FARA’s Executive Director, Yemi Akinbamijo, explains that improving Africa’s food security and growing its agricultural economies will require a concerted effort to improve the continent’s scientific human capital and sustained investments in capacity building.
In 1984, Yemi Akinbamijo used the last grant-funded bottle of silver chloride at the nutrition biochemistry laboratory of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Ife (Obafemi Awolowo University), Ife-Ife, Nigeria, finally depleting a stock that began to dwindle when USAID funding dried up in the mid 1980s.
“I was trained in Nigeria by a cohort of lecturers that were educated in the space of 15 years when the Western world concentrated on strengthening the capacity of Africans,” says Akinbamijo, now the Executive Director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa.
“I was in the university for my first degree between 1979 and 1984. The bulk of my lecturers were returnees who benefitted from these massive investments in capacity – both intellectual/know-how, and infrastructure capacities. That was not unique to my university. It was what happened across the developing world. But once those facilities came to an end in the eighties, and they came to an end in 1979, 1980, then the cookie began to crumble and things began to deteriorate.”
Things rapidly began to “nosedive”, Akinbamijo says. Without funding, cross-pollination between international institutions and faculties did not happen, institutions shrank and became insular and research capabilities withered.
“We started what I’d call a technological or intellectual inbreeding,” he says. “If you look at the faculties today you find that there has been a complete reversal compared to when I was in school. At that time, 95 per cent of my lecturers were trained overseas. Today less than 5 per cent will be trained overseas, the other 95 are products of [academics] just being recycled [within universities].”
The implications of this falling capacity are serious, as the continent faces the unprecedented twin challenges of population pressure and climate change. The population of Sub-Saharan Africa is growing faster than any other region, and much of the growth is happening in the region’s booming cities. Agrarian societies are shifting to urban, consumerist ones, creating a mismatch between the supply and demand of food.
At the same time, a changing climate has altered weather patterns across the continent placing an enormous strain on the rain-fed agriculture that feeds most of the continent. These two factors have huge social implications, but also create potent economic threats. The majority of African countries depend on imports of food, sapping national resources and exporting jobs.
Efforts to change this scenario are under way. At its Summit in Malabo this year, heads of state of the African Union reaffirmed a commitment to the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). It is heart-warming that agriculture is again a high priority item on the development agenda. However, increasing Africa’s food production demands more than just money, Akinbamijo says – it needs the continent to rebuild its research capacity and innovate.
“It is clear in my mind, as clear as daylight,” he says. “The quantum of food that is needed on the continent has to increase by 150 per cent over the next 10 years. I repeat that. The quantum of food needs to increase by 150 per cent in the next 10 years. If we do not meet this target, we will still go cap in hand and also remain a net importer of food. Now, to improve the quantum of required food is a demand for science in agriculture.”