RUFORUM continues to grow but members ask – ‘Is it too big?’
RUFORUM, a network of several stakeholders collaborating to advance science, technology and innovation in Africa, added 20 new universities to the RUFORUM family during the 15th Annual General Meeting that took place at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana in December, bringing its membership to 125 universities in 38 member states.
At the same meeting, three countries – Sierra Leone, Eswatini and Liberia – signed up to the regional charter, established two years ago, which legitimates RUFORUM operations in a state and allows universities to benefit from regional initiatives.
“The reality is that no country can do it alone; we all need partnerships,” said Maureen Agena, corporate communications and advocacy officer for RUFORUM.
However, as membership expands across the continent and within countries, the bigger question is whether the regional network will be able to meet ongoing demand for its membership.
Instead of celebrating its growing size, some members said if the regional body gets too big it would be difficult for the organisation to balance benefits for all its member universities, causing some of them to “pull out”.
“It is getting too big. At some point you have to stop,” said Professor Samodimo S Ngwako, the dean of research and graduate studies at the Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
There are also fears that RUFORUM will gravitate away from its core vision, which was to focus on agriculture. “We started with agriculture, now we have moved to STI [science, technology and innovation] and we may even have to rename it,” said Ngwako, referencing what he perceived as a move away from the 2004 founding vision to create vibrant, transformative universities to catalyse sustainable, inclusive agricultural development to feed and create prosperity for Africa.
Dr Mary Shawa, a member of the executive committee of the RUFORUM board, said the membership process was rigorous and required universities to be accredited, financially sound and endorsed by the general assembly.
Each member university contributes an annual fee of US$5,000. There was an increase in total income from subscriptions from US$463,893 as at 30 June 2018 to US$573,702 on 30 June 2019.
“The more members we have, the more we can sustain the RUFORUM secretariat,” said Shawa.
Defending the inclusion of STI in RUFORUM’s programmes, Professor Eriabu Lugujjo, vice-chancellor of Ndejje University in Uganda, told University World News it was impossible during the current era of new innovations and technologies to focus on agriculture without integrating it with STI.
Professor Shalaulani James Nsoso, deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs and research at the Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Resources, suggested the organisation may need to “go regional”.
“It is becoming too big to manage. We are too diverse … We need to go regional,” he said.
This would require RUFORUM to have regional chapters to serve the different regions, with offices in each of the four geographical regions: East, West, Southern and North Africa. The secretariat would need to have staff representation from all regions.
Shawa said those asking to “go regional” could be missing the concept behind the consortium. “They do not understand the whole set-up. It is a continental body and we want it to be an all African network which delivers. The division is what we actually want to harness.”
Donors, whose funding makes up at least 90% of RUFORUM’s income (in the year ending 30 June 2019 grant income was US$3,342,806 of the total income of US$4,148,309), are pushing for an African body that is sustainable.
“Donors insist it should be an African network and say that, if you think it is viable, show us it is sustainable,” said Shawa. She said that after a review process in 2016, it was agreed that the organisation should be a continental rather than a fragmented network.
However, in 2018 the board, subject to funding and support from a potential host country, said it would consider regional offices or nodes with a priority focus on West and North Africa.
“There is a possibility of regional offices feeding into the secretariat. If we had money, we should have done that a long time ago,” said Shawa. So far the two people deputising for the executive director are from Uganda and Zambia, showing some progress towards regional representation in the secretariat, she said.