The purpose of this discussion is to highlight some key features and guiding principles of assistance to those engaged in forming, fortifying, and supporting professional capacity building networks in the agricultural sector. The type of networks featured here are critical mechanisms for building the next generation of innovation-minded agricultural scientists in Africa. They are major vehicles for launching and maintaining scientific careers. Their uniqueness as organizational forms comes from features embedded within profession-enhancing strategies.
In future, such strategies will need to accommodate global market forces given that scientists are more likely in their professional lifetimes to move from place to place, or work for multiple employers simultaneously. Many networks are already helping their members to initiate reforms, especially in terms of institutional flexibility and innovation that will position them to face new competitive challenges. This may include transferability of qualifications and course harmonization across universities, organizing research universities within ever more differentiated systems, joint faculty appointments, “split-site” doctoral training within and outside Africa, shared facilities under a common research and training platform, and simplified administrative mechanisms.
In the future, evolving information and communications technologies may enable faculty to be somewhat independent of their universities. The best faculty with multiple chairs in Africa and overseas may be able to video-in their lectures while sitting at a different base than their home university. In addition, future faculty—unfettered by traditional university procedures—may be primarily based in non-university settings, such as government ministries, NGOs, NARS, private businesses, think tanks, and so on, and work on contract for universities for a portion of their time. Alternatively, universities with advanced technologies and equipment could outsource services to commercial providers or public-sector facilities, both as a means of raising cash and exposing students and staff to new learning environments.
The future restructuring of agricultural higher education in Africa may rest on new levers for transformation, including (1) populist movements toward tackling long-standing problems of inequities and exclusion; (2) the reorganization of knowledge systems to accommodate emerging complex fields, such as climate change, that demand overcoming disciplinary barriers to problem formulation and problem-solving, and require renewed appreciation of indigenous bodies of knowledge; (3) the growing importance of the private sector and value chains compelling the incorporation of a business school optique into research and training; and (4) the effects of globalization as the reduction of time and space influences relationships among institutions, knowledge production, and other agents of the agricultural innovation system.
A successful professional network will, in the long-term, be characterized by its ability to keep researchers in Africa, keep them scientifically active, and focus them on making measurable contributions to the broader system of innovation in the agricultural sector. Yet, even with evidence that networks are critical elements of the institutional landscape of professional capacity-building in Africa; the role is a reinforcing one. They cannot take full responsibility for the rejuvenation of universities and research institutes. Networks support and complement but do not replace these essential institutions. The crucial role of networks over the next decade is to ensure that the bond between higher education and practical, problem-solving science and technology capacity in Africa is a sturdy one backed by expanded access to technical resources, peers, reliable finances, and genuine local buy-in for sustained political support.
Funding agencies and others have an opportunity to play a more active role in strengthening the ways in which education and research contribute to enhancing innovative capacity in the agricultural sector. Over the past two to three decades, international development agencies have tended to focus more on professional skills than on building institutional capability. They have stressed technical and analytical tools over problem solving and policy relevance. They have placed greater emphasis on pipeline production of professionals rather than on their career tracks and skill utilization. And they have promoted the strengthening of individual institutions over the coordination among multiple, differentiated institutions that can advance and sustain entire professional fields (Moock 2005).
The examples offered here of current collaborative initiatives in agricultural research and development capacity building testify to creative thinking about the serious challenges at hand. These networks have in their DNA the recognition that success depends on translating knowledge into innovation and application. They are responding to a new realism voiced by Africa’s political, business, and science leaders who recognize the need to devise fresh, bold, even radical approaches to fields of learning and research appropriate to the times, and invest in credible yardsticks for appraising these investments. It is a safe bet that the number of such networks will continue to grow.