Key role for universities in agricultural innovation

Higher education plays a key role in providing young people with access to employment and micro-business opportunities in Africa, according to experts at a recent summit held in Cape Town, South Africa.

Preliminary findings show that the agricultural sector is set to create eight million stable jobs by 2020 and up to 14 million if growth in the sector is accelerated.

Analysts believe that the sector will have to feature prominently in development plans for Africa if the continent hopes to achieve a prosperous future for its young people.

“Almost 40% of the new jobs in this decade are expected to come from agriculture. It is expected to remain high in the next decade, through to 2030,” said Louise Fox, a visiting professor of development practice at University of California, Berkeley, USA.

At current rates of growth, she added, “it has to be the sector of the opportunity”.

The summit, dubbed Young Africa Works, attracted hundreds of participants including government officials, business executives and representatives from civil society as well as international donors and youth delegates.

It centred on unemployment among youth and how to prepare them to create entrepreneurship opportunities in agriculture.

A role for higher education

Participants stressed the significant role of higher education institutions in alleviating poverty, especially in rural areas, in light of changing market demands. They called on institutions to initiate and lead in articulating a vision for the future.

“I think higher education has a very powerful role to play on several levels,” said Reeta Roy, president and chief executive officer of the Toronto-based MasterCard Foundation, which hosted the summit and has committed billions of dollars to programmes in Africa.

“Number one, the future of the agricultural sector is all about science, technology and education and there’s no better place to propel that type of growth than through knowledge, which is created at the higher education institutions,” she told University World News.

“So they have a role to educate and prepare the future entrepreneurs who are coming through the education system – whether at undergraduate or masters level.”

According to Roy, universities need to become even more productive in terms of generating research – around seed technologies, better planting methods, ways of analysing soil, and understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change – “because much of what is going to happen in the agricultural sector has to do with operating within a knowledge-based global economy”.

Universities have been accused, in Africa and elsewhere, of not responding quickly enough to changing market needs in terms of skills. However, many are starting up incubators aimed at creating new technologies that can be commercialised and contribute towards industrial growth.

“There needs to be a greater level of investment, in terms of both technical and scientific training, as well as practical applied experiences for young people so that what they are learning can be put into a workplace environment,” Roy said.

Science for agriculture

About 60% to 70% of people in Africa are involved in agriculture, with the vast majority living in rural areas. In this context, the relationship between higher education and rural development becomes an important policy concern, particularly in countries where the revitalisation of rural areas represents a critical challenge.

“I don’t think the continent has taken a lot of advantage of the potential benefits that science could bring,” said Irene Annor-Frempong, director of capacity strengthening and networking at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, who has also worked with universities to build capacity in agricultural research and development.

She said there was a wave of interest within African countries in what science could bring to agriculture and how young people could be involved.

“Some African countries have policies that we need to leverage and deploy in order to get young people to be part and parcel of science for agriculture,” she said, adding: “We are talking about science for agriculture – not agriculture science. We are currently talking about commercialising technologies.”

To perform an active and constructive role in job creation and food security, delegates reiterated the need for agricultural universities, and other higher learning institutions alike, to adjust their curricular programmes to accommodate new topics, as well as teaching and learning models. They would also need to forge new partnerships.

Thelma Namonje, a 30-year-old graduate of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program at Michigan State University in the US, believes this generation can end the global scourge of food insecurity if practical strategies and solutions are developed to enable young people in Africa to embrace sustainable agriculture.

Most higher education institutions had curricula that were so specific that it might take a long time to make changes, she said.

However, there were research institutions and NGOs helping farmers, and governments were offering extension services on how to adapt to climate change issues, said Namonje, now a research associate at the Zambia-based Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute.

“Technology is actually key to engaging youth more in agriculture,” said Rita Kimani, co-founder of FarmDrive, a start-up enterprise that provides innovative technology-led solutions for smallholder farmers to access sustainable finance by helping them build credit profiles from their daily transactions – information that is used by financial institutions to inform their lending decisions.

According to a study conducted over the past six months, some 600 million people in Africa are under the age of 25 and 72% of young people live on less than US$2 per day.

Namonje said the MasterCard Foundation was contributing significantly to youth empowerment in Africa, referring to the foundation’s 10-year, US$500 million programme that hopes to inspire young people through education, including a scholarship that funds African undergraduate and posthgraduate students.

The Zambian scholar was among the first cohort of students to enrol in the programme. “They are setting an example here in Africa,” she said. “Let’s prioritise youth because we are the future generation.”