. Faculties of agriculture has limited scope to engage in high quality research that contributed to innovation and benefited students.

"There is need for local ownership of programmes as they are often seen as coming from the North and not mainstreamed in teaching, research or outreach in Africa. What is also needed is a critical review of the curriculum and teaching methods in universities," suggested Poulter.

But the assessment was not all gloom and doom.

Among other encouraging developments, a bachelor of science in rural innovation has been established at Makerere University in Uganda and the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, in Nigeria has started an agricultural communication masters course focusing on getting extension and marketing information to farmers.

Poulter said one way forward was to engage regional economic communities - such as the Economic Community of West African States and the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa - to support education and training in agriculture. He also called for stronger and targeted collaborative programmes between African universities and international development partners.