EU project aims for climate-smart agribusiness graduates

A European Union-funded project that seeks to improve the teaching of agriculture entrepreneurship at African universities has been officially launched with a promise to revolutionise programmes with lessons from some of the best universities in the world.

The €900,000 (about US$972,000) Climate-Smart agropreneurship Education for Livelihood and Sustainability in Eastern and Southern Africa (AgrGROW) is funded through the EU’s Erasmus+ programme and will be implemented in four universities in Uganda and Malawi.

While the EU will provide €800,000, participating institutions will raise the balance of €100,000 through the self-funding mechanism.

The project will run until March 2026. The aim is to reposition the participating higher education institutions in the two African countries as “transformational actors in creating a generation of graduates with the abilities to start and grow climate-smart agribusinesses”.

The participating institutions are Uganda’s Makerere and Bugema universities, Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture (LUANAR) and Malawi University of Science and Technology, or MUST. The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), Denmark’s University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and the Häme University of Applied Sciences (HAMK) in Finland are the other partners.

Key competencies needed

“Like other graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa, Malawian and Ugandan graduates lack the key 21st-century competencies needed to think systematically, act entrepreneurially and be experts in climate-smart agriculture. Problem-based learning (PBL) is a powerful research-based methodology that HAMK and UCPH have extensively used in the international development effort,” Dr Eija Laitinen, the project coordinator, said.

“The ultimate aim of AgrGROW is to position ‘agropreneurship’ education in partner countries, creating graduates who are employable and able to employ,” she added. “It had been conceived with the principles of climate-smart agribusiness social and environmental sustainability in mind.”

The project’s specific objectives include improving teaching and learning methods by introducing problem-based learning, climate-smart agriculture and innovative entrepreneurship training.

As a result, new curricula in teaching agribusiness education will be unveiled while existing ones will be revised to make them more responsive to the principles under which the AgrGROW project was conceived. Both the new and revised curricula at undergraduate and MSc levels will be “very strongly competency-based”, innovative and geared to support sustainability, she told a kick-off meeting of the project that took place from 21-25 August 2023 at the Finnish university.

Real-world problems integrated

New teaching methods will also be imparted to teachers, while “parallel actions” involving the larger public, industry and students, NGOs and governments will be undertaken, Laitinen said. Staff and student exchanges will also happen.

“The PBL approach integrates the complexity of real-world problems into curricula implementation, and this helps students to develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills upon which the entrepreneurship decision-making rests,” she said.

The project has several phases, including planning and capacity-building which will start soon, followed by the testing and piloting stage, in which students will also be involved, and the final part in which dissemination and adoption of curricula will be implemented.

Overall, teacher capacity building in student-centred learning, developed with the participation of industry, will be a key element, Laitinen said, with students gaining “doubly as part of contextualisation of learning and at testing stage”.

The initiative will be managed by an advisory board consisting of representatives from partner institutions, local coordination teams and core teams of experts in each university, she added.

Project partners were handpicked, she said, describing the UCPH as one of the best universities in the world and among Europe’s very best. On the other hand, RUFORUM was chosen due to its wide network in Africa, plus its specialisation in agriculture education. Partners will also work in a hybrid model, conducting physical and online meetings.

Focus on sustainability, innovation

Each higher education institution will take on a specific role with the HAMK and UCPH facilitating methodology, climate-smart agropreneurship and institutional capacity-building, while RUFORUM will lead the quality process. All the higher education institutions will also participate in student field challenges.

The AgrGROW initiative is “extremely” topical, with a focus on sustainability and innovation being the reason why it had won EU funding, said Dr Annukka Pakarinen, head of the HAMK Bio Research Unit and vice president of the HAMK.

“European Union funding is highly competitive and not easy to get, but this project is great in that it seeks to entrench collaboration between the EU-Nordic and African universities in smart and sustainable agriculture,” she said.

Collaboration on the topics was part of the larger EU-Africa innovation agenda, Pakarinen noted, adding that it has the full support of the HAME EU regional office. The EU was “willing and ready” to back further collaborations with Africa, and the coming together of universities from the four countries fostered an ecosystem with the potential for economic development, she said.

“We can all pull together our diverse talents, resources and perspectives and bring out the best of our worlds through a symphony of innovations harmonised to create added value.”

Pakarinen said, to make this happen, capacities and skills such as entrepreneurship, innovation and problem-solving are needed and the project is doing this. Universities, whether in Africa or Europe, must continue serving as “beacons of wisdom and creativity” in order to catalyse development.

EU wants to step up cooperation

AgrGROW will use students as ambassadors of change to turn research into tangible solutions and bring in businesses to bridge the gap between research and the real world.

The Horizon Europe initiative (the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation) is keen on further deepening cooperation in higher education and research with Africa and offering opportunities for collaborative research, Pakarinen told the meeting.

African universities have come under intense pressure in recent years to do “something” for communities hard hit by the effects of climate, and the project will help universities respond to these cries, noted Professor Emmanuel Kaunda, vice-chancellor of LUANAR.

It will also help fix existing research and training gaps at Makerere University, an institution that is marking 100 years of existence, and promote its goal of being a top research-led innovative university that endeavours to establish strong links with industry, said Dr Kenneth Balikoowa, a lecturer at Makerere.