Posted July 1996
by W.I. Lindley, L. Van Crowder and N. Doron
Agricultural Extension and Education Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division
The improvement of a country's human resource capacity for productivity is a pre-requisite for social and economic development. In the agricultural sector, both formal and non-formal education are essential for improving food security and rural employment and reducing poverty. Formal agricultural education is needed for the production of skilled manpower to serve the agricultural sector through extension, research, entrepreneurship and commerce. Non-formal agricultural education, often provided by both public and private extension services, is needed for training of farmers, farm families and workers and for capacity-building in a wide range of rural organizations and groups.
To meet the challenges of agricultural production and food security facing Africa today and in the 21st century, countries must be willing to invest in their human capital for development. Improving human capital in agriculture is especially important in the low-income, food-deficit countries of Africa where the shortage of trained human resources is a major limiting factor to development.
UNESCO's 1993 World Education Report shows that opportunities for higher (tertiary level) education vary greatly in Africa. They range from enrolments of 1698 per 100,000 inhabitants in Egypt to 16 per 100,000 in Mozambique. In the francophone countries, the range goes from 958 in Morocco to 50 per 100,000 in Rwanda. Not surprisingly, there is a clear correlation between economic development and the number of students enrolled in higher education. There are a number of countries where low levels of education are accompanied by per capita annual incomes of below US$ 500. This includes much of Sub-Saharan Africa.
University education in agriculture in Africa is at a crossroads. Financial constraints are severe and the demand for higher quality education has never been greater. There is a need for greater educational relevance and higher quality graduates. There is an obligation to enrol more women and to produce students who are prepared to go on to positions of leadership. Some progress has been made. A recent FAO study shows that, in the past ten years, the enrolment of women in intermediate and higher level has increased from an average of 15 percent to nearly 25 percent of the total students studying agriculture in Africa. In the French language institutions, the results show an increase from 14 percent to 20 percent. But many problems remain. University graduates are no longer automatically being hired by governments and employers in the private sector are demanding graduates with different, and higher level, skills and knowledge. Education outside the continent, which has been seen as a way to fill the manpower gap, has often proved to be inappropriate to the unique development needs of African countries.
Post-graduate training to provide high-level scientists and researchers is an essential part of quality improvement. It is also critical that institutions of higher education play a developmental role by establishing linkages with relevant private and public agricultural agencies and with farming communities. Curricular revision should include basic foundation courses to be taken by all students, leaving the final portion of the educational cycle for specialized training of subject-matter specialists, research scientists, and those who wish to pursue academic careers.
Curricula should include important topics that are generally missing such as the role of women in agricultural development, farming systems management, agri-business and marketing, environmental protection, and population issues. Gender discrimination in enrolment practices should be eliminated and participation of women at all levels of educational, research and extension systems should be encouraged. A common regional policy for reforming national higher education systems and the creation of centres of excellence should be priority considerations for educational policy makers.
At the intermediate level, student demand does not justify building new colleges and schools. Rather, the need is for competency-based education so students can acquire the skills, knowledge and attitudes that are being demanded by governments and private employers. It is a time for private and public partnerships that lead to curriculum revision and improved practical skills of graduates. The goal should be to produce students who can find jobs because they are well-trained and want to work in agriculture.
It is at the intermediate level that most of Africa's field-level agricultural extension workers are prepared. It is increasingly clear that extension workers need better training in both technical agriculture and in the extension methods needed to disseminate production technologies to the thousands of small-scale farmers who need them. Food security in the low-income, food-deficit countries should be a first priority. The training of extension workers should emphasize skills and knowledge for sustained crop production and strategies for the prevention of food losses during harvest, storage, marketing and processing.
In East Africa, at the secondary school level, there are several examples where agriculture is an examination subject and, along with other science subjects, is providing the foundation for secondary students who want to study agriculture at the tertiary level. In West Africa, the study of agriculture in regular secondary schools is very limited and is an issue that needs to be addressed as part of national and regional educational policy.
At the elementary level, the study of agriculture is severely limited. In some instances, school gardens have been promoted, but in general agriculture is not taught as a subject at the elementary level. Rural students drop out of school at a very high rate. In many cases, as many as 90 percent do not go beyond elementary school. If they are to study agriculture in a school setting, it will have to be at the elementary level. The farming population comes from rural youth and Africa's food security depends on those farmers.
The total population in West Africa will triple between 1950 and 2000, and urban population levels are growing at an even faster rate. In 1950, the urban/rural population ratio was 1:10, in 1990 it was 1:3.4 and in 2010 it is projected to be 1:2. With the exception of Burkina Faso, per capita food intake is diminishing. Increasing population density and pressure on the land have altered traditional production patterns and sustained agricultural production is being threatened.
The school age population is expected to double in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010. Currently, average primary school enrolment in the region is approximately 40 percent, and that low figure is compounded by a drop-out rate of 40 percent. The risk of increasing the current illiteracy rate of 70 percent seems very great indeed.
A recent study in six francophone countries of the Sahel (Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Chad) shows that there are notable differences among the agricultural education systems of the these countries. The following problems were found to be common to all, however:
The origins of these problems were found to be diverse in nature and range from too low student/teacher ratios, exorbitant costs for non-teacher salaries (i.e., administrator salaries), high drop-out/failure rates, no-fee and scholarship policies, inadequate facilities and equipment, and the inability of governments to guarantee, as in the past, immediate employment to graduates. The report also points out that a regional policy for agricultural education and training and a regional cooperative approach are not only desirable, but possible to achieve. A major constraint is the relatively low level of funding allocated to education in agriculture.
Furthermore, teaching methods and curricula are not being adjusted to the new requirements and demands for trained manpower in agriculture, especially in the private sector. Government employment of graduates is no longer assured; structural adjustment is having a negative effect not only traditional employment patterns, but on the ability of educational institutions to respond to trained manpower needs.
A critical need at the intermediate level of agricultural education is to raise the internal efficiency of the existing systems so that an increased output of students is obtained from the same facilities. At university-level agricultural education, there is a pressing need for institutions to strengthen links with rural society so as to play a full part in the development efforts of their region or community. Agricultural universities and colleges also need to have closer links with current national research in applied fields. At all levels, there is a need for a critical review of subject-matter content and a judicious replanning of courses to fit employment opportunities and to address the problems and issues of sustainable agricultural production and rural development. Priority attention should be given to upgrading teaching skills and methods with an emphasis on practical, field-oriented student training.
What matters most for economic development in Africa is the capability of rural people to be efficient producers given their natural resource base. There is little doubt that economic and social development, and the benefits that accrue such as improved nutrition and health, require an educated populace. No country has become developed without well-educated people and a strong agricultural base that provides food security. Good educational systems will not solve all of the problems, but they are a prerequisite for sustained agricultural production and economic development.
The mission of agricultural education in Africa in the 21st century is to work toward improved, relevant, and effective teaching, research, and extension. To contribute food security for all, education in agriculture must prepare a critical mass of dedicated, well-trained men and women who are committed to achieving socio-economic improvement for Africa.