African universities and research institutions: supporting family farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond

©FAO//Fredrik Lerneryd

10/08/2020 - 

On 31 July, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), based in Uganda, brought together representatives of universities, research institutions, family farmer organizations, and government agencies for a virtual meeting to discuss and reflect on how universities and research institutions in Africa can support family farmers during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Family farming, which predominantly relies on family labour, provides livelihoods to over 70 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa and accounts for 85 percent of the investments in agriculture in terms of monetary savings and labour value. Family farmers account for two-thirds of the population and work 62 percent of the land. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their ability to access agricultural services, work on their farms, and access markets to sell their produce or buy agricultural inputs has serious consequences for the food and nutrition security of millions of people on the continent.

Guided by Dr Abebe Haile-Gabriel, Assistant Director-General, FAO Regional Office for Africa, the panellists at the virtual meeting discussed the important role family farmers play in Africa’s agriculture sector, highlighted some challenges they are facing, and proposed ways through which universities and research institutions could help to improve their worsening situation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other shocks.

Dr Haile-Gabriel shared remarks from Beth Bechdol, FAO’s Deputy Director-General, in which she drew attention to the huge challenge the farmers are facing. “Despite their important contributions, many family farmers lack adequate income and are poor, often suffer from food insecurity, and are vulnerable to shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic is already impacting on their livelihoods,” she said. “The challenge is further exacerbated by the outbreak of desert locusts, fall armyworm, droughts and conflict, resulting in growing food insecurity.

The Zambian Minister for Agriculture and Livestock, Honourable Michael Katambo, also shared the particular challenges that family farmers in Zambia face. In a statement read on his behalf by Mr Moses Mwale, Director for the Department of Agriculture, Honourable Katambo indicated that in Zambia, “the agricultural sector is dominated by family farmers and rainfed agricultural production systems that are facing increasing challenges from land degradation, declining soil fertility, climate variability, limited farming equipment, limited application of agriculture diversification knowledge and techniques”.

In her statement, Dr Marcela Villarreal, Director for Partnerships and UN Collaboration at FAO, highlighted the role the academic community could play in addressing the challenges family farmers are facing. “Universities and research institutions are better placed to play a key role in generating knowledge and technologies to support agricultural production by family farmers and generating data for evidence-based agricultural development policies to address local challenges brought about by the pandemic,” she said. She also emphasised the needs to support family farmers by identifying long-term solutions for more resilient and sustainable food systems, rather than focusing just on immediate interventions in response to the current pandemic situation.

Ambassador Josefa Leonel Correa Sacko, Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, African Union Commission (AUC), in a statement delivered by Dr Afeikhena Jerome, her Special Advisor, outlined areas in which universities in Africa can assist family farmers. Among other areas of support, universities should assist governments to design policies and strategies that will help countries to recover and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic. For best results, such recovery measures, both in the medium- and long-term, should be informed not only by the impacts of COVID-19 but by underlying challenges already in the systems.

In his contribution on the strategies to help family farmers, Dr Stephen Muchiri, Chief Executive Officer of the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF), said that most technologies needed by the farmers are stuck on the shelves and in factories. He called for partnerships to come up with innovative ways to transfer technologies to the farmers; for universities to continue integrating studies with industry to avoid a disconnect between what students are learning and what they are expected to do in their work; and the need to digitalise agriculture and collaboration on developing digital content for the farmers.

The Executive Director of the West and Central African Council for Agricultural Research and Development (CORAF), Dr. Abdou Tenkouano, emphasised the need for research organizations to put farmers at the centre of their research agenda. This would ensure that research addresses the needs of the farmers and ownership of the outputs by the farmers. Research organisations should also facilitate market’s access to the farmers (as opposed farmers access to the markets) and facilitate farmers’ access to inputs in quantities that will fulfil their needs and which they can afford to buy. Stakeholders at the meeting where reminded about the United Nations Decade of Family Farming 2019-2028 (UNDFF) which provides a comprehensive framework, that can be adapted into context-specific National Action Plans, for actions to be undertaken collectively and coherently to support family farmers.

The UNDFF serves as a framework for countries to develop public policies and investments to support family farming from a holistic perspective, unleashing the transformative potential of family farmers to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union's Agenda 2063.


The virtual event can be viewed in its entirety here.