• Mon May 12 2014
  • University for women key to Africa agriculture

Making agriculture an engine for African development cannot be achieved without bringing higher technical training to those who farm—women, argues Calestous Juma
Vision Reporter
Journalist @ New vision
Making agriculture an engine for African development cannot be achieved without bringing higher technical training to those who farm—women, argues Calestous Juma



By Prof. Calestous Juma 

The Case of the African Rural University for Women, Uganda

Making agriculture an engine for African development cannot be achieved without bringing higher technical training to those who farm—women, argues Calestous Juma

Building Africa’s capacity to feed itself and become an important player in global food trade is emerging as a major policy focus for the continent. 

A recent report by the Africa Progress Panel chaired by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Africa spends nearly $3.5 billion on food imports. This is about 5.7% of the continent’s GDP.  

The current low level of agricultural productivity can be explained by poor infrastructure, low levels of technical training of farmers, and limited support for agricultural entrepreneurship.

Equally important is the inequality between men and women when it comes to access to land, credit, technology and other agricultural inputs. This is particularly important given the fact that majority of Africa’s farmers are women. 

Women doing all the work

The inequity in the workload says it all. According to a study on Africa, women hauled more than 80 tonnes of fuel, water and agricultural produce for a distance of 1 km a year. Men, on the other hand, carried only 10 tonnes a year. The political impetus for such inequities is often driven by the low level of access to agricultural technology and skills.

African countries have previously focused on providing primary education, mostly to its rural populations. There is growing consensus that a focus on primary education is insufficient in meeting the continent’s challenges. An emerging long-term vision reflected in the draft Agenda 2063 of the African Union focuses on consolidating and expanding higher technical training.

African agricultural universities have so far tended to training functionaries for the public service. New models are needed to extend higher technical training to women farmers who are the frontline innovators.

Kibaale sets the pace in women university agriculture education

A pioneering example of such an effort is the African Rural University (ARU) for women inaugurated in Kibaale district of western Uganda in 2011.

ARU was incubated by the Uganda Rural Development and Training Program (URDT), a non-governmental organization (NGO) founded in 1987. It is the first African university dedicated to training women.  It is one of the first African universities to be incubated by a rural NGO and show great promise in the potential for growth among local organizations. ARU is one the first universities to focus on rural development and entrepreneurship considering that Africa is largely rural.

 ARU is an innovative model that focuses on building strong female leaders for careers in agriculture and on involving the community in every step of the agricultural value chain.

A key feature of the new university is to help young women envision the future they want and design strategies to achieve their goals. Their programming is tailored to meet locally identified needs that value local lifestyles and traditions while allowing the adoption of new technologies and improved production.  

Helping the rural people envision the future

As change makers and agents, the students of ARU are trained to help people in rural communities to envision the future they want and to design strategies to achieve their goals and aspirations. Community members are involved in identifying, developing, piloting and using new agricultural technologies and basic improvements.

The students’ four year engagement with faculty and community members leads to sustainable food security, agricultural entrepreneurship and gender empowerment. The ARU model for higher education enables young graduates to learn to love and live in rural areas hence providing the necessary quality of human resources needed for transformation.

ARU is building on a long legacy of URDT, which has resulted in better food security, increased educational attainment, raised incomes for families across the district, better nutrition, and strong female leaders who engage in peace-building efforts and community improvements, among others.

Community-university interaction

A driving factor in the approach is the community-university interaction that focuses on women and agriculture. URDT also has a primary and secondary girls’ school that focuses on developing girls’ abilities in a variety of areas, including agricultural, business, and leadership skills, and encouraging them to bring their knowledge out to the community.

At URDT Girls’ School, students engage in “Back Home” projects, where they spend some time among their families conducting a project that they have designed from the new skills they learned at school.

Such projects include creating a community garden, building drying racks to preserve food in the dry season, or conducting hygiene education. Parents also come to the school periodically to engage in education and to help the girls design the Back Home projects.

School becomes both a learning experience and a productive endeavor; therefore, families are more willing to send children, including girls, to school because they see it as relevant to improving their lives.

Support through an experimental farm and radio programme

URDT focuses on agriculture and on having a curriculum that is relevant for the communities’ needs. They have an experimental farm where people can learn and help develop new agricultural techniques, as well as a Vocational Skills Institute to work with local artisans, farmers, and businessmen who have not had access to traditional schooling.

There is a local radio program designed to share information with the broader community. URDT also runs an Appropriate and Applied Technology program that allows people from the community to interact with international experts and scientists to develop new methods and tools to improve their lives and agricultural productivity.

The motorcycle-drawn cart

A recent example is the development of a motorcycle-drawn cart to help bring produce to market and improve availability and use of produce. This technological adaptation lays the basis for creating new training programs on mechanical engineering.

USAID and other development cooperation agencies can draw on such examples to create effective learning institutions to support agriculture in ways that close the gender gap and empower women and girls.

The genesis of ARU shows that NGOs do not always have to stay small and have great potential to grow into pioneering universities, hospitals and public corporations. 

Achieving this goal will require learning from local efforts such as ARU that have resulted from years of experimentation and demonstrated clear evidence of their ability to innovate and evolve.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of Innovation for Economic Development Program at Harvard Kennedy School. He is on the selection juries of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.  He is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2011). Twitter @calestous