Food security – How can universities maximise their impact?

African universities were challenged to advance food security on the continent through capacity building, collaborative research and skills development during a recent virtual online meeting hosted by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).

In his opening remarks on the webinar on 7 September, titled “Engaging African universities in advancing agricultural and food and nutrition security in Africa”, Professor Adipala Ekwamu, executive secretary of RUFORUM, affirmed the networks’ commitment to participating in the Africa-EU Food and Nutrition Security Roadmap, a research and innovation partnership adopted in Addis Ababa in 2016, and its implementation protocols.

He also called for the European Commission, through its Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, which is responsible for policy design and aid delivery throughout the world, to give more support to capacity building and research of food systems in Africa.

He noted that current challenges such as climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread unemployment, especially among women and youth, had intensified the responsibility of African universities in developing sustainable interventions and innovations in the agriculture, food and nutrition sector.

Representing the African Union Commission, Dr Godfrey Bahiigwa, who was also the webinar moderator, said the African Union values the fundamental role played by universities in educating practitioners and researchers, and in generating knowledge. He said African universities had a role to play in guiding governments and development partners on policy choices and transformation agendas such as the Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme.

Collaborative efforts

South African Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza said academia had a pivotal role in fostering innovative and responsive research in African agriculture.

She highlighted some of the critical research efforts created through partnerships between the European Commission and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) in South Africa which had committed US$2.5 million per year towards centres of research and through the establishment of synergies with various universities focusing on research development, technology, innovation and public awareness.

In partnership with the ARC, the University of the Free State and Durban University of Technology were involved in developing new food sources from underutilised and neglected food sources, providing scientific information, nutritional evidence, and training students at postgraduate level.

Other institutions such as the University of South Africa and University of Pretoria were collaborating partners in climate change research, while the University of Limpopo, University of Fort Hare and University of Pretoria were collaborating partners in the field of agricultural economics.

According to Liberian Minister of Agriculture Jeanine Milly Cooper, COVID-19 was a “wake-up call” triggering the disruption of global and regional supply chains and prompting the government to look inwards and fast-track partnerships to complete crop and soil laboratories at the University of Liberia, William VS Tubman University and the Central Agricultural Research Institute – all of which were part of efforts to develop sustainable food systems, among other interventions.

International and regional support mainly from the EU and RUFORUM had allowed universities in Malawi to conduct research in several fields including fisheries and aquaculture, food safety and climate sciences at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Speaking on behalf of Lobin Lowe, the minister of agriculture in Malawi, Erica Maganga said over 110 students at the University of Agriculture and Natural Resources had benefited from grants funded by RUFORUM to pursue masters and other postgraduate programmes.

Relationship with governments

Professor Hamadi Iddi Boga, the deputy minister of agriculture and fisheries in Kenya, said despite the potential and capacity in universities to assist government work, one major drawback was a lack of institutionalisation of the relationship between government and academia. He called for a more structured way of involving university expertise to ensure that policymakers do not forget the importance of research and universities.

The importance of linking research to policy and adopting a holistic approach in building African food systems was also highlighted by Leonard Mizzi, head of food security systems in the European Union.

He said there was a need to consider social dynamics and to prioritise, from an African university perspective, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rural value chains and rural urban linkages, and, going forward, to focus on innovative ideas which could become marketable within the context of the digital agenda.

Malawi country representative and scientist, Dr Patrick Okiri, who was the discussant during the webinar, said it was imperative for higher learning institutions and governments to adopt an “ecosystem way of framing our farm-to-the-fork way of doing business”.

With Africa carrying a huge chunk of the effects of climate change and with the drawbacks brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, African universities had to play a transformative role in supporting policy to generate evidence, design and influence growth, said Okiri.

Africa could capitalise on the emergence of agricultural universities, on the change from individual research systems towards national research systems. As reflected in Makerere University in Uganda, there was capacity for African universities to become “think-tanks” through which coordination, intellectual support and research would result in sustainable food systems, he said.