Heads of state to support universities, fight hunger

A group of African heads of state have committed to working closely with African universities in the quest to end hunger on the continent. They undertook to support the institutions in their mission to train the personnel needed to drive African agriculture and to invest in the scientific research needed to thrive.

The presidents also pledged to increase investment in universities and the entire education value chain, and to equip Africa’s youth with the skills needed, not only for employment, but also for improving the continent’s food situation.

“We commit to invest strongly in the education value chain across universities and vocational colleges, to leverage secondary and primary education, to upgrade the skill levels of young people entering the labour force,” the leaders said in a declaration issued in Lilongwe, Malawi.

The leaders attended a virtual discussion on 2 July on university policy for strengthening resilient agri-food systems in Africa as a forerunner to a United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) dialogue later in 2021.

The discussion was chaired by Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera and attended by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, among other senior officials representing their various governments.

In particular, the presidents pledged to help operationalise the Strengthening Higher Agricultural Education in Africa (SHAEA) initiative, the Strengthening Africa’s Science Technology Innovation and Entrepreneurship Capacity for Agricultural and Economic Development, and the Building Africa’s Science, Technology and Innovation Capacity.

“We commit to work collaboratively with African universities and other actors, in and outside Africa, to marshal the needed capacity to strengthen Africa’s food systems and to scale up best practices, including […] increased value addition and [a] reduction in high post-harvest losses,” the presidents said in the declaration.

For Africa to realise its full agricultural potential, significant investments would have to be made in key “productivity-enhancing areas”, the leaders said. They reiterated their commitment to the African Union’s Science Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA 2024), a document meant to entrench science, technology and innovation (STI) in the continent’s development processes.

Calling the diaspora

Chakwera said that, for Africa to attain food security and bolster its food systems, it would need to “strengthen connectivity” between education and policymakers. This should be followed by support for the widening of the human-capital base and research capacity in universities and other institutions.

Africa is ready to welcome all its academics and scholars living and working in the diaspora to bring their knowledge and expertise to the continent and contribute to its growth, Chakwera said.

The host of the meeting, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), and other organisations should devise a way of tapping into the expertise held by the African diaspora community, Chakwera suggested.

“Africa welcomes ideas from its diaspora all over the world. We need to better the best of what we already have.”

Leila Mokaddem, the director general of the African Development Bank’s Southern Africa region, told attendees the continent could achieve agro-industrial transformation through investment in science and research.

This would not be possible, however, if the continent continues to neglect the STI sector by inadequate funding for research and development. The current continental allocation stood at an average of 0.4% of GDP, against the recommended average at least 1% of GDP and the global average of 1.7%, she observed.

According to Mokaddem, fewer than 34% of students at African universities are enrolled in science, technology, engineering and mathematics technology (STEM) programmes. This does not augur well for agriculture-led growth.

On the positive side, she noted the African Development Bank’s partnership with the government of South Korea and RUFORUM to implement a project to improve the quality of higher education on the continent under the Sharing Innovations and Experiences from Korea for Higher Education Transformation in Africa project.

Universities hold the key

Lobin Lowe, Malawi’s minister for agriculture, said African governments acknowledged that universities were pivotal in the design and implementation of sustainable food systems in Africa.

They are instrumental in attaining the “holistic” human capital development required for building an agricultural workforce capable of running the sector, including everything from production, research, and innovations, to entrepreneurship, he said.

In addition, the “interface” between policymakers and African universities had created a “powerhouse” that could generate knowledge and overcome barriers to change in the agriculture sector.

“This interface has culminated in this African Heads of State Dialogue which is consolidating the individual governments’ dialogues to address actions necessary for resilient and sustainable food systems for development,” Lowe said.

He added: “It is the ministers’ and universities of Africa’s belief that the science and policy interface dialogue will play a decisive role in uniting divergent views to overcome regional and sectoral fragmentation.”

The UNFSS dialogue is, indeed, timely and necessary for defining the needed pathways to transform food systems in Africa, he said.

Professor Adipala Ekwamu, executive secretary of RUFORUM, said that, under the UNFSS process, there was consensus that STI should drive sustainable development in Africa.

Africa’s UNFSS process, which culminated at last week’s event, has confirmed that the continent cannot meet its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGS) or the Agenda 2063 targets without embracing STI, Ekwamu said.

“As universities, we are committed to review our processes and approach to teaching, research and community engagement to ensure that it directly responds to development needs, is context-specific, fit for purpose and meets the expectations and requirements of all constituents.”

The UNFSS is part of the decade of action to achieve the SDGs by 2030. Its summit will launch new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems, Ekwamu said.

The process brings together key players from the worlds of science, business, policy, health care, and academia, as well as farmers, indigenous people, youth organisations, consumer groups, environmental activists, and other key stakeholders.