Forum commits to producing more agriculture PhDs

Sixty vice-chancellors who constitute the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, RUFORUM, have committed to train 325 PhD students over the next five years through intra-African academic mobility.

“If we all meet to our commitment to train five students each with our own resources, we will have 375 PhDs by the end of five years,” Professor Mabel Imbuga, RUFORUM board chair and vice-chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, told the conference.

The RUFORUM members met for their 5th biennal conference from 17-21 October at Century City Conference Centre in Cape Town, South Africa.

Vice-chancellors expressed concern, among other issues, over a decline in supervision of students in the network, low publication rates and the failure of students to graduate on time. The need for a framework was proposed to guide and control the graduate throughput, against the backdrop of some universities failing to provide supervision, accommodation and stipends to students.

Training with impact

Outlining the forum’s recent achievements, Dr Moses Osiru, RUFORUM’s deputy executive secretary, said RUFORUM had facilitated the imparting of practical skills and farm orientation training to over more than 120 masters students and nearly 100 field attachments. Such training would have an impact on over 5,000 smallholder farmers, he said.

Osiru said the network had also facilitated the development of 10 new PhD and four MSc degree programmes.

Operational improvements had seen RUFORUM strengthening its internal information communication systems and the development of a communication strategy. University performance was boosted by tracking collected data.

The University of Cairo, which is the first North African member university, was officially welcomed, along with nine other new member institutions.

In a keynote address, African Union, or AU, Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma called for more support for RUFORUM, particularly as the organisation was growing rapidly.

Widespread support

“They are doing a lot of work, they are producing lots of students and skills in agriculture, so I think they need all the support we can give as the AU, but also as governments, as businesses and as parents of students,” she said.

Dlamini-Zuma told delegates that some challenges, which include access to higher education, could no longer be solved by African nations alone.

She tasked African universities to find fresh solutions to address issues such as the need for food for rapidly urbanising communities and called for innovations in agriculture that would attract young people into the field.

The AU chair echoed earlier comments by Dr Shadrack Moephuli, president of the Agricultural Research Council of South Africa, who said Africa must develop the kind of student who responds positively with energy and innovation to the challenge of enabling communities to adapt and survive.

It was announced that RUFORUM had secured 13 new grants amounting to US$60 million for member universities after implementing a new strategic business plan that had placed more emphasis on focused and selective partnerships. However, Professor Adipala Ekwamu, RUFORUM executive secretary, said the organisation needed much more to sustain its activities.

Dr Michael Hauser, president of Agrinatura, a grouping of European universities and research organisations supporting agricultural development, said the organisation supported the kind of science that made a difference to farmers, and the growth of universities aimed at growing innovation.

Transformative agriculture

Hauser said the grand challenges facing agriculture such as climate change, the loss of plant biodiversity, food security and inequality in many countries including Europe meant business as usual was no longer an option. He called for transformative agriculture.

“Is our research fit for the purpose? Are we asking the right questions? Does higher education really educate the change agent?” he asked.

Hauser said simply training students in agriculture was no longer sufficient.

“No matter how high the quality of the training we must train global citizens who are conscious of their actions and who act morally and... who look for global and local solutions,” he said.

Dr Yemi Akinbamijo, executive director for the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, said if Africa’s progress was to continue it would happen in one faculty and university at a time.

“We don’t wait for the manna to drop from above anymore,” he said.