Dr. Kakoli Ghosh, Strategic Program on Sustainable Agriculture Management Team, FAO Ms. Loreta Zdanovaite, Partnerships Officer, Division of Partnerships, FAO
When young people from small towns and villages seek higher education they have to usually migrate to big cities leaving their local communities behind. On completion of their degree from the Universities, they generally prefer staying in cities, in search of a good job and a successful career. Though this is a standard practice, it is also a case of lost opportunities, especially for students who pursue higher education in agriculture. Here is why.
Agriculture covers a range of subjects from agronomy and dairy science to plant and animal health–and for many small -holder farmers and producers, there is a tremendous need for infusion of new knowledge and innovations to upgrade farming practices to improve income and livelihoods. However, there is usually a lack of availability of such support for them in a timely manner. At the same time, all Master’s level students studying agricultural sciences have to conduct research and prepare their dissertations on topical issues as part of their courses. Could it be possible to incentivise students to return to their communities for some time to look at local agriculture problems with fresh eyes and share their new knowledge? Can such reverse engineering accelerate problem solving at a local level and spur innovations? What would entice young people and their local community to create such knowledge linkages?
An small initiative was carried-out with the partner RUFORUM1 to try this out to strengthen linkages between academic knowledge and its ground-based applications. The goal was to promote youth support for SDG2- End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Graduate students from African agriculture universities were offered a six-month Community-Based Field Attachment2 to share their knowledge and research experience with rural communities and receive feedback from communities on their specific research areas. The expectation was that such an interaction would provide graduate students an opportunity to a) link academic work with experience of rural community, b) increase practical skills to apply research findings in development-related field projects as well as c) provide local agencies, farmers groups and organizations with the specialized knowledge that can generate innovative solutions to improve rural livelihoods.
There was a high response from students, however, based on available resources five each of male and female graduate students from RUFORUM member universities from Benin, Uganda, Kenya and Lesotho were selected for implementing their field projects (Table 1). During their stay with the rural communities, those students interacted with local farmers, village institutions and community elders to discuss and share their knowledge and work together to develop locally- based solutions. With the guidance of their professors as mentors, they reached out to a range of local stakeholders including farmers, agricultural traders, farmer associations, community health institutions, veterinary and extension services and rural community leaders to disseminate their research and also learn from them. They organized interactive workshops and trainings, made open-air presentations and hosted radio shows to increase outreach and share experiences. (Box 1). All participants provided regular reports of their progress to the RUFORUM Secretariat, who provided the necessary monitoring of the project.
This limited exercise has provided us with some interesting insights. It is clear that there is a genuine interest among youth to contribute to their local communities. The various topics of their projects on child nutrition, crop production and animal health among others, addressed a pertinent need in that community. The interactions allowed them to link their theoretical knowledge with practice on the ground. Both local communities and academic institutions expressed willingness to undertake more of such knowledge-exchange partnerships as it was a win-win. In future, perhaps such experiences could help universities to design short-term courses to address local issues and nurture innovations. If such initiatives were at scale and sponsored by local institutions, they might also encourage return of educated youth to agriculture in Africa and beyond. That would surely accelerate the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals.
Table 1. Student projects for Community-Based Field Attachments in Africa
1 The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) is a network of 105 universities in 37 countries in Africa, www.ruforum.org.
2 Special Call for Applications: Ten RUFORUM Community-Based Field Attachment Programme Awards