Too few agriculture students means fewer experts – Study

Recent research exploring the lacklustre uptake in formal agricultural studies at universities in Africa suggests that low enrolment by students is a key cause of a shortage of experts to drive the African development agenda, and points to the need for more programmes to promote agriculture to youth.

The study, conducted among University of Buea students in Cameroon, shows that a pre-university educational background in arts or science was a key determinant of students’ choice of university-level agricultural courses, with those from a scientific background more likely to venture into agriculture than their arts counterparts.

The findings of the research, led by Cynthia Mkong, lecturer in agricultural economics at the University of Buea, were presented in Ibadan, Nigeria, in November during a workshop on research dissemination in Africa, under the auspices of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA). The workshop was organised by IITA in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The study asserts that limited enrolments could be the start of a deficit in African agricultural experts and thus prove a possible bottleneck to the achievement of continental development goals such as the Malabo Declaration on African agriculture.

Results also revealed that students who had contacts with agricultural role models or experts were drawn towards agriculture as a result of their interaction with the experts. Additionally, the study found that there were more enrolments in agriculture at postgraduate level than undergraduate level.

Inadequate supply of critical skills

According to the African Capacity Building Foundation, the biggest challenge to Africa’s realisation of development goals, especially the African Union’s Agenda 2063, is the inadequacy in the supply of critical technical skills.

The foundation estimates that Africa should produce 8,000 agriculturalists and agricultural engineers annually until 2023 in order to drive Agenda 2063, if the continent is to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population.

“What we wanted to find out in this study are the causes for low intake in agricultural courses and why agriculture was not attractive to university students,” she said.

Mkong, who is also a research fellow of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, said the trend was worrying because agriculture is the backbone of most African economies.

“This limited uptake in formal agricultural training, especially in institutions of higher learning, is the main cause of the scarcity of experts to address the exigencies in the sector across the continent,” noted Mkong.

Orientation programmes

The study recommends orientation programmes in pre-university institutions of learning and secondary schools to stress the importance of the agricultural sector to African economies which could help raise awareness and assist students in making informed choices.

“Most of the young people enrolled in agricultural courses had it as a second or third choice after failing to meet the necessary requirements for enrolment in their preferred courses such as medicine,” said Mkong, adding that such awareness could increase students’ passion to pursue agriculture at institutions of higher learning.

She also said the influence of role models was missing. “Agricultural experts are not perceived in the same way as professionals such as medical doctors, civil engineers and musicians,” said Mkong.

Bose Idowu, a Nigerian graduate of animal science, said most young people have the wrong impression of agriculture, especially farming. Idowu, who runs a beans processing company in Ibadan, said that young people venturing into agriculture can help address African food insecurity problems such as post-harvest losses.

Farmers reaping profits

“We buy directly from farmers immediately they harvest and store the beans properly for longer periods,” said Idowu. Although she did not want to venture into agriculture initially, Idowu said that she has no regrets as she is reaping profits and has employed four youth on a permanent basis and several others as casuals.

Mkong told University World News that youth across Africa should use the resources that agriculture presents to their advantage.

“But mentorship is key here,” Mkong added, explaining that mentorship will help young people discover what is good in agriculture and could use it to venture into the sector.

She noted that high school teachers and university lecturers should promote awareness in students by depicting the sector as transformative for Africa.