By Calestous Juma
The on-going famine in the Horn of Africa has put in sharp focus the urgency to raise the continent’s food production through improved agricultural innovation. This cannot be done without reforming the continent’s research system by creating greater synergies between research, training, extension and commercialization.
Africa’s research and higher education systems are dominated by fragmented approaches where research and teaching are carried out in separate institutions often under different ministries.
The bulk of new agricultural knowledge is generated in national research institutes that have limited teaching mandates. Higher technical training, on the other hand, is carried out in universities that undertake little research. The two sectors have weak links with farmers and the business community.
Numerous approaches can be used to strengthen the continent’s capacity to foster agricultural innovation.
The first is to add research functions to existing agricultural university and strengthen their linkages with farming communities. Some of this is already being done and should be continued.
A complementary strategy would be to add teaching functions to existing national agricultural research institutions (NARIs) so that they can functions research universities with strong linkages with the private sector farmers.
The NARIs operate a large number of research programs that provide a strong basis for building new initiatives aimed at upgrading their innovative capabilities. This approach would result in dedicated research universities whose curriculum would be modeled along full value chains of specific commodities.
For example, universities for innovation 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.
Internally, the new universities should redefine their academic foci to adjust to the changes facing the region. This can be better done through continuous interaction with farmers, businesses, government, and civil society organizations. Governance systems that allow for such continuous feedback to universities will need to be established.
The reform process should include a number of specific measures. First, the universities for agricultural innovation need a clear vision and strategic plans for training future agricultural leaders with a focus on practical applications. Such plans should include comprehensive roadmaps on moving research from the lab to the marketplace. They also need to define how to best recruit, retain, and prepare future graduates. These plans should be prepared in partnership with key stakeholders.
Second, the new universities need to improve their curricula to make them relevant to the communities in which they are located. More important, they should serve as critical hubs in local innovation systems or clusters.
Many of the NARIs are located in the proximity of a wide range of productive facilities with which they can foster long-term working relations. They can also branch into new knowledge-based fields. For example, NARIs located close to breweries can build up expertise in biotechnology using fermentation knowledge as a foundation. Similar arrangements can be created with other agro-based industries such as sugar mills and fish factories.
Third, the universities should give students more opportunities to gain experience outside the classroom. This can be done through traditional internships and research activities. But the teaching method could also be adjusted so that it is experiential and capable of imparting direct skills. More important, such training should also include the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills and other forms of experiential learning.
Fourth, NARIs have extensive programs that involve working directly with farmers. This outreach is a large part of their mandate and efforts to reach farming communities. A “reverse outreach” approach under which farmers and entrepreneurs can selectively participate in “open classroom” programs would help to strengthen extension services. Under the “open classroom” approach farmers and entrepreneurs would join classes of their choice as participants. This would give faculty and students and opportunity to interact with farmers in a classroom setting.
Fifth, in addition to degree courses, universities for agricultural innovation will also need to extend their reach into the sphere of vocational training. This can be done directly through various programs such as “farmer schools” or in conjunction with high schools. The link with high schools and other educational institutions is particularly important considering the region’s demographic structure. In most parts of the region the major of the population is in school, which makes educational institutions an integral part of the community.
Sixth, one way to facilitate the transfer of knowledge from universities to farming communities is through internships and community service. These activities should be structured so that they are part of the academic calendar. They would serve two main purposes. The first would be to transfer knowledge from universities to farmers. Second, returning students would bring back to the university feedback and lessons that could be used to adjust the curriculum, pedagogy, and interactions with farmers.
Seventh, one of the main teaching missions of universities for innovation is to translate ideas into goods and services through enterprise development. Training young people to learn how to create enterprises should therefore be part of the mission of such universities. This can be done in partnership with financial institutions such as banks, cooperatives, and microfinance organizations. Such activities may also lay the foundation for the emergence of rural-based angel funding or venture capital facilities. Similarly, sources of support such as rural development funds could be redirected to help translate ideas from such universities into new enterprises.
Eighth, continuous faculty training and research are critical for maintaining high academic standards. The new universities should invest more in undergraduate agricultural educators to promote effective research and teaching and to design new courses. Researchers at NARIs would only need minimum training to acquire the necessary pedagogical skills. In fact, many of them are involved in extensive field training activities and so they already teach without having the title.
Additional support to the NARIs can be provided by education departments in existing universities. Where needed, teacher training institutes could create special courses aimed at offering training in experiential pedagogy.
Finally, providing tangible rewards and incentives to teachers for exemplary teaching raises the profile of teaching and improves education. Furthermore, establishing closer connections and mutually beneficial links between all stakeholders (academia and industry, including private and public institutions, companies, and sectors) should generate further opportunities for everyone.
Little innovation occurs without committed champions. Ministers responsible for agricultural research will need to plan a leading role in the effort to upgrade NARIs so that they can serve as new centres for agricultural innovation. This advocacy will involve seeking political support, promoting policy and legislative reform, launching national pilot initiatives, rallying additional financial support, strengthening regional and international partnerships, and recognizing and rewarding agricultural innovation.
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy School and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011).