National commitment to agricultural technology development in Africa
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Blackie, Malcolm. 1993. National commitment to agricultural technology development in Africa . Spore 46. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Malcolm Blackie works as a field scientist for the Rockefeller Foundation, supporting agricultural research in southern Africa. He started his career as an extension officer in the Zimbabwe government and, before joining the Foundation, was Dean of...
Malcolm Blackie works as a field scientist for the Rockefeller Foundation, supporting agricultural research in southern Africa. He started his career as an extension officer in the Zimbabwe government and, before joining the Foundation, was Dean of Agriculture at the University of Zimbabwe. Africa has many problems: poverty, disease, erratic rainfall and war are among them. Many of the continent's problems have been blamed on poor policies, both during colonial times and subsequently. Recent years have witnessed a growing awarenes of, and a commitment to, policy reform in Africa by many of the continent's policy makers. Yet progress in improving the living standards of ordinary Africans remains modest. To many Africans it seems as if they are being asked to do the impossible - to tighten belts when children are already starving; to pay for services when cash, even for subsistence needs, is impossible to find; to produce more, when each year the crops are poorer than the last. At the core of this conundrum is a frightening lack of technology. We know, for example, how to produce 10 tonne yields of maize over much of the mid-altitude ecologies of Africa. However, faced with the problem of helping a poor African farmer, scratching a living from a quarter hectare of land, we have little to offer him - except technologies that are beyond his, or more frequently her, reach. The secret is to have the manpower and the commitment. My work has taken me through the civil service, university, and now into international support for agricultural research. In a quarter century of involvement with the agricultural industries of southern Africa, I have seen the dwindling of effective national support for agricultural research, accompanied by a faltering of agricultural production. Research will not solve all the problems of Africa but, without better technology, many of the problems will persist. The amount of money spent on training African scientists has been immense, and the wastage equally impressive. In one African country with which I work, some 140 scientists have been sent overseas in the past five years for graduate level training. Today, less than 10% of them remain in the research department. True, many are still in the country or in the region, but most are doing jobs other than those for which their advanced training was intended. It may be nice to have a PhD microbiologist running a bus company, but it is a very expensive and wasteful way of developing the private sector. Africa simply cannot afford to squander resources in this manner. Probably the key factor underlying the loss of scientific manpower from the agricultural industries of Africa is the sense that governments themselves are less than committed to research. I have worked with many talented African scientists over the years and share their frustration at trying to do a job with the barest essentials. Agriculture is to do with growing living things, and the agricultural scientist needs to be in the right place, and at the right time, to see what is happening. A week late and there is little or nothing to see and, as importantly, the whole season is wasted. Transport, supplies and funds need to be reliable and adequate. Opportunities for collaboration with scientists in adjacent countries are lost through tedious travel clearance requirements and unnecessary exchange controls. Simply getting the cash to pay the airport tax can be a daunting task in many countries. African countries are poor, and they cannot afford large research services. They will, therefore, need to settle on those things that matter and make sure they allocate sufficient resources to them to ensure that progress is possible. In the very research department with which I am familiar, it would be possible to do more, and better, work if funds were used more rationally. It would be possible to keep scientists at their work, building up the experience and knowledge which is essential to sustained and rapid technology development. It needs vision, leadership and determination. Instead, all too often, African governments ignore the need to build up their own scientific capacity, and come to rely on donor support. If a national scientist is lured away by better conditions elsewhere (and who can blame anyone for this?), it is simpler to request a donor for technical assistance than deal with the underlying problems of salaries and resources. Too many donors connive in this. Today there are more expatriates working in agriculture in Africa than ever there were in colonial times. The loss of African talent from Africa is a direct reflection of the lack of commitment of African governments to supporting their own scientists. African airlines lose millions of dollars annually, yet most continue to operate under heavy subsidies. Ironically, governments are willing to supply the needs and the salaries to keep the skilled staff needed to keep the airline running. It does nothing for many poor farmers who will never use the airline and who have to tighten their already constricting belts to pay for it. Yet those farmers are denied a fair allocation of funds to overcome the very real production constraints which they face. If governments can afford to keep an airline running, they certainly can afford an adequate agricultural research service. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CTA.
- CTA Spore (English)