Capacity building for Africa’s future agrifood system: challenges and the way forward


by Soji Adelaja, Adebayo Aromolaran, Thomas Jayne, Elliot Mghenyi, Frank Place, and Evgeniya Anisimova | December 3, 2019
An expert panel at the recent African Conference of Agricultural Economists discussed what should be done to improve skills of millions of people who work in Africa’s agrifood systems.

Improving skills of millions of people who work in Africa’s agrifood systems is essential for the continent’s agricultural transformation. While the role of good policies and institutions has long been recognized as drivers of agricultural growth, the role of human capacity – hard skills, soft skills, and values – has only recently become adequately appreciated. To explore how best to develop and expand these skills in Africa, the CGIAR Research Program on Policies, Institutions, and Markets (PIM) organized a panel discussion on “The Role of Institutional Capacity Development in Africa’s Agricultural Transformation” at the recent African Conference of Agricultural Economists, held in Abuja, Nigeria, on September 23-26, 2019.

The session was well attended, showing the great interest in the topic. The panel, which included renowned representatives of the African academic and research community, highlighted several key challenges in the area.

One of the major challenges and conclusions emerging from the session was that African universities must play a crucial and decidedly more effective role in anticipating the skill sets demanded by rapidly changing agrifood systems and provide these skills in ways that trickle through the entire economy. This sentiment was also voiced by Dr. Akin Adesina, President of the African Development Bank, who noted recently, “African universities are unfortunately training young people for yesterday’s jobs rather than tomorrow’s demands.”

A related issue is that African universities are not training enough scientists and other technical experts to meaningfully contribute to agrifood systems innovation.  To put this into context, the continent currently only has around 82,000 agricultural scientists, while ideally it should have around 169,000 by 2023 (according to the African Capacity Development Foundation). Achieving this target while maintaining quality will be a huge challenge, especially with limited funding. The costs of upgrading universities are enormous, and the pay-offs – potentially significant – will not be felt in the short run.

In addition to that, because Africa’s agrifood systems are transforming so rapidly, it is often hard to predict which skills might be needed (and hence plan for training). There are new challenges related to effects of climate change and increasing conflict and fragility, arguably more daunting than the historical challenge of promoting technology adoption for cereals.

Another challenge, which is particularly acute in Africa, is the brain drain. Many smart young people, educated locally in publicly funded universities, are leaving the region for more lucrative employment opportunities.

Finally, in the current climate where external finance remains important – particularly in agricultural policy support -- it is difficult to establish a real Africa-driven agenda led by African organizations. As Kevin Urama, Senior Director of the African Development Institute at the African Development Bank, noted in his opening address, few African research and policy analysis organizations receive sustained support from international and local partners – even though local institutional capacity building is a key objective of many international research and funding organizations.

A class of MA students in forestry at the University of Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR


So, what can be done? A few suggestions emerged during the discussion, including:

  • Establish a Transformation Capacity Development Coordination Platform to provide a strategic framework to lobby for and guide institutional capacity development activities in Africa. This could be comprised of sector or thematic platforms, e.g. focusing on agrifood systems, and must include a full range of different actors. The platforms could employ digital tools to build networks of trained Africans and aggregate the supply of skills at relatively lower cost than traditional approaches, partly mitigating the brain drain.
  • Be more explicit about the value proposition of strengthening Africa’s local institutional capacity to support transformation, e.g., determine the expected benefits and costs of allocating sustained resources for human and institutional capacity development in Africa’s agrifood systems. The results of this analysis would then be used to attract the needed financing.
  • Support the development of high-quality local institutions for research, implementation and service delivery and prioritize local content in analytical support for transformation. The support should be commensurate to the challenge, recognizing that new institutions need to demonstrate excellence early on for them to be considered trusted partners and to help build demand for their services, and that institution building takes time and may not deliver the quick results that typically attract politicians operating within election cycles.
  • Promote university reviews of curricula and pedagogy that involve a wide range of stakeholders including private sector. Close consultations with private agribusiness – large and small, informal and registered – can help anticipate the skill demands, as can effective foresight studies. Participants noted the RUFORUM/World Bank’s new support for the upgrading of agricultural higher education in Africa through the Strengthening Higher Agricultural Education in Africa (SHAEA)
  • Better understand the various factors that impede the translation of research into policy guidance and implementation.

African institutions will need to drive this agenda. PIM will be following up with key actors to determine how it can effectively support the advancement of these ideas.

The organizers are grateful to the esteemed panel, which included: Adebayo Aromolaran, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture at Adekunle Ajasin University; Lulama Traub, Technical Director at RENAPRI; Soji Adelaja, John A Hannah Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University; Richard Mkandawire, Professor at Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Njuguna Ndungu, Executive Director of the African Economic Research Consortium. Closing remarks were made by Elliot Mghenyi, the World Bank. Thomas Jayne, Professor at Michigan State University, moderated the event.