Farmers’ needs in danger of being neglected in research

An increase over the past decade in the overall number of higher education agencies involved in agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa has a downside: fragmentation of national research systems and a potential shift away from the applied needs of farmers, according to the authors of a new report on agricultural research on the continent.

The report by the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators, or ASTI, initiative and the International Food Policy Research Institute, or IFPRI, shows that universities play an increasingly important role in agricultural research with the overall number of higher education agencies involved in agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa having grown considerably over the past decade through the creation of new universities or new departments and faculties within existing universities.

Released in April 2017 and authored by ASTI initiative head Nienke Beintema and ASTI Programme Manager Gert-Jan Stads, the report entitled A Comprehensive Overview of Investments and Human Resource Capacity in African Agricultural Research assesses trends in investments, human resource capacity, and outputs in agricultural research in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding the private (for-profit) sector.

It notes that in 1991, university-based scientists accounted for 15% of Africa’s agricultural researchers. This share had risen to 20% in 2000, and close to 30% in 2014. This trend has provided many benefits, key among them being an increase in the number of PhD-qualified researchers in the higher education sector and increased training opportunities.

However, Beintema told University World News the downside of the increase in university-based research capacity was a further fragmentation of national agricultural research systems, and a potential shift away from the applied research needs of farmers to more specialised basic research.

Stads said it was essential that governments strengthen the institutional, financial, and infrastructural foundations of national agricultural research institutes, so they can more effectively address farm productivity challenges and poverty issues.

Stads noted that public investment in the agricultural sector more than doubled during 2000-14 after neglect in prior decades. Agricultural research spending also grew, but at a considerably slower rate. New public agricultural funding has gone into areas other than research. As a result agricultural research spending had lagged behind, despite well-documented high returns to such investments in Africa.

He said governments should provide the necessary policy framework environment to stimulate cooperation among the country’s agricultural research agencies in order to maximise synergies and efficiencies in the use of the scarce resources available to universities and government agencies.

“In addition, governments must take action to ensure that improved varieties and technologies released by the national agricultural research institutes and universities are disseminated to and adopted by farmers. This involves strengthening extension agencies and more clearly delineating the roles of national agricultural research institutes and extension agencies to actively promote cooperation,” said Stads.

According to Jane Ambuko, lecturer in the department of plant science and crop protection at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, many African countries still suffered an “ivory tower syndrome” when it came to translating research findings into policy and practice.

“Universities are charged with conducting research through postgraduate students and by faculty to develop technologies and innovations that transform rural livelihoods. Through community outreach and innovation facilitation, the universities are supposed to lead agricultural transformation by supporting the smallholder farmers in partnership with other actors such as researchers, extension workers and policy-makers to increase productivity, add value and market agricultural products,” she told University World News.

However, the role of universities was less visible than it should be, partly owing to the fact that universities have only recently started the shift towards relevance. She said graduates did not possess appropriate skills to facilitate development processes at community level.

Ambuko said research conducted by most universities did not directly address the needs of the agricultural sector, but was geared towards scientific contribution rather than development. In cases where research may be relevant, university researchers were often not able to translate their research into a language understood by policy-makers or farmers.

“University researchers and students still have the ivory tower syndrome and need … to co-learn and jointly conduct research with farmers, collaborate among themselves both regionally and globally to improve the quality of their programmes and to build strong faculty to support practical teaching solutions that address their needs,” Ambuko said.