Curriculum changes could help to fight hunger in Africa

Universities in Africa have been teaching content and conducting research that is not relevant to the agriculture sector on the continent, making it hard for their efforts to have an impact in defeating persistent hunger.

The problem of hunger and food insecurity has persisted, despite the rise in the number of universities on the continent, many of them offering various programmes related to the agricultural sector.

This, said Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) scholar Daimon Kambewa, was because what universities taught was not geared to solving challenges faced by African farmers in their efforts to produce food.

Until this “mismatch” was addressed, hunger faced by millions of people around the continent was unlikely to be eliminated in the near future, the researcher noted.

“The main challenge is that universities are teaching and researching issues that are irrelevant to the problems farmers face. This can be addressed by redesigning curricula to become more problem-solving oriented,” he added.

In addition, it would require a shift in universities’ approach to research, realigning it from a top-down approach to a bottom-up orientation. This, he explained, would require that researchers learn to listen to problems faced by food producers and directly work with them to find solutions.

Agriculture in Africa faced numerous challenges, including lack of investment in supporting infrastructure, a lack of adequate human capacity, and low research support, Kambewa told University World News in an interview following a dialogue on farming and sustainable development hosted virtually by the Alliance for African Partnership (AAP), as part of a series of discussions on pertinent global questions.

The AAP was co-created by Massachusetts State University (MSU) with US and African thought leaders in 2016 and is a consortium of MSU and 10 leading African universities.

While it is a fact that research across Africa is largely underfunded at both university and non-academic research institutions level, this should not be reason enough for the low production of research among the academia, said the associate professor of extension studies, which is about providing advice to farmers.

“It is true that research is underfunded, but there is a lot of funding around. The problem is the capacity to attract funding and to use the funds to do research,” he opined.

Farmer Research Network

On the other hand, knowledge that universities produce hardly reaches policy-makers and, even more critically, end users which in this case are the farmers. This could be attributed to aloofness on the part of academia and the research community in general.

This, Kambewa said, was also because universities have always worked in a top-down model, where the experts “think they know all” and only have to transfer knowledge to policy-makers and to the grassroots.

“However, in my university (LUANAR), we are changing this to more policy dialogue and engagement, as well as engaging with communities in research to co-generate knowledge,” he said.

The Malawi university has become an ally of farmers in extending, sharing and engaging with them and doing research together with them for better outcomes, the academic said.

The time had also come for learning institutions to begin offering agriculture extension services to farmers, to supplement largely underfunded government extension services, he added.

Kambewa said the university worked with communities on research.

“It is now common for us to organise farmers in what is known as Farmer Research Networks. Through these networks, farmers, extension workers [providing support and advice to farmers], and researchers work together on soil fertility technologies that are suitable for specific environments.

“It is now clear that we don’t promote blanket recommendations, but specific innovations for different farmers and environments,” he added.