Africa’s agricultural R&D spending ‘a mixed bag’

Thirteen countries saw cuts in agricultural R&D spending Copyright: Flickr/lebeccio

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[CAPE TOWN] The amount of money that Sub-Saharan African countries spend annually on agricultural research and development (R&D) rose by 20 per cent between 2001 and 2008, according to a study. But while some countries have been spending more, others are losing ground.

And, worryingly, Africa’s scientific workforce is becoming less well-educated, with the proportion of researchers who have only Bachelor’s degrees increasing dramatically in recent years.

The findings are presented in a report published this week (7 April) by Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI), an initiative of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The report, ‘African Agricultural R&D in the New Millennium: Progress for Some, Challenges for Many’, surveyed agricultural R&D spending in more than 300 institutions across 32 Sub-Saharan African countries that account for more than 90 per cent of the region’s agricultural gross domestic product (GDP).

It found that annual spending rose from US$1.4 billion in 2001 to US$1.7 billion in 2008.

Gert-Jan Stads, co-author of the report and programme coordinator for ASTI, said at a press briefing that the increase is encouraging because agricultural R&D spending stagnated in the 1990s. But he said that most of the increase has gone towards salaries and equipment rather than actual research, and came from only a handful of nations.

Nigeria, which has overtaken South Africa as the continent’s agricultural research heavyweight, accounts for one-third of the total increase. It paid for 23.2 per cent of Africa’s total public agricultural R&D in 2008 — up from 9.8 per cent in 1991. Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda are the other big investors.

But spending actually declined in some of these countries. Ethiopia’s funding shrank by US$28 million between 2001 and 2008, for example. And South Africa cut its spending by US$12 million — and its share of the region’s funding shrank from 19.3 per cent to 15.6 per cent.

However, these declines are less worrying than funding drops in poorer countries, the report said.

Thirteen countries experienced negative growth in agricultural R&D spending, of which seven are Francophone countries in West and Central Africa. Many of the 13 also experienced negative R&D growth during the 1990s — a "major area of concern", according to the report.

A common factor is the winding up of large donor-funded projects. For example, the decline in World Bank funding since the 1990s has hit spending in Guinea, Niger, Senegal and Zambia. This raises questions about the long-term effectiveness of this type of funding, the report said.

The continent’s ageing research workforce and the decline in qualification levels among research staff is also causing concern.

In Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea and Mozambique, more than half the research workforce had only Bachelor’s degrees. The share of BSc-qualified staff grew by 20 per cent in Zambia, and by eight per cent in Botswana. These rises are "further straining already inadequate training opportunities and far exceeding the capacity for appropriate oversight and mentorship by senior researchers".

This ‘juniorisation’ results from recruitment freezes followed by rapid hiring spurts, a lack of training opportunities, and fewer senior staff to tutor youngsters, the report says.

A rapidly ageing research force compounds the problem, particularly in West and Central Africa. In Senegal, nearly 90 per cent of agricultural research staff are aged 40 or older.

The report recommended that R&D investments focus on three areas: increasing and stabilising research funding, addressing training constraints, and improving regional cooperation.

The primary source of funding must come from governments, although the private sector and levies on exports can help, the report said.

But efforts to communicate research findings to farmers also need a boost, said Nienke Beintema, the report’s co-author and head of the ASTI initiative. "The underinvestment in extension work is [just] as severe, and maybe more so, than the underinvestment in R&D," she said at the press briefing.

Link to full report  [1.7MB]