Research on food security in need of more collaboration

African universities have been conducting most of their agricultural research focused on their home countries, but mostly lacking in a transdisciplinary or multidisciplinary approach. At the same time, collaborations are formed mostly with foreign counterparts rather than with colleagues at home or from elsewhere on the continent. Most of the work is conducted by male researchers.

In a study of agriculture themes, teams hosted by the University of Pretoria’s African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) also found that research tended to concentrate on basic food production and a few staple crops, thereby neglecting a whole range of other critical food security crops.

The teams, each led by a professor assisted by a postdoctoral fellow, studied research trends at the University of Pretoria (UP) in South Africa, the University of Ghana (UoG), and the University of Nairobi (UoN) in Kenya. Their findings were presented at the ARUA-SFS Science Days and High-Level Colloquium hosted by the University of Pretoria on 24 August.

The teams also found that transdisciplinary research or even cooperation between faculties within the same institution or between partner universities remain a challenge.

Consequently, there are research gaps related to various aspects of the agricultural sciences. These could likely only be filled if academia adopted a more collaborative approach to research and forged more partnerships with universities within their own countries and within Africa.

Research does not focus on indigenous crops

“While we noted that universities had the capacity to do research in agriculture, and that different faculties did research in food crops, we also observed that most collaborations were with European and American universities,” said Dr Sussy Munialo, a postdoctoral fellow attached to the Improving Africa’s Crops cluster of the centre at the University of Nairobi.

“The University of Pretoria, however, had higher levels of collaboration with African partners compared to the University of Ghana and the University of Nairobi,” she added.

More than 5,000 journal articles on food crops were found to have been published by various researchers at the three universities, and they were predominantly published by men.

The teams found that research centred on maize, with little work done on indigenous African crops. It further centred on the production science of the crop, including aspects such as biotechnology and genomics, and disease and pest control, Munialo said.

“There was little research work done on the crop’s value chain, such as transportation and logistics, the land tenure system or finance, and certainly nothing on concepts such as machine learning. There were also very few studies on urban food systems,” said Munialo, who worked under cluster lead Professor Cecilia Onyango.

Even as several faculties engaged in food crops research at the institutions, few collaborations were noted across faculties between institutions. She recommends that more transdisciplinary research partnerships be encouraged to close existing knowledge gaps, and that this would also serve to give the research work more visibility.

Looking beyond national issues

The UoG had more research done by females compared to the UP and the UoN, but most of its collaborations were with UK-based researchers, according to findings presented by Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi, a postdoctoral fellow at the UP attached to the Safe, Nutritious, Consumer-driven Food research group led by Professor Hettie Schönfeldt.

The three universities observed by Vilakazi had good partnerships within their regions, with the UoG doing joint research with partners in Nigeria and Cameroon, while the UoN and the UP did well collaborating with Eastern and Southern African colleagues, respectively.

“Even then, the University of Pretoria had much broader collaborations compared to the other two institutions,” Vilakazi said.

The South African university also had the least of its research strictly focused on national issues at 65%, compared to the UoN, where 93% of research was on national questions, and the UoG, which had 83% of its work devoted to the same, said Dr Elmer Ametefe, a postdoctoral researcher from the Ghanaian university.

Ametefe works on Evidence-led Policy for Sustainable Food Systems under Professor Irene Egyir, and found that 76% of publications by the UoN were in the form of theses, while 75% of those by the UoG were journal articles and 70% by the UP were research articles.

Only 26% of work done at the UoN was transdisciplinary in nature, while a higher figure of 34% was recorded at the UP.

In terms of gender, the UP also fared better, with females representing 38% of research produced, compared to the UoN and the UoG which each had 70% of research under the theme coming from males.

Held under the theme ‘From Food Security to Sustainable Food Systems: Addressing the challenges and ensuring institutional alignment’, the colloquium sought to put the initiative under a spotlight as an emerging pan-African and transdisciplinary platform for research and academic excellence while addressing Africa’s pressing food systems challenges.