Investment needed for food security research

African universities need to increase investment in postgraduate training to produce the knowledge and human resources needed to support the agriculture sector.

It is also important that universities increase investment in postdoctoral training as part of reforms needed in aligning education and skills development to respond to the requirements of African food systems.

At the same time there is an urgent upgrading of research and innovation infrastructure in universities to enable them to support the production of more ‘research degrees’, as well as in finding solutions to challenges facing food systems, said Paul Mapfumo, the vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe.

Africa, he said, had to follow the example of the growth of higher education in Asia and Latin America in backing up agriculture, both of which regions have attained food security through investment in scientific research in support of the sector.

“Universities need to transform into centres of innovation where we use our knowledge to demonstrate what science can deliver to the people,” he told a session of the pre-United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) forum for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Workforce reconfiguration

To do this, there was a critical need for new skills and competences in agriculture. This called on universities to, among other things, embrace information and communications technology and innovation in delivering training for the sector, he said during the event hosted by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM).

  The growing threat of food insecurity- 2021

“The current realities of our agriculture call for workforce reconfiguration. This also means that we have to first reform our education, training and skills development,” the vice-chancellor noted.

In addition to the need for universities to be supported to be able to transform themselves into platforms for engagement among different actors, they have to produce graduates for tomorrow’s needs, said Professor Kay Muir-Leresche, a member of RUFORUM’s international advisory panel.

Universities needed support to be able to conduct research that is not only relevant but can also be used as evidence for policy formulation, advised Muir-Leresche. In addition, they should be assisted to become “hubs for transforming knowledge into solutions”.

Strengthening research

She noted that it was important to link research, extension and higher education, and on to communities, and to strengthen national agricultural research and extension services.

Overall, she observed universities had a duty to produce human capital that will help Africa overcome numerous challenges facing her agriculture. Such well-trained personnel would help the continent transform its food systems.

She suggested that institutions needed to work with other actors in agriculture “to improve communication, storing and sharing of advances and new approaches in agriculture, by making them accessible to policymakers”.

To contribute meaningfully to ending Africa’s food crisis, universities will have to participate more in policymaking engagements, noted Professor Patience Mshenga, the dean of agriculture at Kenya’s Egerton University.

Researchers in the institutions should go to the communities and work with them, identifying their problems and tailoring solutions. Such solutions include research in areas like new animal breeds and crop varieties, the professor explained.

“The time has come for universities to come out of theory and prioritise experiential learning,” she counselled. They also needed to engage in dialogue with other actors, including farmers, to promote uptake of research, which remained low across Africa.

As universities did more to find solutions for agriculture, they should ensure that the information was easily accessible to smallholder farmers, the principal food producers on the continent.

Include the farmers

One way of making knowledge generated by universities count, is by ensuring that the knowledge was applied by farmers in making African agriculture more resilient to different shocks, noted Shadrack Moephuli, CEO of the Agricultural Research Council, South Africa.

While it was obvious that universities had a major role to play in agriculture, including through training and research, they could play other roles such as offering laboratory services to farmers. They could make animal vaccines, improved crop varieties and invent new farming technologies.

“To make it possible for universities to play these roles we, however, need to make more investment in the instructions [for usage]. That way we will be able to improve agriculture productivity,” he noted.

According to Simon Mwale of the Centre for Coordination of Agricultural Research and Development for Southern Africa (CCARDESA), there exists a huge gap between how technologies developed by researchers perform at research and at farm levels. This is a gap that universities should strive to close by ensuring the inventions are fully utilised.

According to Professor Ekwamu Adipala, the executive secretary of RUFORUM, the UNFSS has been designed to, among other matters, raise awareness, and provoke public discussion on reforming food systems for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals.

The universities organisation has been designated by the United Nations as one of the UNFSS champions, to “mobilise a diverse range of voices in every part of the world, to engage and develop an inclusive coalition for the transformation of food systems through coordinated actions before, during and after the summit”, said Adipala.

“Clearly the voice and the role of universities and RUFORUM as a network in supporting the emergence of more sustainable, inclusive and resilient food systems together with other actors is key,” he noted.