Strengthening Africa’s food systems for greater nutrition

Friday March 03 2023
Prof Mohammed Belhocine

Prof Mohammed Belhocine, the African Union Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation. PHOTO | COURTESY

The African Union Commissioner for Education, Science, Technology and Innovation, Prof Mohammed Belhocine, speaks on the AU theme of 2022 "Strengthening Resilience in Nutrition and Food Security on the African Continent".

What role does education, science, technology and innovation play in supporting agro-food systems that will lead to greater nutrition and food security resilience?

There are a number of higher education and research institutions that provide teaching, research and extension in agriculture. They build enormous human resources with qualifications for driving the agricultural sector in various fields such as plant genetics and breeding, horticulture, agronomy, animal husbandry, soil science, agricultural economics and agribusiness and innovation, and agriculture engineering and extension. At the same time, these institutions carry out agricultural research and development, contributing to knowledge generation, technology development, and innovations that are important for agro-food systems, food and nutrition security, environmental sustainability, resilience and agricultural growth.

What major contributions have activities under your department made to strengthening agro-food systems?

The department directly contributes to strengthening agro-food systems in the continent through the implementation of its mandate. We have developed and adopted strategic policy frameworks, namely:

  1. The Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16-25);
  2. The Continental TVET strategy, which fosters transformative and responsive education systems;
  3. The Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa (STISA-2024) to facilitate the deployment of science, technology and innovation; and
  4. The African Space Policy and Strategy for harnessing space sciences and technologies in the continent.

A number of programmes have been launched, and strategic institutions operationalised, namely the Pan African University, African Scientific, the Scientific, Technical and Research Commission (STRC), Research and Innovation Council (ASRIC), African Observatory in Science Technology and Innovation (AOSTI), International Centre for the Education of Girls and Women in Africa (CIEFFA) and Pan-African Institute of Education for Development (IPED), which are contributing immensely on the theme of the year through their mandates.

Some of our activities that are strengthening agro-food systems in the continent are:

  • Since its establishment, Pan African University, between 2012 and 2021, has awarded scholarships to 2,582 (830 females and 1,752 males) students from 51 African Union member states to study at the MSc/MA and PhD levels. The PAU further carries out research and promotes innovation, entrepreneurship and agriculture in Africa.
  • Homegrown school feeding initiatives: The heads of State and Government adopted Assembly/AU/Dec.589 (XXVI)/ decision in 2016 that outlines the development of guidelines and frameworks to increase the scale and quality of homegrown school feeding programmes in Africa, and this has brought together various stakeholders and partners to support member states in their national efforts to develop and implement sustainable policies and programmes for zero hunger and combat malnutrition.
  • In 2022, the continent celebrated the Africa Day of School Feeding on 1st March, under the theme: "Nutrition and human capital development in Africa through increased investment in Homegrown School Feeding", directly linking with and raising the importance of the theme of the year.
  • Technical and vocational education and training: The Department of Education, Science, Technology and Innovation (ESTI) promotes policies and programmes that foster youth employment and skills development, innovation and entrepreneurship. The goal is to build a paradigm shift and prepare young people to become job creators rather than job seekers through modernised national TVET systems that take into account agro-entrepreneurship. Currently, the department, in collaboration with African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), is implementing the Skills Initiative for Africa through cooperation with Germany (BMZ) and the European Union and AU member states. It also emphasises a focus on girls and young women entrepreneurs, led by the International Centre for Girls and Women's Education in Africa (CIEFFA).
  • ESTI promotes intra-Africa and international research and innovation through the implementation of the STISA-2024. Since 2011, the department has implemented competitive research grants focused on: Post-harvest and Agriculture; Energy, Renewable and Sustainable Energy and Water and Sanitation, including climate change and fisheries; and Food Nutrition Security and Sustainable Agriculture. More than 40 lead institutions, in partnership with over 200 others from across Africa, received grants ranging from $500,000 to $1 million to support research in Africa and postgraduate students attached to the research projects.
  • Harnessing space science, technology and innovation for food security and sustainable agriculture in Africa: Space systems and applications are formidable tools for food and nutrition security because they systematically monitor simultaneously large areas with high resolution and provide accurate and timely information on agricultural planning and production prospects. For example, in cooperation with the EU, the department is implementing the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security (GMES) & Africa programme in collaboration with the regional and national institutions in the five regions of Africa. The services developed under the GMES & Africa programme contribute to food security and nutrition in all of Africa.

Indeed, the programme is producing monthly agriculture and rangeland seasonal monitoring and assessment bulletins, providing seasonal crop conditions with monthly updates, multi-hazard early warning systems, grain trade, and market information for Eastern Africa. In North Africa, the programme provides information on the status of arable land through land degradation assessment and water availability, as well as developing scenarios for harvest prediction.

In Western Africa, the programme has developed an integrated service providing data and information on wetland types and superficies. In Central Africa, the focus of the programme is the tropical forest monitoring and assessment and Congo Basin water navigability to allow the transportation of agricultural production, among others. In the West, North, East and South African regions, the programme provides information on identifying and protecting potential fishing zones.

What have been the challenges?

Funding for education and science, technology and innovation is a key challenge the department faces in implementing its projects. Investment in ESTI still remains low, far below the one percent GDP agreed to be allocated to research and development. Furthermore, Intra-African cooperation is low, with African institutions working in silos resulting in loss of time and knowledge.

Africa remains weak in terms of infrastructure for data acquisition, archiving and processing which are necessary for developing strong, excellent research centres.

What is the envisaged way forward?

African institutions must encourage the cross-fertilisation of ideas that aim to share data, knowledge and best practices among institutions and people. The agri-food systems are about using big and mega data. Therefore, high-performance computing and cloud computing are currently the solutions and options to adopt. But this will require high-level connectivity in terms of internet for better and real-time data and information access and sharing.

This is how we can improve the competitiveness of Africa's agricultural economics. This is one of the reasons why Africa should invest in space science and technology. The AU is currently undertaking actions to operationalise the African Space Agency (located in Cairo, Egypt) for space activities coordination and regulatory framework at the continental level. This institution will hugely contribute to agricultural innovation in Africa. There is a need to strengthen agricultural networks, boost funding and intra-Africa cooperation, among others.

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