Universities have frontline role to play in food production

Stronger collaboration between stakeholders in the agriculture value chain to improve food production as well as fight against hunger and climate change in Africa is critical.

This has been resolved at the 19th annual general meeting (AGM) of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) themed ‘Transforming Higher Education to Sustainably Feed and Create Prosperity for Africa’. It ended on 2 November in Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Higher education authorities accepted resolutions aimed at enabling universities in Africa to play a frontline role in improving agricultural production to help the continent to not only feed itself but become a global bread basket.

“The opportunities of making Africa the bread basket of the world are there. We just have to make maximum use of the potential we have and our universities have a big role to play in this direction,” Jacques Fame Ndongo, Cameroon’s minister of higher education, said at the closing ceremony. He emphasised the need to boost food production, but also nutrition quality, amid climate change.

More people are facing hunger

According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Africa is lagging behind to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, which targets an end to hunger and envisages that all people have access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round, and to end all forms of malnutrition.

Data from the report estimates that some 281.6 million people on the continent, over one-fifth of Africa’s population, faced hunger in 2020, which is 46.3 million more than in 2019. This deterioration continues a trend that started in 2014, after a prolonged period of improving food security.

In addition to hunger, millions of Africans suffer from widespread micronutrient deficiencies, while overweight and obesity are already significant public health concerns in many countries. Progress towards achieving the global nutrition targets by 2030 remains unacceptably slow, the report says.

What universities can do

Against this backdrop, higher education officials at the meeting said universities faced the challenge to contribute to bringing about much-needed transformation in food production in Africa.

“Africa must stand tall in the face of its many simultaneous and overlapping challenges. Without extraordinary efforts, working in collaboration in all sectors, it will be difficult to meet these aspirations [to change food production] and the targets of the SDGs,” says Professor Avlessi Felicien, the deputy board chair of RUFORUM and the rector of the University of Abomey-Calavi, Benin.

RUFORUM resolutions called on higher education institutions to intensify training in food transformation processes and develop innovative skills through research to meet the expectations of actors in the agri-food value chain.

Universities in Africa have also been enjoined to improve their adaptation capacities with greater autonomy from governments through innovative income-generation.

Another key request was the creation of a dynamic regional platform for collective advocacy, coordination and resource mobilisation for learning practices.

This, the higher education authorities said, would help universities on the continent to integrate new approaches into teaching and research that will positively improve the entire value chain in the agricultural sector.

“Africa can feed itself and others if we take the right approach, beginning with the training and acquisition of the required skills and knowledge in food production,” said Professor Theresa Akenji, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bamenda, Cameroon, and the chair of the RUFORUM board.

She told University World News that the meeting this year brought together some 163 universities from 40 countries in Africa to exchange knowledge, train and acquire new skills.

“We need a new generation of young scientists, agriculture experts that will not only be skilled but passionate and confident to contribute to transformative change in Africa,” Akenji said.

According to the European Union’s 2022 Knowledge Policy report, there is an urgent need to accelerate African food systems transformation to drive the agricultural sector to achieve inclusive, equitable, sustainable and resilient growth, while simultaneously responding to multiple crises such as climate change, rising global energy, food, and fertiliser prices, and ever-present food insecurity.

According to a news release by the RUFORUM Network, it meets annually to review progress and share experiences with its members and other education ecosystem actors from which guidance and new thrusts are drawn. This year’s AGM was hosted by the universities of Bamenda, Buea, Dschang, Maroua, and Ngaoundéré – all in Cameroon.

“We have taken a few steps forward, as planned during our 2022 meeting [in Harare, Zimbabwe], to facilitate the training of young scientists in our member universities,” said Professor Horace Ngomo, the vice-chancellor of the University of Buea.