New Research Partnership for Smallholder Farmer Development
A new initiative is underway whereby universities are being encouraged to work with the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) to address national priorities.
UKZN, under the project leadership of Professor John Derera of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences (SAEES), has joined with the ARC and the Universities of Limpopo and Fort Hare to establish the ARC Collaboration Centre for Smallholder Farmer Development.
‘The establishment of this Centre is part of a national drive to get more MScs and PhDs,’ explained Dr Mohammed Jeenah, the ARC Group Executive responsible for Crop Science. ‘The ARC sits with most of the PhDs in agriculture in the country. We have the infrastructure and resources to assist universities in developing smallholder farmers.’
Seed funding of R2.5 million per year to cover operational and capital expenditure as well as bursaries has been provided by the ARC for a three-year period. It is envisaged that this will be supplemented through fundraising efforts by the partner universities.
The ARC Collaboration Centre for Smallholder Farmer Development is one of five such initiatives being rolled out by the ARC. Others focus on broadening the food base, climate change, genomics, and agricultural economics, respectively. It is envisaged that research and training undertaken in each of the centres will interact with and inform the others. ‘This is a national initiative which will see different departments link into one another and into national efforts,’ said Jeenah.
The fledgling ARC Collaboration Centre for Smallholder Farmer Development is set to be launched at the end of September and will see a physical presence at all three collaborating universities and at the ARC.
Identified outputs for the project are several-fold: to train smallholder farmers; to develop research capacity by training MSc and PhD graduates; and to ensure new knowledge is being generated through publications.
‘As an established university UKZN is the lead institution in this collaboration,’ said Derera. ‘The idea is to bring universities on board with the ARC to form a consortium that will help small farmers.’
Derera said the project would involve 37 researchers over the three universities. The goal was to train 51 MSc and 15 PhD students in total. Students in the programme would be trained through the identified research focus areas, namely, food security, institutional issues, and technology transfer.
‘UKZN will take its first 10 MSc students now, to synchronise with the agricultural seasons,’ he said.
UKZN’s Dean and Head of SAEES, Professor Albert Modi, described the initiative as ‘historic’. ‘We have an opportunity to work with other universities to address a problem that is both national and global. It should be welcomed with both hands.’
‘SAEES has a troika research strategy, whereby different disciplines are encouraged to work together. This Centre is bigger than that, as it is inter-institutional.’
Modi said the Centre would produce research outcomes relevant to community development. ‘Research projects will affect the lives of people in rural areas. It is exciting on that basis. It will showcase the relevance of research-led community outreach in the School.’
Modi said the fact that two DST-NRF SARChI Research Chairs (Land Use Planning and Management; and Rural Agronomy and Development) that resided in the School would be able to contribute to the project, lent it high-level research status.
Professor Ajuruchukwa Obi from the University of Fort Hare was positive about the contribution his institution could make to the collaboration. ‘Fort Hare is the foremost rural development university in the country,’ he said. ‘Being situated in a former homeland, it is surrounded by real subjects that need attention. We are ideally placed to engage at the grassroots level, as we bring both the science and the soft skills. This collaboration with the ARC, Limpopo and UKZN is timely as it has the potential to yield excellent results.’
Professor William Mashela from the University of Limpopo was equally enthusiastic about the establishment of the Centre. ‘Our university services smallholder farmers,’ he explained. ‘This is an appropriate project to lever what we are already involved in. The project brings together an established university (UKZN), the ARC with its established research facilities and highly qualified professionals, and two universities situated in rural areas with experience in smallholder community involvement and farmer development. It is a recipe for success.’