While African economies are largely dependent on agricultural production, and the region's population is set to double to two billion by 2050, African countries continue to under-invest in agricultural research and development (R&D). Moreover, climate change, soil degradation and volatile food prices further threaten food security at a time when increasing agricultural output is paramount. Research outputs in many countries are impeded by insufficient funding, inadequate human resource capacity, poor research infrastructure and lack of an appropriately supportive policy environment.
In Taking Stock of National Agricultural R&D Capacity in Africa south of the Sahara, a report produced by IFPRI's Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI), researchers Nienke Beintema and Gert-Jan Stads summarise recent progress in the development of national agricultural research systems in Africa south of the Sahara (SSA). The report is accompanied by new benchmarking tools and country factsheets.
New quantitative evidence presented in the report demonstrates that, although agricultural R&D spending and human resource capacity has grown considerably in the region since 2000, it was concentrated in only a few African countries. In 2012, just three countries – Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa – accounted for half the region's agricultural R&D investments.
Regional spending on agricultural R&D must double if the countries of SSA are to meet the recommended United Nations (UN) and African Union's target of investing 1 per cent of agricultural GDP in public agricultural R&D, not to mention the even more ambitious post-2015 recommendation that low- and middle-income countries ramp up spending on agricultural R&D by 5 per cent per year from 2015 to 2025.
The report highlights additional challenges to national agricultural research systems, including:
· Low staff retention and qualification levels: Civil service recruitment restrictions, low salaries and inadequate funding have prevented many public agricultural research institutions from competing for, training and retaining staff; in addition, a significant share of senior researchers are approaching retirement age. As a result, many countries lack a critical mass of PhD-qualified researchers needed to conceive of, execute and manage viable research programs; to communicate effectively with policy-makers, donors and other stakeholders; and to maximise their institutes' chances of securing (regional) competitive funding.
· Low female participation: Although female participation in agricultural R&D has increased in recent years, women have less influence in decision-making and policy processes because men continue to dominate in senior research and management positions.
· High funding volatility: Volatile fluctuations in agricultural R&D funding exert negative impacts on agricultural research systems by impeding strategic planning, undermining the conduct of research programs, demotivating staff and eroding prior progress, all of which affect the quality, quantity and efficiency of research outcomes and their ultimate impact on agricultural productivity and poverty alleviation.
· High donor dependency: Significant shares of government funding are generally allocated to salaries, leaving many countries dependent on donor and development bank funding to support the day-to-day costs of operating research programs and developing and maintaining R&D infrastructure; apart from increasing funding volatility, high dependence on donor funding also has the potential to skew national research priorities.
In order to address these many challenges, African research institutes need to be staffed with highly qualified researchers and supported with sufficient resources to conduct effective programs that target priority areas. National governments and donor organizations must, therefore, not only expand their investments in agricultural research, but also expand their investments in agricultural higher education to allow universities to increase the number and size of their MSc and PhD programs and to improve the curricula of existing programs. The regional community also has an important role to play, particularly in supporting small countries with limited or non-existent research capacities and training opportunities.
Gender considerations also need to be taken into account in terms of identifying gender-specific research needs, designing training programs and determining criteria for technology development and adaptation. Governments must also take action to ensure that extension agencies are strengthened. Finally, it is essential that governments provide the necessary policy environments to stimulate cooperation among R&D agencies, as well as among government agencies, universities, and extension services.
If current funding constraints continue, African governments and research agencies will be highly restricted in their options to address these diverse challenges to the development of their agricultural research systems. The report details numerous successful policy changes already adopted in some SSA countries, which offer valuable lessons for others.