Institution Building for African Agriculture
May 12, 2017
With the population of Sub-Saharan Africa expected to more than double between 2015 and 2050, from about 950 million to 2.1 billion people, it is essential that investments in the region’s 49 countries focus on their agricultural sectors, which on average account for about 15 percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) and employ about half of their labor force. There are many needs within that sector, but one of the key gaps that must be addressed is to strengthen and expand the institutions that help to develop the personnel and technology that will lift the productivity and profitability of the region’s 175 million farmers, the majority of them smallholders producing on less than five acres of land.
On February 1, the Farm Journal Foundation released an agricultural policy brief on the topic of human and institutional capacity-building in Africa, authored by Dr. Thomas Jayne, Mr. Chance Kabaghe, and Dr. Isaac Minde. This policy brief provides succinct and essential background information on the current status of agricultural universities, extension systems, and agricultural policy institutes in Sub-Saharan Africa, and recommendations on steps that the U.S. government can take to improve the efficacy of spending in this area, to not only provide the specific training or research services needed but to bolster the capacity of the African institutions involved in those projects. That policy brief is available at this link: http://www.farmersfeedingtheworld.org/policy-briefing/, along with two other briefs on agricultural research and agricultural trade technical assistance commissioned by the Farm Journal Foundation. This blog will drawn on the Jayne policy brief as well as other sources.
As of 2015, 18 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population was under the age of 18. By 2050, that percentage is expected to rise to 31 percent. Every year, about 11 million young Africans enter the workforce, and only about one quarter of them are likely to find wage jobs in the economy. The remainder will rely on jobs in agriculture and often intermittent work in the informal economy.
Wikipedia provides a list of colleges and universities around the world which offer coursework in agricultural sciences. That list shows 100 such schools in Sub-Saharan Africa, with 46 percent of them in two countries (Nigeria and South Africa) and only 13 countries in all (out of 49 in the region) with any schools on the list. The magazine U.S. News and World Report publishes a list of the top 200 global universities for the study of agricultural sciences--it includes only one school from Sub-Saharan Africa, the University of Pretoria in South Africa, although there are dozens found in developing countries in Asia and Latin America.
Unlike the land grant system in the United States, which I described recently in a blog posted on April 14, there is no tradition in Africa of directly linking agricultural colleges and universities with the provision of agricultural extension services to farmers. Within Sub-Saharan Africa, there are only a handful of countries viewed as maintaining an effective extension system, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. It is not an accident that those countries also have fairly strong agricultural sectors.
Despite these constraints, there are a significant number of Africans with professional training in agriculture across the region, many of them having attended international universities. These professionals represent a reservoir of technical skills and experience as well as the ability to operate more effectively within their own countries than professionals from outside of the region.
It is this corps of African agricultural professionals who should form the foundation of the institutional infrastructure improvements that are needed to help African agriculture move forward. As recommended in the Jayne policy brief, when the U.S. government (and other donor countries) provide funds for agricultural development projects in African countries, those resources should focus more on developing the capacity of local universities and other institutions to carry on the work once the donor funds are exhausted, as well as honing the skills and experience of the individual African scientists and technicians--not only scientific and research skills, but also know-how about project management and proper accounting for funds.
One of the fundamental building blocks for the emergence of well-regarded agricultural universities in Asian countries such as India and Indonesia in the 1970’s and 1980’s were the investments made by U.S. agencies and foundations as well as their own governments in educating Asian students in agricultural disciplines at U.S. universities. Today, it can cost foreign students as much as $55,000 per year to pursue graduate studies at U.S. universities when all costs are considered. A less costly approach, less than $15,000 per year, is the sandwich master’s degree program in agricultural economics pioneered at the University of Pretoria, where African students can get gather together to receive high-quality classroom training at the Pretoria campus, with some of the instruction from U.S. academics, but conduct their field research for their theses or dissertations back in their home countries.