Benefits of integrating food systems with education

AFRICAN agriculture cannot be transformed in isolation because in most agriculture-driven economies agriculture anchors more than 75% of other sectors.

AFRICAN agriculture cannot be transformed in isolation because in most agriculture-driven economies agriculture anchors more than 75% of other sectors. The fact that agriculture and food systems transformation require some technical knowledge from technocrats along value chains is a major reason for tying food systems to the education sector.

Technocrats like agronomists, agriculture economists and livestock specialists often come from tertiary institutions whose knowledge can only be valuable if curricula are frequently reviewed.

Power of specialisation

Broader agriculture and food system transformation is about specialisation through which value chains can be fully exploited instead of exporting raw commodities which happens due to lack of rigorous specialisation. For instance, one of the reasons most African countries continue to export fruits in a raw state is because these countries have not invested in knowledge in fruit processing and value addition through formal education systems including tertiary institutions.

Countries importing raw fruits from Africa have kept specialised knowledge to themselves as part of protecting their advantages which they do not want to lose by sharing highly specialised knowledge.

After farmers have done their part by producing all kinds of commodities, the onus is on African academics and researchers to become specialists in ensuring African food commodities are not exported in a raw state. That is why education curricula should produce specialists for every commodity at every level. Each African country should have more food scientists than political scientists and each commodity should have a big team of food scientists from farm to fork.

Given that more than 70% of agricultural production is in the hands of women, gender and women’s empowerment in agriculture should be an integral component of university curricula at the same level as production, logistics and food processing. More value can also be generated when institutions of higher learning like polytechnics and universities are twinned with communities.

It is unfortunate that institutions of higher learning are missing in the production of appropriate technology which has become a domain for small to medium enterprises (SMEs) in infrastructure and equipment enterprises. Given that the majority of youth who fail to succeed academically end up in agricultural production and marketing, creates opportunities for peer-to-peer knowledge transfer in line with key characteristics like age and gender. It is easier for youths to convince each other as they are good at communicating through tools like ICTs.

However, ICTs should not be used as an avenue for taxing ordinary people for the benefit of a few. For instance, African banks, mobile service providers and insurance companies are using ICTs to siphon money from people who have become addicted to social media.

What is the source of information for transforming agriculture and food systems?

If education curricula are silent on information sources it is difficult to achieve transformation. This is because, due to a competitive mindset, private companies share knowledge selectively. In most cases private companies promote their good side through ignoring lessons and challenges which may actually be more important. One the other hand, public sources of information like mass markets can provide valuable information because they have much exposure to many actors and impacts.

Academic institutions can use the food system to generate evidence with great potential for influencing policy attention towards the recognition, support and protection of mass markets, SMEs and availing of appropriate technologies on processing and preservation. When support becomes part of national programmes driven by colleges and universities, the fiscus can see value in supporting academic departments that are developing home-grown agricultural supply chains and food systems.

Knowledge around appropriate food preservation technologies can be embedded at industrial parks occupied by the young generation who are attached to colleges and universities. This is how colleges and universities can unlock more value from key economic drivers in production zones where more than 30% of horticultural produce is lost due to lack of appropriate food preservation technologies.

Consolidating all these outcomes will enable policies to support the creation of industries that are embedded with knowledge and skills from colleges and universities which can assist in creating employment for graduates from institutions of higher learning. As long as higher learning institutions are not generating knowledge and skills that can grow agriculture and food systems into a viable industrial ecosystem, graduate unemployment will continue rising since there will be no industry to absorb all graduates churned out by tertiary institutions every year. SMEs are currently dominated by people whose knowledge levels may not be able to employ sophisticated graduates. It means graduates from colleges and universities have to develop frameworks for creating their own employment. Government is doing its part by providing an enabling environment for academic institutions to apply their knowledge and lure private investors who can build frameworks for employing graduates.

Much can be achieved by streamlining academic programmes from the current more than 100 subjects being studied in one university department. For the sake of uniformity and consistency in consolidating and rolling out relevant knowledge, the subjects should not be more than 20 in one department because the more the subjects the shallower the knowledge outcomes. A consolidated framework will also assist in positioning supply chain actors and supporting institutions that are currently working in silos instead of collaborating through synchronised knowledge, expertise and skills towards recognising, supporting and protecting the agricultural sector and food systems.

Absence of positioning and consolidation is one of the major reasons why there is a mismatch between knowledge and information about the needs of each supply chain node.

When more than 90% of the knowledge acquired at higher level is underutilised in communities, it translates to low return on investment. Critical questions include: Who is driving African agriculture and food systems and what level of expertise do those people have/need? What skills base is driving the agricultural sector and entire food systems? Colleges and universities should be positioned at a level where they can answer some of these questions in building higher level expertise models that can then be unpacked for lower-level institutions. Consolidation is also required at the level of government departments so that the Agriculture ministry does not continue to run with its own extension officers without any relationship with other government departments like industry, health, ICTs, local government and commerce or SMEs. Consolidating initiatives made by several institutions of higher learning and other stakeholders can also enhance resource utilisation and re-purposing in ways that generate more value.

When data, information and knowledge are consolidated, it becomes possible to approach mass markets as institutions not a collection of individual farmers, vendors and traders. Production zones will also be considered institutions that should have a strong relationship with formal institutions for purposes of knowledge co-creation, adding value to resources on the production side as well as making visible the contribution of SMEs and mass markets to socio-economic development.

Currently, there is no such consolidated platform in most African countries, making it difficult to see synergies between existing supply chain technologies such as ICTs, production technologies like irrigation systems, preservation technologies, food processing technologies and many others. Gaps can only be seen and closed through consolidation which can also assist in answering questions like:

  • To what extent is imported knowledge on technologies influencing higher learning compared to indigenous knowledge systems (IKS)?
  • How are ICTs being used to build relationships between industrial modern cooling facilities and IKS?
  • What is the science behind indigenous knowledge on food processing and preservation that can be modernised without adding costs to farmers and other value chain actors?

Due to the prevailing mentality which does not recognise rural communities, production zones, mass markets and SMEs as institutions with valuable knowledge and skills that can guide industrial development, most African universities are not approaching mass markets and similar institutions for student attachments. Yet, at a time African countries are grappling with global knowledge and home-grown indigenous growth pathways for transitioning from colonial systems, it is not enough to depend on formal academic education and formal companies. No wonder structural unemployment is increasing in most African countries as shown by how most academic qualifications do not match industry requirements. To what extent can the so-called informal sector continue to be called informal when it is the one providing wage employment as shown in African mass food markets.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist

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