Agriculture training key to meeting continental needs

Higher education in agriculture must provide training that allows Africa to feed itself, accommodate women, advise policy-makers, make use of innovative technologies, multiply fully trained researchers and turn research results into practice.

This was the central message from the biennial meeting of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, RUFORUM, held in the Mozambican capital Maputo from 19-25 July. RUFORUM is a grouping of 42 member universities and 19 countries that oversees graduate training and networks of specialisation in agriculture.

The biennial conference coincided with RUFORUM’s 10th year of existence. The theme was “African Higher Education Week: Celebrating the contribution of African universities and partners to agricultural development in Africa”.

Holding the anniversary conference in Maputo was special – it was there that African heads of state signed the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, or CAADP, a blueprint to achieve 6% economic growth through agricultural transformation.

Producing high-level skills

RUFORUM uses competitive sub-grants and specialised training sessions to produce graduates who can do research that benefits smallholder farmers.

Since starting it has produced 1,283 postgraduates, of whom 1,071 are masters of science and 212 are PhDs. The forum awards 40% of the grants to women.

Professor Adipala Ekwamu, executive secretary of RUFORUM, told the delegates at the opening ceremony that the collectively owned initiative for universities must be a constant reference point for improving agriculture in Africa.

He said the organisation had come a long way since the three-year seed grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and RUFORUM’s first strategic planning in 2005.

Ekwamu said the future in Africa would remain bright only if academics committed to effective mentoring of the students.

“We need mutual learning, and sharing of experiences at universities so as to use human capital experiences of our countries,” said Professor Levi Nyagura, chair of the RUFORUM board and vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe.

Nyagura called for more support for regional centres of academic excellence and doctoral training in agriculture.

RUFORUM was willing to work with African governments and to be a player in finding the solutions sought by the African Union to resolve issues of food security and empowerment of smallholder farmers.

Technology, education essential

“No country has been able to support its rapid rise from poverty in agriculture without investment in technology," said Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa – FARA – Executive Director Dr Yemi Akinbamijo.

“Production is driven by innovation and innovation is driven by technology,” he added.

Akinbamijo was concerned about the quality and the kind research that researchers produce. “Basic science is not about the number of researchers but what they do and how they do it,” he said.

African Union Commission Chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said Africa must invest much more in education, science, research and technology to meet its development targets and claim its stake in the world and the knowledge economy.

She said that in order to ensure they reach the critical mass of learners necessary to accelerate the development agenda, African higher education institutions needed to supplement the traditional approach of face-to-face learning by opening up knowledge generation in virtual spaces using information and communication technologies.

Dlamini-Zuma said the focus must be on people as they are Africa’s biggest resource. She said countries that did well produced engineers in large numbers. “I think the universities we have are not enough to achieve the revolution we need,” she said.

Graça Machel, president of the Foundation for Community Development, agreed and said: “If we train and equip our graduates with the right skills, then we can reach our full potential and eradicate poverty rather than reducing it.”

“Africa needs to make strides towards funding our own budgets. Your granary will never be filled by your neighbours. There is a need to exploit the available resources and learning to take responsibility for own actions,” she said, warning against over-reliance on donor funding for research and development projects.

Machel wanted academics to take up the challenge of producing innovations that would alleviate the suffering of rural women and make sure no child went to bed hungry. Also, academics should help governments, which might not always know the magnitude of investment required.

The conference was co-organised by RUFORUM, Eduardo Mondlane University, the Mozambique Institute of Agricultural Research, the Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa, and the government of Mozambique.