Professor Adipala Ekwamu: A science ambassador of note

Professor Adipala Ekwamu is one of the most influential figures in higher education in Africa today, having founded the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) and serving as its executive secretary for nearly two decades.

He is retiring from the position at the end of December, having steered the organisation to become one of the most visible university organisations on the continent. However, he already has several plans lined up. University World News spoke to him.

UWN: Briefly outline your early life. Where were you born? What was your childhood and early schooling life like?

AE: I was born in Olyanai – a smelly place because it had a lot of fish – in Kaberamaido on the fringes of Lake Kyoga in Uganda. Kaberamaido, a good place for groundnuts-peanuts, is occupied by the Kumam, cattle keepers. Thus, as a child, I had to learn to fish, to plough with oxen and more romantically, to herd cattle. I also had to learn our traditional dance Ekoso, and Okeme which are key to courting your future partner.

An uncle who had attended junior school and gotten employed as a sub-county clerk at Obulubulu and Kaberamaido, some 60 kilometres from Olyanai, helped me to start my primary education there. I completed my primary schooling at Kakure, and proceeded for junior school in Soroti, then secondary school in Namilyango College in central Uganda. I joined Makerere University in 1973.

UWN: What was your academic journey like to become a professor and an authority in higher education and agriculture?

AE: At Makerere University I studied BSc Agriculture. I did an undergraduate special research project on dodo (Amaranthus), then a neglected crop. We distilled its importance as an animal feed source, and subsequently for human nutrition, because of its high protein content and quality.

Today it is a major food source for both rural and urban households and its nutritional value is well recognised. Because of my good performance and research on dodo I was awarded an International Development Research Centre or IDRC scholarship for a MSc study where I worked on finger millet blast disease (Pyricularia grisea).

Soon after completing the MSc study I was appointed as a lecturer in crop science. In 1988 I joined the Ohio State University and graduated in 1992 with a PhD in plant pathology.

I travelled back to Makerere and resumed my work as a lecturer, later rising to the rank of professor. My contribution at Makerere was largely to strengthen graduate training and research publication output of the then faculty of agriculture.

I focused on catalysing greater community outreach of the faculty, and initiated the ‘Faculty on the Wheels’ initiative to ensure that both lecturers and students had exposure to different farming systems in Uganda.

I also founded the MUARIK Bulletin, a research publication of the Makerere University Agricultural Research Institute, to profile research output from the faculty.

In 1993 I founded the African Crop Science Journal to promote visibility of research from across the continent. In the same year I started the African Crop Science Society, to provide a platform to bring together crop scientists on the continent. Both the journal and the society remain key academic and professional societies today.

UWN: You are a founder member and the founding executive secretary of RUFORUM. How did the idea of the organisation begin and develop until it was set up in 2004?

AE: The ‘honeymoon’ of post-independence in Africa began to fade away in the late 1970s and 1980s and underdevelopment in agriculture began to set in. Worse still, the World Bank came up with its Structural Adjustment Programme, which basically transferred support from higher education to basic education.

Universities got hit hard with little or very limited funding. Support for training, staff development and research declined drastically. This was coupled with increasing levels of poverty and hunger.

The Rockefeller Foundation commissioned a team, including Professor Malcolm Blackie at the University of Zimbabwe and Dr John Lynam of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, or CIAT, to review the emerging landscape and to design a possible initiative.

They didn’t have to look far. Building on the experience of the Green Revolution in India and Mexico two ingredients would be needed: science to deliver the technologies and innovations, and ‘hands’ to deliver the technologies and innovation – human resources.

To do this, the university [as an institution] would need to be a central piece, as was the case with India and Mexico. They designed the Forum on Agricultural Resource Husbandry (FORUM), a programme to revitalise graduate training to deliver two outputs: science solutions to smallholder farmers’ needs and MSc level graduates to champion development in communities, and to provide a pipeline for training PhD level scientists for universities and research Institutions.

The FORUM was launched in 1992 and ran for 10 years in 10 universities in five countries: Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Uganda and Zimbabwe.

However, the vice-chancellors of the 10 participating universities, namely Egerton University, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Moi University, University of Nairobi (Kenya), University of Malawi, Makerere University in Uganda, University of Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, and Africa University and University of Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe), met in Kenya in 2003 and decided to establish a follow-up programme to continue with what had been started under the FORUM.

They wanted a platform where they would collaborate and support each other to develop the human resources to drive agricultural development. They anticipated that other universities would join the new organisation, but in a phased manner.

The new organisation would align to priorities articulated by African Heads of State in their 2003 continental ‘Strategy: Comprehensive African Agricultural Development Programme’ (CAADP) launched in Maputo in 2003.

They called the new organisation the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture – RUFORUM. They also agreed that there would be a coordinating secretariat to be established in one of the five founding countries, and Uganda won the bid to host the RUFORUM secretariat, through an open recruitment process.

I was appointed as the regional coordinator to oversee the establishment of the RUFORUM secretariat and operations, assuming office in January 2004.

UWN: RUFORUM has now grown into a formidable, highly visible agriculture and higher education body in Africa. How has it developed since the founding in 2004?

EA: RUFORUM was created as an African-led, owned and managed organisation. It is governed by a Board of Trustees composed of university vice-chancellors, rectors, presidents and five non-university board members.

They have guided the RUFORUM growth pathway over the years. They wanted an organisation with development relevance and vision for the future, thus they agreed on a common RUFORUM philosophy to guide operations – ‘Transforming Agriculture in Africa’ through innovative scientific research, educational and training approaches.

Our operations have been designed to align to the philosophy. Efforts have been made to strengthen university community engagement through various approaches, including university-community action research programmes, and training of development-oriented graduates and building entrepreneurial skills of graduates and out-of-school youth.

We have facilitated a greater uptake of university generated technologies and innovations that are increasingly feeding into industry.

RUFORUM has made a deliberate effort to increase the pool of women scientists, especially for less endowed countries. The efforts have contributed significantly to building institutional capacities of our member universities and research institutions.

Subsequently, the demand for RUFORUM expansion has been mostly driven by alumni and policy-makers including the African Union Commission. Managing this growth has been, and will remain, a challenge, especially in terms of capacity to manage it, and resources to ensure impact at individual university and country level.

UWN: You retire and leave behind a strong organisation, which for many, is hard to separate from your person as the founding executive secretary. Do you foresee instability or hitches after you leave?

AE: Not at all! First, RUFORUM is an institution that is owned and cherished by the member universities.

They would like to see it as an ongoing institution providing a platform for networking, joint resource mobilisation and advocacy.

RUFORUM today is a key convener for university-policy dialogue. Secondly, the universities have benefitted greatly from being part of the RUFORUM network, in terms of resource mobilisation for graduate training and research, and mutual learning.

Thirdly, RUFORUM has facilitated networking involving universities across the continent and with global actors. Above all, RUFORUM provides a platform for togetherness as embedded in the African proverb: ‘You want to walk fast go alone, but if you want to go far, walk together’.

Certainly, there will be challenges, notably managing growth and expectations. Also, the development landscape is changing. RUFORUM needs to periodically reposition itself to respond to the challenges and opportunities. In doing so, continued ownership by the member universities remains critical.

UWN: You have put in place a succession plan, complete with an incoming secretary as your successor. What kind of organisation do you foresee RUFORUM becoming in the future in view of diminishing resources, especially external support?

AE: Fortunately for RUFORUM the new executive secretary, Dr Patrick Okori, knows RUFORUM well. He was part of the team that designed RUFORUM. He has also been a university leader.

I believe he’s well positioned to drive RUFORUM to greater heights. He will need to, amongst other [things], ensure RUFORUM’s work has footprints at country level and [that] these are well documented and profiled, [and] ensure RUFORUM has links with policy-makers as this is important for ownership and resource mobilisation. RUFORUM has to be strategic in its investments as the demand for RUFORUM support and services will continue to grow. Yet RUFORUM is not a donor. [He will need to] continue building the resource mobilisation capacity of the secretariat and member universities and strengthen the graduate teaching assistantship programme (GTA) where sending and hosting universities co-fund the training of university staff, which is key here is to mobilise research funds for the GTAs.

UWN: Are there certain areas that you would like the future leadership to particularly focus on?

AE: Yes, foremost is to ensure the RUFORUM charter is signed by all the member states where RUFORUM operates. This is critical for ensuring ownership and accountability. RUFORUM should also continue to lobby for annual budgets from governments.

RUFORUM and agencies such as the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and governments will need to revitalise and double efforts to strengthen agri-food systems in Africa as the situation is dire, and more fragile because of climate change and related shocks.

The network also needs to put emphasis on developing new skill sets to respond to the labour market changes and to harness digital technologies. Last, but not least, the RUFORUM network needs to continue to advocate for increased investment in research and training while ensuring inclusivity.

UWN: Any regrets about your public and academic leadership life?

AE: As you exit you see a lot that you should have done, or should have done better. Importantly, while I focused on serving Makerere and RUFORUM, this meant that I did not give adequate attention to helping the communities where I come from.

This is something I had done well when I started my masters training, where I could periodically go and work with them in community development projects. I will focus on this after leaving RUFORUM

At Makerere I was so focused on field-based research that I sometimes forgot the security risk I was putting my team in including the students. In eastern Uganda our team got caught up in the middle of skirmishes between the government’s army and the rebels fighting the government.

The community helped move us away from the fighting and took us to safety. In Kenya, I visited a field trial of a female masters student who was conducting research in a very remote, distant dry part of north-eastern Kenya.

This was a very insecure place with very limited facilities. I also witnessed the same case with University of Khartoum students working in Kordofan and Darfur.

While RUFORUM is a member-based network of 157 universities, participation and benefit has not been evenly distributed. We attempted to address the discrepancy by establishing a Nurturing Grant System to increase participation and address emerging gap areas. The Nurturing Grant System needs to be strengthened.

Finally, managing demand and expectations has been a challenge. For joint proposal development, we sometimes had to rely on certain universities and this has contributed to imbalance.

This has been even more difficult where we had to ask one university, which contributed greatly in proposal development, to allow another university to be the lead applicant, for strategic reasons – especially where funding agencies consider the regional allocation of funds or where only one proposal is to be funded by an institution.

UWN: As you exit RUFORUM’s leadership, what message do you have for the higher education sector leadership in Africa?

AE: No country has developed without a strong science and human capital base. We must continue to lay this bare with data to policy-makers. It is not a once off investment!

We must continue to put our case to them as decision-makers and budget allocators. This has to be a continuous process: Don’t give up. We must put our mouths where the food is! But we need to demonstrate our relevance to our countries and regions. Please profile your work and contributions. And best of luck in doing so.

UWN: Finally, what’s next for you once you leave RUFORUM? Would you be back in some role, maybe in an advisory capacity?

AE: I want to continue to be an ambassador and voice for higher education in Africa. I will, therefore, use any opportunity available to advocate for the same things I have been advocating for.

But I will be working full-time with the Research and Education Agency (RAE), an NGO I started in 2015 to support efforts to increase access to basic education and other livelihood opportunities for rural communities in Uganda.

Already about 2,500 students have benefitted from RAE. I have plans to expand RAE activities to other countries.