Networks are the way for universities to influence policy

If African universities want more of the knowledge that they generate from their research to be implemented, they should focus on building networks and alliances with institutions such as international and multilateral organisations and others whose word governments often pay attention to.

“Governments are often rigid and difficult to change or influence; therefore, as universities, you need to build networks and coalitions to help you push an agenda through,” said renowned Malawian scholar Professor Richard Mkandawire, who is also the Africa director of the Alliance for African Partnership and chair of the Malawi Planning Commission.

Mkandawire says governments in Africa tend to listen to foreign organisations because many of them are funders of research initiatives on the continent, and ignore the voices of poorly funded universities whose research capacity is also limited.

“It is sad but true that research and development in Africa will continue to be driven by big interests due to a lack of state funding for local institutions. However, whenever you want to influence things within the government, do not exclude [foreigners] because some leaders pay so much attention to their interests,” Mkandawire said.

Mkandawire also told attendees during the second day of the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems (ARUA-SFS) hosted by the University of Pretoria on 24 August that institutions should form policy research institutes to help them change policy and have a voice in how decisions in their countries are made.

Nevertheless, he said, universities should continue conducting research that is focused on the majority of Africa’s primary producers – smallholder farmers.

Knowledge not adequately commercialised

Dr Stefano Marras, Bayer Crop Science’s director of global partnerships, said that, for Africa to develop, both the public and private sectors had to support universities to continue providing basic research, which is also the basis for research that can be commercialised by companies in the form of end-consumer products.

Marras noted that, sadly, 99% of knowledge produced by universities ended up not being commercialised, despite being useful.

He added that African universities should focus more of their research on initiatives that support women and the youth, besides smallholder farmers.

Similar sentiments were shared by Dr Thandi Mgwebi, the deputy vice-chancellor, research, innovation and internationalisation at South Africa’s Nelson Mandela University, who said research into rural technologies that would help women engage in food production was urgently needed.

Mgwebi reminded attendees that the number of households headed by women was growing across Africa. She called for research that would support and acknowledge the various roles played by women in food systems.

African women, she said, still lack access to research, technology and the capacity development required to empower them as critical players. “Women need education, training and mentorship critical in empowering them to take leadership in our food systems.”

A further complication was pointed out by Dr Moses Osiru, the manager of the Regional Coordination Unit of the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund of the Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET).

Policy research trumped by undergraduate training

He said many institutions in Africa are “held hostage” by the emphasis on undergraduate training, where they concentrated most of their resources and effort. This left them with less capacity for much needed community and policy-focused research.

Also, some of the recommended approaches for filling the research gaps in Africa, such as ‘multidisciplinarity’ are often hard to implement because of low research capacity in a wide range of fields.

Professor Frans Swanepoel of the University of Pretoria added to this by saying Africa needs to boost the number of doctorates it produces.

Currently, an average of 50 PhDs per population of one million people is produced annually. The universally recommended figure is 250 to 350 PhDs annually for every one million people.

“We must do everything possible to harness our capacity to produce more PhDs, including bringing the private sector to financially support the endeavour,” Swanepoel said.