Africa is a rich continent bursting with potential. Unfortunately, nobody eats potential. The ultimate measure of progress is the wellbeing of people – and Africa’s recent growth has not done nearly as much as it should to reduce poverty and hunger, or improve health and education. To sustain growth that improves the lives of all Africans, the continent needs an economic transformation that taps into Africa’s riches: its fertile land, its extensive fisheries and forests, and the energy and ingenuity of its people. The numbers are compelling: at 200 million hectares, the continent is home to nearly half of the world’s uncultivated land that can be brought into production. Africa has 33 million farms of less than 2 hectares, uses only 2 percent of its renewable water resources compared to 5 percent globally, and agriculture provides up to 69 percent of all jobs on the continent. About 50 percent of the farmers are women. The average age of farmers in Africa is 60, a stark contrast to 60 percent of the population who are under 24. It is estimated that by 2050, over 330 million young Africans will have entered the labour market. Agriculture today accounts for 32% of GDP in Africa and is the sector that offers greatest potential for poverty reduction and job creation, particularly among vulnerable rural populations and urban dwellers with limited job opportunities.Visioning Africa’s Agricultural Ecosystem
Given Africa’s abundant resources, including a resourceful and enterprising youth population, strategic investments in agriculture can unleash virtuous growth cycles. Africa’s objective for the coming decades is to “ensure food security for a population that is increasing and becoming more urbanised, helping to create wealth and jobs, in rural areas in particular, while reducing inequalities and vulnerability and protecting environmental and human capital”. The CAADP-Malabo Declaration vision focuses on promoting and achieving accelerated African agricultural growth and transformation for shared prosperity and improved livelihoods. The Malabo Declaration mission is to achieve this transformation through harnessing opportunities for inclusive growth and sustainable development, and working through and empowering multi-stakeholder partnerships. The Africa agricultural transformation agenda, therefore, envisions farmers able to feed their families and the wider community, producing enough to earn a living without compromising the ecosystem and having the knowledge to make better decisions about what to produce and how to produce it.
Prologue: The promise of Africa, as a vibrant strong player in the global economy, remains steadfast, especially, after an impressive 15-year period of steady economic growth. During that period, per capita GDP surged to an average of 3%. However, more recently, this remarkable upturn in the continent’s development fortunes, have diminished, raising concerns about Africa’s renaissance. Nevertheless, the continent, through its vision 2063, the“ Africa We Want,” remains steadfast in its efforts to build a viable and prosperous home for her people and at the at the same time, contribute to the global economy.
This grand vision for Africa, notwithstanding, requires that the fundamental levers for development be engaged. Agriculture is one of the fundamental levers needed to actualize Africa’s Vision 2063. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth originating in agriculture is twice as effective in benefiting the poorest half of a country’s population as growth generated in non-agricultural sectors. Moreover, because most poor people depend on agriculture for a living, as countries develop, per worker agricultural GDP will grow faster than per worker GDP in other sectors. Accordingly, making agriculture work for Africa’s farming communities is essential to sustain its development trajectory. It is in that regard that the engagement quality of an Africa University in development is important. The journey for deeper engagement of African Universities in the continent’s development process, is a long one, but it has to be made. Today, that journey is more or less synonymous with the growth and role of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), whose 85 majority agriculture and allied science teaching and research university members, are found in 35 African countries.
RUFORUM’s first steps to innovate for development impact: RUFORUM sees a vibrant agricultural sector linked to African universities which can produce high-performing graduates and high-quality research responsive to the demands of Africa’s farmers and agribusiness sector for innovations and able to generate sustainable livelihoods and national economic development. This vision of success is underpinned by the fact that “a one-year increase in the tertiary education stock can raise the long-run steady-state level of African GDP per capita by 12%”. Accordingly, towards the start of Africa’s renaissance, in the early 1990’s, the RUFORUM network was born out of necessity by African Universities, who collectively created an innovative framework to advance their engagement in development processes and impact delivery. The main challenge at that time, a weak human resource, limited and or disintegrated education systems and aging and understaffed agricultural research systems, among others, are still relevant in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa today. Many countries of sub-Saharan Africa thus see the urgency to reinforce their development imperatives, in which, the quality of human resources is critical for sustained growth and development.
To be sure, universities today must train human resources who will underpin attainment of the UN’s Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development and Africa Union’s Agenda 2063. Indeed, the UNDP at its 2014 Commission on Population and Development placed primacy on the role of youth for Africa’s development. The UNDP noted that, “Africa’s young people have the potential to be a powerful engine for development. But to realize this potential, we must invest in them, address their particular needs, include them in decision-making and empower them to become agents of change.” Indeed, the African Union named 2017 as the “Year of harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in youth.” To that extent, RUFORUM supports the implementation of African Union’s Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa 2024 (STISA-2024), to eradicate hunger and achieve food and nutrition security. It is our considered view that the RUFORUM network is well positioned to dynamically contribute to Africa’s development vision, having the scope and mandate to do so.
I write this article as a young African woman with a passion for her continent and a hunger for innovation.
As I attended one of the pre-events of the 13th RUFORUM Annual General Meeting in Lilongwe, Malawi, I happened to sit in one of the side events in which the Provost for EARTH University, Dr Daniel Sherrard shared the vision of EARTH University with Deans and Principals of African universities. I have heard about EARTH University quite a number of times. For a reason, which I will explain as I go along, the innovativeness with which this university approaches higher education struck me this time.
Located in the heart of a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica, the university was established in 1990 with the aim of investing in students – predominantly from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa to become leaders of positive socio-economic and environmental change for their home countries and the world at large through a techno-scientific education that also emphasizes ‘ethical entrepreneurship’.
The word ‘EARTH’ itself is an acronym for the Spanish phrase, Escuela de Agricultura de la Region Tropical Humeda.
EARTH University approaches education based on two principles:
- Student-centeredness: This means that students – individually and collectively – explore real challenges first hand and become active participants in accumulating knowledge and generating understanding, as opposed to passively receiving information.
- Experiential: Students are engaged in weekly field experiences, business operations, and a third-year international internship, allowing them to test and build upon the knowledge they have been acquiring.