The impact assessment studies on agricultural research in Africa (in most commodities including Rice, Maize) have shown huge payoffs, more than any other investments, reaching rates of return of more than 100%. It is however, necessary to note that impacts of agricultural research have long time lags from initial investment to actually reaping the benefits. This is exacerbated by market failures and adoption constraints. As such any attempt to see impact on development objectives like poverty reduction within 1-5 years is misplaced.
It is the agricultural research investments we make now that will determine the future productivity and resilience of the agro-ecosystems. Our neglect of agricultural research investments in 1970s have partially resulted in the dismal performance of agricultural systems in sub-Saharan Africa we experience now.
I intently observed, listened and contemplated on all the deliberations during the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week. I was amazed by what people know and yet change seems to be dismal.
More investment needed
One thing was clear from all the discussions, Africa needs to step up its investment in agricultural research. Africa already enjoys the research spill overs from research elsewhere and as the former Executive Director of FARA, Prof. Monty Jones reiterated; “If Brazil has developed a well performing variety; we don’t need here in Africa to re-invest the wheel by producing our own similar variety. We can save a lot of resources both in time and finances by adapting the variety to local conditions”. This is very possible if the human and financial capacity of national research systems is up-scaled and maintained.
The need to contextualize
In essence, African scientists need required skills of contextualizing both technological and social innovations from elsewhere and most importantly as they emanate from the local farmers themselves. Thus we need skills in targeting agricultural research and the technologies to specific contexts.
The keynote address by the IFAD President and a presentation by Dr. John Dixon of ACIAR underscored the wonders that developing optimal combinations of existing technologies and management systems can have in reducing poverty if applied to their specific contexts.
We have seen this working in micro-dosing of fertilizers in Rice fields in Vietnam, Indonesia and Burkina Faso. With the available ICT and software power, we have tools to develop optimal combinations that can reduce poverty. Why are we as agricultural researchers failing to do this?
Contextualizing: why are we failing to do this?
Firstly, agricultural researchers are extremely good at confining themselves in their comfort zone and thus keep a blind eye of other sub-systems that complement their area of expertise. A breeder is always looking for the next high yielding variety in the pipeline regardless of contexts for the existing varieties and the social systems. This applies to other professionals as well. Africa needs not only researchers who work with other scientists in an interdisciplinary manner but rather those who are able to analyse the whole farming systems because they are interdisciplinary themselves.
The second challenge is the nature of agricultural research projects that are being implemented: normally spanning only a few years and disconnected to what others have done previously. This entails that there is little understanding of contexts and identification of principles relevant to take successful technologies to scale.
The future we want for agricultural research: begging?
In terms of both targeting and financing of research, agricultural researchers have a huge task of focusing on research that is relevant to the farmers and other end users. National governments have a responsibility not only to dedicate 10% of national budgets to the agricultural sector but also ensuring that there is enough funding for research that will enhance the sustainability of the gains from increased agricultural funding. With national governments having other priorities to fund from limited finances, it is time agricultural researchers also start thinking of how they can make their research more beneficial to end users and ultimately regenerate financial resources to fund the sub-sequent programmes.
This can happen through proper targeting and scaling of agricultural research thus allowing us to gain levies from high value research and subsidize the poverty reducing agriculture research.
While attending the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week was a great opportunity for young agricultural researchers to learn and share their knowledge, it was also a wake-up call on the future we want for agricultural research in Africa.
Is it the one where we run around busy chasing (begging in the name of networking) for funds or isn’t it? Or the one in which we think agricultural research and development initiatives are beneficial because they can create their own wealth? We may not have the answers at hand but it’s something we need to deeply think of. What are your thoughts on this?