The infrastructure around Africa’s domestic agricultural research and development has been neglected, and remains under-funded, says Calestous Juma, the Dr Martin Luther King, Jr Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a world expert in the application of technology to development.
“The colonial and post-colonial agricultural systems were constructed around national agricultural research stations, extension services in agriculture ministries and a small commercial sector that benefited from the research,” says Juma.
“Universities were expected to train researchers who would then be employed in agricultural research stations. This model is no longer viable and Africa should not be nostalgic about it.”
“The time has come to step back and design new models that combine research, teaching, business and extension under one roof,” Juma says. “Such a systemic approach which will help upgrade the agriculture and not just focus on the number of scientists trained.”
Juma proposes a new approach to science and technology in Africa. The pressing challenges of food security require fundamental reforms to the structure of agricultural research, creating an environment where innovation and technology can be harnessed to increase productivity.
The African Union Commission’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Programme (CAADP), which is aimed at transforming the continent’s food production and agricultural economies, includes a pillar on technology. CAADP states that existing technologies should be rolled out and made available across the continent; that communication systems should be created to disseminate data; and that research systems should be renewed to more proactively create and adapt new technologies.
In a recent paper, Juma called for a renewal of the old national agricultural research institutes, enhancing their training, extension and commercialisation functions, connecting them to the private sector, to farmers and to international institutions.
Improvements in agricultural productivity, however they are achieved, would have profound impacts on development. In sub-Saharan Africa, agriculture directly contributes 35 per cent of gross domestic product and around 65 per cent of employment. In some countries, the proportion is considerably higher. Farm income has been almost stagnant for years, while use of fertiliser and other improved inputs is well below the global average.
The experience of other developing countries – most notably those in the Indian subcontinent and Central America – has been that technological innovation in agriculture is a driver of first food security and then economic growth. In these regions, integrated, commercially-minded approaches have borne fruit, Juma said. Institutions that can identify talent, manage innovation and intellectual property and build international links can thrive, if supported by governments that promote supportive policies and legislative reforms and mobilise funding to assist research.
Although agriculture is now attracting a great deal more political support, and consequently funding, research is still only a tiny fraction of the total, and needs to be paid more attention, according to Juma.
“There has been a modest increase in agricultural funding. However, there is still a disconnect between the level of commitment to investment in African agriculture and the proportion of funding that goes to research,” he says. “Those investing in African agriculture are likely to increase their support for research if there are close linkages between research, teaching, business and extension. What is needed is to think about African farms as knowledge-intensive and entrepreneurial activities that deserve the same level of research support as industry.”