It is rainy season in West Africa. Adamu, a maize farmer in Katsina State in Northern Nigeria, has waited anxiously for the rains to plant his recycled seeds in depleted soil, using archaic production and crop protection methods. If the rains are delayed, his family suffers from food shortages. Sadly, Adamu shares this experience with farmers across the region, in a sector that continues to struggle, resulting in persistent food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty.
At the root of this underperformance is an agricultural research system that is divorced from the needs of the market. The priorities of the region’s more than 60 dedicated agricultural research institutions are largely driven by the personal interests of researchers and by donors—and not by the farmers, processors and consumers who ultimately determine the relevance and impact of that research.
As an agribusiness entrepreneur sourcing cereals, grains, herbs, and vegetables from 10,000 farmers in Nigeria, I constantly contend with the slow pace of change in the food system. Given the lack of credible research, my team and I are forced to make investments through trial and error, resulting in significant waste. Research and innovation could transform our entire food system by not only increasing food production but also improving post-harvest handling, storage, processing and distribution. But today the region remains a net importer of food–despite close to a billion dollars of annual investments in research and development.
There is an urgent need to bridge this gap between the market, research and policy. Only then will West African agriculture be able to meet the region’s rising food demands from a population expected to more than double from 350 million today to close to 800 million by 2050.
Changing course will not be easy, but West African governments and agribusiness can benefit from the experiences of other countries that are now net exporters of food, including Australia and Brazil.
In a recent visit to Australia, I witnessed first-hand how farmers and food processors drive research priorities – in large part through directly funding that research. For example, the Australian Export Grains Innovation Centre (AEGIC) is largely funded by farmers who benefit from the improved seed varieties developed by the center. In fact, Australian wheat farmers willingly pay a research levy at the point of exporting wheat varieties developed to meet the specific quality requirements of international customers such as global noodle manufacturers.
Similarly, AgriBio,, a public-private partnership between the Australian government, through the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, and La Trobe University devotes 70 percent of its activities to challenges posed by the private sector, while 30 percent is focused on regional priorities in the areas of plant, animal and microbial biosciences, and biosecurity challenges.
West African research institutions should consider adopting similar approaches to private sector engagement. By introducing export-focused levies linked to innovative research, establishing private sector advisory boards, private-public partnerships, and challenge funds to drive demand-driven research, they could diversify their funding and ensure widespread impact.
Cote D’ivore is one West African country already moving in this direction. The country’s National Centre for Agricultural Research (CNRA) is primarily funded by private producers. Food producers are organized based on commodity crop and pay membership fees to a fund that allocates at least 75 percent of its assets into research on that crop. The remainder supports a solidarity fund that serves farm sectors (mostly food crops) unable to raise sufficient funding through their membership fees.
To be truly market-driven, West African research institutions must also restructure to fully embrace technology and performance-driven cultures. The Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) is an example worthy of emulation. Since its inception in 1973, EMBRAPA has led the transformation of the formerly degraded Cerradolands into a region that now supplies nearly half of the country’s grain production. Its innovations have also quadrupled the beef and pork supply, and increased the chicken supply 22-fold, making Brazil one of the largest exporters of animal protein globally.
EMBRAPA’s mandate in 2018, “a technological innovation enterprise focused on generating knowledge and technology for Brazilian agriculture” reveals an organization that has continued to reinvent itself to remain dynamic and relevant to the needs of food producers locally and even globally. This same ethos must drive West African agricultural research if it is to meet the region’s serious challenges and unique needs.
Transforming an agricultural research system supported by entrenched interests will be challenging. However, as the experience of other countries shows, market-driven research can unlock the potential of an agricultural system capable of benefitting all.