By Evelyn Lirri
Universities in Africa need to take a lead role in harnessing the power of technology and innovation as a way of improving the continent’s agricultural systems, experts have said.
With over 60 per cent of the continent’s population engaged in agriculture, the sector is expected to remain a key source of employment and livelihood for majority of the young people.
Yet without prioritising research and innovation spearheaded by institutions of higher learning, much of the agriculture remains rudimentary. Currently, despite comprising a quarter of the world’s arable land, Africa remains a net importer of agricultural products.
“Advancement in knowledge and skills is shifting how agriculture value chains are organised. Africa’s success to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will depend on the commitment to address these challenges,” said Dr Abebe Haile-Gabriel, the assistant director general and regional representative for Africa at the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
Speaking at the recent annual general meeting of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Africa (RUFORUM), held at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana, Dr. Haile-Gabriel said the African continent still lags behind in terms of generation and application of innovation and knowledge systems.
Climate change and post-harvest loses, he said continue to remain big challenges for the continent, a problem which could be addressed if universities invested in finding solutions and the right technologies. Experts say incorporating innovation to agriculture could help boost food security and combat rural hunger and poverty.
“Our universities and research institutions must be motivated to research more in the agriculture sector for sustainable growth,” said Haile-Gabriel.
He added that FAO and RUFORUM are currently undertaking an initiative to place graduate students in six-months community based field attachments as a way of fostering knowledge transfer between the students conducting research and rural host communities.
RUFORUM is a network of 121 African universities in 38 countries, which is coordinated by a secretariat hosted by Makerere University, to build capacity in agricultural research and development.
Prof. Adipala Ekwamu, the executive secretary of RUFORUM noted that with universities increasingly being seen as a catalyst for agricultural transformation, training scholars with the relevant skills is critical.
RUFORUM, he said, is currently leading four initiatives aimed at strengthening higher education and Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) in Africa by promoting digital technologies for agricultural transformation, strengthening staff capacity and increasing pool of women scientists in African universities, increasing innovation and entrepreneurship capacity and building sustainable innovative technologies.
Dr. Irene Annor Frempong, the Director of Research at the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) said promoting agriculture, science and innovation is crucial in achieving the African Union’s Agenda 2063 economic and development plan.
Through the 2063 Agenda, the AU hopes, among other things to strengthen the quality of higher education on the continent by making it relevant to the needs of the population.
Prof. Amon Murwira, the Minister for Higher and Tertiary Education, Science, Technology and Innovation in Zimbabwe said the African education design must include elements of research, teaching, innovation and industrialization for the continent to develop.
“We must ensure that the education system causes industrialization in its basic form. This therefore means that if we want to develop as a continent, we must reform our education system to meet these aspirations,” said Prof. Murwira.
He said young African scientist should also be mentored and encouraged to take on innovative research projects that have the potential to transform and develop the continent.
Dr. Kwesi Atta-Krah, the Director, Country Alignment and Systems Integration, International Institute of Tropical Agriculture said universities should do more to make agriculture appealing as a profession and with business orientation, not just as a course of study.
Dr. Brian Mushimba, the Minister for Higher Education in Zambia noted that as the continent’s population continues to grow, currently estimated at about 1.5 billion people, the need to educate and skill young people and find innovative solutions to improving agriculture as an engine of growth for most African countries is critical.
“We must invest in higher education. It is the answer to addressing our problems today and the challenges of tomorrow. Higher education is the key driver in developing human capital,” said Dr. Mushimba.