A bright future for Africa

Dossier

 

Higher education

ACP universities are on the cusp of change as they strive to provide relevant higher education to the next generation of graduates, who will have to meet the development challenges of the 21st century. Through curriculum reform, partnership and use of ICTs, innovations to transform the way education is delivered are increasing across the regions.

University-level agricultural education is at a crossroads in ACP countries. Financial constraints are severe and yet the demand for higher quality education has never been greater. To meet the challenges of increasing agricultural production with a shrinking natural resource base, competition in local and international markets and food insecurity in ACP regions, countries must be willing to invest in their human capital for development. To overcome these issues, there is a need for greater educational relevance and higher quality graduates and there is an obligation to enrol more women and to equip students for leadership positions.

In 2010, African ministers committed to increasing the investment and restoring the quality of higher education in agriculture under the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme. Ministers agreed that higher education institutions must play a greater developmental role by linking with relevant public agencies and with farming communities, a call echoed in November 2012 at the first General Assembly of the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa.

However, while African universities are well placed to lead efforts in agricultural capacity development, they must first become better facilitators of agricultural innovation, technology, institutions and development. “Universities should consider agriculture an important research domain and devote staff and resources to developing new agricultural techniques that make sense for their populations and ecosystems,” writes Calestous Juma, a Professor at Harvard University and author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. “University research needs to stay connected to the farmers and their lifestyles, to productively foster agricultural growth.”

Changes at institutional level will be vital, if universities are to meet development needs and be relevant to smallholder farmers, policy processes and other actors in the agricultural and rural sectors. But achieving such changes requires “a number of new competencies, including interdisciplinary problem-solving, the ability to address multiple stakeholder interests, and responsive, participatory approaches to innovation,” says Arjen Wals, Professor at Wageningen University and Research Centre, in a lead article for CTA’s Knowledge for Development webportal.

Positive developments

In 2008, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (sub-Saharan Africa) report called for carefully thought-out postgraduate training and research programmes. Since 2003, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) has been engaging with various actors to unlock the potential of several sub-Saharan African universities. Working through collaborative capacity strengthening, RUFORUM aims to help universities adapt to the changing demands of African agriculture, and create a new calibre of graduates better able to foster innovation (see Catalysing training and innovation).

The Graduate Opportunities for Innovation and Transformation (GO4IT) project - part of RUFORUM’s portfolio - addresses the innovation capacity gap of three African universities. Under the initiative, Egerton University (Kenya), the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR, Malawi) and Makerere University (Uganda) have challenged and changed their teaching, research and outreach methods, to produce fit-for-purpose graduates with the capacity to catalyse agricultural innovation.

According to James Sitima, Head of LUANAR’s Agriculture Education and Development Communication Department, the concept of agriculture innovation within LUANAR prior to the GO4IT initiative was limited to the development of local technologies. To achieve change, the GO4IT approach stimulated participatory studies to determine curriculum gaps and stakeholder needs. Teaching became interactive, including brainstorming sessions and group work exercises that drew on student experiences. “The course broadened my knowledge and understanding of innovation systems. I now know how to manage and facilitate a multi-stakeholder partnership to work in my community,” says LUANAR trainee Steve Bondo Longwe. For deep-rooted transformation to take place, however, it is now critical that lessons learned from GO4IT are adopted university-wide.

Supporting institutional development from within is also the aim of the African Network for Agriculture, Agroforestry and Natural Resources Education (ANAFE). Through its Strengthening Africa’s Strategic Agricultural Capacity for Impact on Development (SASACID) programme, capacity building is being provided to 16 pilot institutions across Africa. SASACID focuses on institutional self-assessment to address weaknesses in curriculum reform, including quality delivery. The programme aims to promote application of results based management, with a view to strengthening African universities in their mission to serve communities.

Partnerships - regional and international

Whilst universities strain under burgeoning student populations and changing development needs, Professor Etienne Ehouan Ehile, Secretary General of the Association of African Universities (AAU) states that higher education has tended to be sidelined in recent years, with governments focusing on basic schooling. “Whilst basic education is of course essential, you cannot achieve the development goals in Africa without quality higher education,” Ehile warns. However, access to higher education is unevenly distributed. Recognising a need to re-think and support higher education in Africa on a regional basis, the AAU, in partnership with the World Bank, issued a call in July 2013 for proposals to establish ‘African Centres of Excellence in Sciences and Technology’. The project aims to develop up to 10 regional centres to consolidate scientific expertise in agriculture and other sectors, such as mining and health. A regional approach will allow resources to be concentrated and knowledge to be shared across countries. “This initiative is a key factor for Africa’s socio-economic development because of its potential contribution to the knowledge economy, growth and development,” says Ehile.

In the Caribbean, regional support for education is being provided by the Open Campus initiative of the University of the West Indies (UWI). Working across all 16 English-speaking Caribbean states, the UWI Open Campus is working to further enhance the quality of open, distance, flexible and online education through the launch of its Single Virtual University Space (SVUS). Using ICTs, including video conferencing, students from any campus will be able to take classes from a single basket of academic courses. According to Pauline Francis-Cobley, UWI’s SVUS programme coordinator, “SVUS is a mode of operation that is enabled by technology, which redefines the way in which the UWI will deliver services to the region and the world.”

Local achievements

Whilst these new regional initiatives provide exciting opportunities for the next generation of ACP graduates, existing national efforts should not be overlooked in their capacity to impact on rural communities. In northern Ghana, the University of Development Studies (UDS) was established by the government over 20 years ago (1992) with an emphasis on practical, community-based and gender-sensitive learning, problem-solving and interaction. In the final academic trimester, students live and work with rural communities to identify and exploit development opportunities. The impact of this approach is evident in the number of UDS graduates that remain working with rural communities. A similar approach, and one that is particularly mindful of the role of women in development, is taken by the African Rural University (see Women graduates transform rural life on p18). The university focuses on building strong women leaders for careers in agriculture and on involving communities to meet locally identified needs. On the shores of Lake Volta in Ghana, the establishment of an agribusiness academy at Africa Atlantic’s commercial farm provides students with the real-world skills necessary to turn research into practice and to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship. And in western Kenya, the decision by Moi University to acquire an abandoned textile mill in 2012 is the first example of a public university owning and operating a factory primarily for teaching purposes.

The UNiBRAIN initiative, led by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, in collaboration with ANAFE, also aims to inspire young graduates to move into agribusiness. Focusing on key commodities, such as livestock, fish, coffee and banana, the initiative works through ‘incubator’ projects, under which graduates can undertake internships and attachments in agribusiness (see Incubating young agripreneurs in Spore 164).

The Association of African Business Schools (AABS) has also launched an Agribusiness Consortium (AAC) to champion agribusiness management education in Africa. The AAC, comprising AABS members, other academic institutions and collaborating global partners (including CTA), delivers tailored programmes to equip agribusiness professionals across a value chain with business, management and leadership skills. The Agribusiness Management Programme will be launched in October 2013 in Ghana, partnering with the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration and in Nigeria, with the Lagos Business School; Tanzania follows in early 2014.

Such developments offer encouragement that a transformation in agricultural higher education is a real possibility. Such a transformation, and the strengthening of universities’ contribution to food security, depends on reaching a critical mass of dedicated men and women who understand real-world needs and are committed to supporting African development. In this respect, transformation should also be built from within by supporting institutional development. Whilst promising strides are being made in curriculum reform, partnership and participation, a commitment to invest in higher education for development deserves a much higher place on national agendas.