TAGDEV: An Example of How African Universities Are Moving Lower to Influence Change in Communities

African universities are under significant pressure to show their relevance to a continent that lags behind in many aspects of human and economic development. Parents send their children to school expecting them to get jobs and solve community problems. But as more universities open, and more learners attain degrees, Africa’s poverty levels remain high, at 40 percent of the continent’s population, condemning millions of people to a substandard lifestyle.

Innovation and willingness to cross traditional academic boundaries have become more urgent for many in the academia. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a key subject of reference in national and global discussions today – seems to demand of them climbing down the ivory tower and getting their hands dirty.

Irene Akite, a part time lecturer and PhD student at Gulu University in Uganda, is one of those living a new experience as she researches into rice profitability in Uganda.

The country’s agriculture sector employs 72 percent of the population, according to the World Bank. That alone underlines its importance to the economy. Interventions to lift people’s livelihoods, many argue, have to start with that sector.

The government has a list of strategic commodities for the economy and among them is rice. Rice production grew to 237,000 tons in 2014 from 110,000 tons in 2000 and the crop is drawing more government attention as its imports are now much higher than exports. But the rice commodity is characterised by a host of challenges including low yields, post harvest losses and an unfavourable market environment.

Akite in 2018 started to study Institutional Drivers of Rice Marketing Systems in Uganda for her PhD, having realised that while smallholder farmers were excited about growing rice and earning money, they often got in return less than what they invested but hardly realised that because they didn’t document.

Her interactions with rice farmers in northern Uganda have sucked her in to the extent that she too has become a rice farmer among them. She is passionate about it and feels a great sense of responsibility to make rice farming profitable for the smallholder farmer.

“It will be useless for me to do this research and then leave it with the elites to use. Of course I will have policy recommendations. But it is more important for me to give the results back to the farmers and see that we can improve on the areas where we are not performing well,” Akite tells me.

This passion and responsibility are actually the aspects her sponsors and supervisors were looking for. Akite is just an example of a new approach to university teaching, learning and research in Africa meant to create instant impact especially in rural agricultural communities.

She is a beneficiary of a PhD grant from the Transforming African Universities to meaningfully contribute to Africa’s Growth and Development (TAGDev) project implemented at Gulu University in Uganda and Egerton University in Kenya.

The project is funded by the Mastercard Foundation and managed by the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) – a consortium of more than 120 universities in 38 African countries.

It is designed in a way that it directly links student training and research to community needs, whereby a learner or researcher is mentored to identify a need in a particular community, study it, and work with the university and the community to find a solution. In short, TAGDEV students are expected to become agents of change and role models in their communities.

The programme has three mainly approaches: student training, community engagement and entrepreneurship orientation. The first approach comes with sponsorship and skilling of undergraduate and master’s students into leaders and entrepreneurs. The second deals with action research in communities and the third is about skilling in entrepreneurship of even non-university learners including those in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) institutions.

Egerton and Gulu are expected to have trained 220 masters and undergraduate students from across Africa by 2024, after eight years of the pilot project implementation. Some aspects of the project, such as entrepreneurship orientation and community action research, have been extended to other RUFORUM member universities across the continent. Here, the universities support entrepreneurship mentorship of their students and some members of the communities. They teach them how to develop their business ideas, make business plans and in some cases, give them start-up capital to implement their business ideas.

“We talk about community orientation, that the university should be of relevance to the community in the way we design our curricula, the way we train the students and the way we do research. Our research is geared towards identifying and trying to find solutions to existing community problems be it in agriculture, nutrition, or agri-entrepreneurship,” says Dr. Walter Odongo, Senior Lecturer-Agricultural Economics, Faculty of Agriculture and Environment, Gulu University.

The faculty, between July 23 and 28, 2021, organised a webinar series during which some TAGDAV beneficiary students presented their research findings in a range of agricultural fields. The webinar was themed “Harnessing University Research and Innovations for Sustainable Food Systems”.

Focus was on promoting sustainable community nutrition, improving productivity for smallholder farmers and promoting entrepreneurship in the agriculture sector.

Challenges identified in Uganda’s agriculture during the webinar ranged from low productivity to poor infrastructures, marketing challenges, lack of financing as well as unfavourable government policies. 

TAGDEV seeks a deeper interaction between universities and communities towards a working agricultural system right from family food production and consumption to efficient and profitable farming as well as entrepreneurship along the agricultural value chain.

Improving productivity for sustainable farm based micro-enterprises development

Akite’s presentation, “What drives profit efficiency in Rice production? – A case of smallholder rice farmers in Northern Uganda”, revealed how farmers organised in groups were able to make more profits than the farmers who sold their harvest individually. She highlighted the need for profit tailored training for farmers, adoption of labour saving technologies, strengthening of extension service delivery as well as improvement of roads, among others.

Promoting sustainable community nutrition

Another researcher, Melas Cayrol Adoko, revealed how they had been able to add sufficient amounts of Vitamin A and Iron to cassava and banana based pancakes, a local delicacy for children, in order to boost nutrition among children aged between two and five years.

Promoting agri-entrepreneurship and market participation

Some two presentations highlighted the importance of market information on prices and quality of bee products such as honey to increase their profitability.

While the TAGDEV approach brings the university closer to the community to help in identification of problems and solution provision, it is still early to predict what kind of impact it will have on the overall national and continental development especially for economies whose populations lean heavily on agriculture. Egerton, Gulu and the other universities implementing TAGDEV activities are only early adopters of the approach.

William Odinga Balikuddembe is a science journalist based in Kampala, Uganda