Specialist varsity vital to improve food production

I was privilege to participate in a technical and human resource training dubbed “Engaging Africa: Global Partners for Agricultural Development” which took place last week at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, Coimbatore India in partnership with Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. The project is supporting Uganda Skills Development Project, funded by World Bank and Agricultural Transformation through stronger vocational education in Ethiopia, which is supported by Global Affairs Canada.

The projects focus on transforming agricultural colleges into competency-based education and training (CBET) centres of excellence as part of the strategy to achieve food security. The choice of venue was informed by similarities in development and environment between India and Africa.

During the training, relevant information on food security and employment in India was shared. While the population is estimated at 1.37 billion, the country is not only food secure, but also exporting rice, sugar, soya bean, corn, dry beans and wheat all over the world. The success of agriculture in India is attributed to two critical policy documents namely green revolution and doubling farmers income. The Indian government took steps to bring about the green revolution using high yield variety (HYV) seeds. The first introduction of HYV was done in 1965 coupled with irrigation and use of fertilisers to boost the crop with a view of making India food secure.

The impact of the green revolution saw the production of wheat increase to 55 million tons in 1990 from just 11 million tons in 1960. Similar trends were also witnessed in other crops like rice. Increased agricultural productivity also lead to creation of employment especially in rural areas due to supporting industries like irrigation, transportation, food processing and marketing requiring workforce. 

However, the strategy did not explicitly recognise the need to raise farmers’ income and promote their welfare. This forced more farmers, particularly the youth, to leave farming. This caused serious effect on the future of agriculture because the income earned by a farmer from agriculture is crucial to address agrarian distress and promote farmers welfare.

With this in mind, the government set a goal to double farmers’ income by 2023 as central to promote farmers’ welfare, reduce agrarian distress and bring parity between income of farmers and those working in non-agricultural professions. For this to succeed research and training institutions were required to come up with technological breakthroughs for shifting production frontiers and raising efficiency in use of inputs. This included expanding the scope of agronomic practices like precision farming to raise production and income of farmers.

Most of the development initiatives and policies for agriculture are implemented by the States and therefore, development of competent workforce at all levels became the key priority area. India has a total of 63 agricultural universities and several colleges with at least a university in each of the 33 states. The institutions implement a common curriculum developed by Indian Council of Agricultural Research, however each university can make up to 20 per cent changes to customise it to the requirements of each State. 

For example, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University is collaborating with 14 public and 32 private colleges to implement common CBET programmes in agriculture. Graduates provide services to farmers, agro-processing industries, logistics and distribution, and cooperative societies, while a number of them also go to self-employment. Each campus has a placement officer to assist students in securing jobs. The university has a directorate of Agribusiness which provides incubation facilities to nature and commercialise students business ideas. The university is also involved in research in agriculture.

The Indian experience of specialist university offers lessons that institutions of higher learning in Kenya may need to consider. Specialist institutions will help in establishing national centres of expertise in key areas of the economy as key to economic growth is research and knowledge transfer. The institutions will also be employer-focused and combine academic knowledge with practical application. They can collaborate in addressing knowledge and skills requirements for a specific sector as a value chain.

- The writer is the Director Genera/CEO, TVET Authority. [email protected]