“Over the last 30 years, agricultural yields and the poverty rate have remained stagnant in African countries,” Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School, writes in his new research paper, “Building New Agricultural Universities in Africa"; Agriculture is both an engine of economic development and a source of wellbeing, but much of the African continent has failed to make good on the promise of improved farming know-how.
Agriculture in the continent is enormously important and at the same time terribly inadequate. In sub-Saharan Africa, it directly contributes to 34 percent of GDP and 64 percent of employment, and agricultural products compose about 20 percent of Africa’s exports, Juma notes. But, in 2008, one-third of the people in sub-Saharan Africa were chronically hungry.
The causes of this great failure are many — a lack of political prioritization, underinvestment, and ineffective policies — but Juma points to one discrete area that could make a large difference: training and education. “The challenges facing African agriculture will require fundamental changes in the way universities train their students,” writes Juma, who is also director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and directs the Agricultural Innovation in Africa Project. “It is notable that most African universities do not specifically train agriculture students to work on farms in the same way medical schools train students to work in hospitals.”
At the root of the problem is a traditional division between research institutes and universities — a vestige of the continent’s colonial history that was perpetuated by shortsighted policies. Juma sees an opportunity to take existing national agricultural research institutes (naris), and strengthening their educational, commercial, and extension functions.
“More specifically, clustering these functions would result in dedicated research universities whose curriculum would be modeled along full value chains of specific commodities,” Juma writes. “For example, innovation universities located in proximity to coffee production sites should develop expertise in the entire value chain of the industry. This could be applied to other crops as well as to livestock and fisheries. Such dedicated universities would not have a monopoly over specific crops but should serve as opportunities for learning how to connect higher education to the productive sector.”
Juma points to some examples. An NGO in Uganda launched the African Rural University in 2011. Dedicated to training women, the university focuses on building strong leaders for careers in agriculture and involving the community and meeting locally identified needs.
Juma himself is helping put the model into practice, working with Issa Baluch, Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and chairman of Africa Atlantic Farms, to create an agribusiness academy on Africa Atlantic’s commercial farm in Ghana. By locating the academy on a working farm, they are seeking to give students the real-world skills necessary to turn research into practice and to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship.
And earth University in Costa Rica, created in 1990 through an endowment provided in part by the U.S. Agency for International Development, is dedicated to sustainable agricultural education in the tropics and training graduates who focus on creating enterprises.
To begin the process, Juma argues, “concept champions,” such as ministers or agriculture-related constituencies, would have to take responsibility for “exploring the political feasibility of translating the ideas laid out in this paper into practical action” and seeking political support.
The new frameworks of laws and regulations created to form these institutions would need to be built with a view to ensuring autonomy while fostering excellence.
A cadre of people with expertise in innovation management will be required, Juma argues. “This can be achieved through executive education offered to high level leaders responsible for policy promotion as well as the ultimate implementation of agricultural innovation system. In the long run, such courses should be part of the curriculum of the new universities and should be required for those seeking to work as innovation managers.”
Juma also urges the creation of pilot projects, the recognition of efforts (perhaps through innovation prizes), and he underscores the importance of finding financing, both public and private. Bold steps have already been taken, though the nearly decade-old Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme, in areas such as redefining the role of government in agricultural research and increasing stakeholder participation.
“They have indeed yielded commendable results. The next challenge, however, is to build on these achievements and pursue bold steps aimed at upgrading the status and performance of agricultural institutes by creating genuine innovation systems that involve research, training, extension, and commercialization,” Juma concludes.
— by Robert O'Neill