Progress and problems for agricultural research – Study

Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural research capacity grew by 50% in the decade from 2000, to reach 14,500 researchers, and public agricultural research spending rose by more than one-third to US$1.7 billion. Still, the quality and quantity of agricultural research outputs is being constrained by underinvestment, inadequate human resources, poor infrastructure and lack of coherent research policies, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute.

Nienke Beintema, head of Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators, or ASTI – a key programme of the institute – noted that low wages and poor conditions of service have also affected research output in the region.

“We have also witnessed high researcher turnover across Africa and the situation is likely to be aggravated by the approaching retirement of senior researchers in many countries,” Beintema told University World News in an interview.

A worry is that more than a third of the 14,500 full-time agricultural researchers in the region are in only three countries – Nigeria with 2,688 agricultural researchers, followed by Ethiopia (1,877) and Kenya (1,151).

Of 38 countries included in ASTI’s analysis, 10 employed fewer than 100 full-time researchers each. In 2011 Namibia had 89, Sierra Leone 82, Gambia 66, Mauritania 63, Liberia 45, Gabon 43, Lesotho 41, Swaziland 27, Cape Verde 21 and Guinea-Bissau nine.

Growth in researcher numbers across countries was primarily driven by the recruitment of junior staff with only bachelor degrees, and in a number of Sahel countries – Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal – there were rapid decreases in researcher numbers from 2008-11.

Beintema said that many African countries, especially smaller ones, were seriously challenged by underinvestment and human resource capacity.

Also, agricultural research and development in Sub-Saharan Africa is highly dependent on donor funding compared to other developing regions in the world.

“Donor dependency and funding volatility will continue to be linked to the low agricultural research output in Sub-Saharan Africa, taking into account that donor assistance and partnership there is highly skewed towards short-term goals,” said Beintema.

Some statistics

One significant current drawback of African agricultural research output is related to heavy reliance on researchers without PhD degree qualifications.

According to a late-2014 study,Taking Stock of National Agricultural R&D Capacity in Africa South of the Sahara, conducted by Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads, a senior programme manager at the International Food Policy Research Institute, the distribution of researchers by qualification level has shifted over time toward scientists holding bachelor and masters qualifications.

“This is mostly because of retirements and staff leaving for better paid positions in their countries or as a result of brain drain,” Beintema told University World News.

This, along with recruitment restrictions, resulted in the loss of considerable experience and expertise in many Sub-Saharan African countries.

The supply of PhD researchers in agriculture is way too low.

According to the report, of the countries that submitted a complete set of degree-level data on their researchers to ASTI, only five had proportions of PhD-qualified researchers of more than 40%. They are Benin, Burkino Faso, Madagascar, Senegal and Swaziland.

Five other countries – Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Lesotho and Mozambique – reported proportions of PhD-qualified researchers of 10% or lower, while Eritrea is reported as having one of the youngest and least qualified pools of agricultural researchers on the continent.

Interestingly, whereas the absolute number of African agricultural researchers increased by 50% between 2000 and 2011, the regional share of agricultural researchers with PhD degrees fell from 25% to 22%.

“A worrisome trend is that 13 of the 30 countries for which long-term data on agricultural researchers by degree qualification were made available to ASTI, reported a decline in the absolute number of PhD-qualified researchers,” noted the report.

In contrast, the number of junior researchers with only a bachelor degree increased in several countries including Ethiopia, Botswana, Guinea and Tanzania.

Beintema pointed out that building the capacity of researchers to the doctoral level was very expensive and so some small countries in Sub-Saharan Africa did not offer any PhD training in agricultural sciences.

Although universities employ a much higher share of scientists with PhDs compared with agricultural research institutes, lecturers have little time to conduct research as they are primarily engaged in teaching large student populations.

However, a growing core of PhD researchers in universities is a valuable resource with future potential for African agricultural research.

Gender imbalance

Commenting on female participation in agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa, Stads said women were grossly underrepresented, especially in francophone Africa.

“Whereas Southern African countries employ relatively more female researchers than other areas, representation of women in agricultural research in West Africa, as well as in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo, is particularly low,” said Stads.

Across the board, there seems to be little difference in the percentages of female researchers by qualifications level. For instance in 2011, the ASTI database shows 21% of female researchers with bachelor qualifications, 25% with masters degrees and 20% with PhDs.

Other indicators showed that while women in Sub-Saharan Africa traditionally face unique challenges in pursuing careers in agricultural research – as a result of unequal access to basic education as well as cultural belief systems that promote the perception that women are not suited for careers in the sciences – there are positive trends.

According to the report, 25% of all researchers aged 40 years or younger were women while only 13% of researchers aged above 50 years were female. “This could be an indicator that agricultural research and development is becoming increasingly gender-balanced with more and more young women becoming involved,” noted the report.

More investment needed

Not much progress in agricultural research output is expected in Sub-Saharan Africa unless countries are willing to invest more money in research.

“After a decade of stagnation in the 1990s, public agricultural research and development spending in Sub-Saharan Africa increased by more than one-third in real terms, from US$1.2 billion in 2000 to US$1.7 billion in 2011, measured in constant 2005 purchasing power parity dollars,” according to the report.

But about half of these investments were made in just three countries – Nigeria (US$394 million), South Africa (US$237 million) and Kenya (US$188 million).

“Close to half the regional growth in public agricultural R&D expenditures was attributable to increased spending in just two countries – Nigeria and Uganda.”

According to Beintema, Africa continues to invest about 0.5% of agricultural output in agricultural research, which is below the African Union target of 1% or more. A high 28 out of 38 countries in the sub-region for which data were available fell short of the minimum research investment target of 1% of agricultural gross domestic product.

Beintema pointed out that African countries could improve agricultural research output by increasing the retirement age of experienced researchers to 65 years from the current 55 years. The ability to employ retired researchers as consultants could also be a valuable approach to training junior scientists and to increasing agricultural research output.

But such stopgap measures could only mean slow improvements in research in African countries, certainly not at a level that could drive the region forward towards robust research outputs that could accelerate much-needed agricultural growth.