More Funding Needed for Agricultural Research in Region
14 April 2000
by Renato Pinto
Cereal production and food security are critical issues in southern Africa. For that reason, the
agriculture sector must strive to improve crop production and at the same time ensure sustainable
Last November 1999, Oxfam reported 790 million undernourished people worldwide. According to
the report, food insecurity is primarily caused by poverty and unequal access to land, water, credit and
markets. Poverty will lead to the food crises in many parts of the world rather than low food
In southern Africa, while many individuals and national institutions have made inroads in terms of
scientific research to increase crop production, lacl, of communication, co-ordination and funding has
reduced the impact of their initiatives.
Crop production in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region has suffered in
recent years. Most soils lack adequate plant nutrients while more and more rich soils have been
depleted by inappropriate technologies. This is also compounded by lack of resources and facilities to
deal with weather fluctuations constantly being experienced in the region. The recent unpredictable
climatic changes have resulted in situations where bumper harvests can be completely wiped out by
droughts resulting in general food shortages in the region.
According to the 2000 report on Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources, the SADC region is
projected to face an overall cereal deficit requiring imports of 2.88 million tonnes for the year
1999/2000. Food shortages are expected in all countries in the region except South .A.frica and Malawi.
A 1999 report by the same body points out that agriculture plays a critical socio-economic role in the
region, employing between 70-80 percent of the labour force and representing over 12 percent of the
region's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However this sector has not registered significant increases
in production compared to other sectors, such as manufacturing and tourism. This trend has reinforced
calls on agricultural researchers to focus on new techniques to increase crop production.
The Southern African Centre for Cooperation in Agricultural and Natural Resources Research and
Training (SACCAR) targets regional institutions that own and lead regional projects. They support
projects that have an impact on development or undertake result-oriented research. SACCAR focuses
on three major areas: research coordination, training and information.
At the end of 1998, the SADC Council of Ministers transformed SACCAR from a Commission into a
Sector Coordinating Unit (SCU), though retaining its name. Prega Ramsamy, Acting Executive
Secretary of the SADC, confirmed that this "did not imply any reduced interest in agricultural research
and training, but was aimed at making regional coordination more affordable to its member countries."
In April 1999, a reference group of research and development practitioners from the region met in
Gaborone to discuss the SACCAR strategic plan and set terms of reference for its development. A
draft document was approved by the Technical Committee for Agricultural Research and Training in
May 1999. The document is being used as basis for development of five-year strategic plan for the
The Agriculture Research and Training sector is addressing productivity problems in the region
through the implementation of programmes to strengthen the National Agricultural Research Systems
Many Of mese systems nave oeen cr1tlCISeO fOr provlomg weaK mcenuves Tor gooa penunnance ana a
lack of strategic focus on priority problems. They, however, face constraints in the form of inadequate
and erratic funding, as well as bureaucratic procedures.
On the other hand, according to the 1999 SADC Report, initiatives such as the partnership between
national programme scientists and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics
(ICRISA T) has made remarkable inroads in crop research. ICRISA T consists of sixteen international
agricultural research institutes. The headquarters for southern and eastern Africa is located in
SADC and ICRISAT have since 1984 run the Sorghum and Millet Improvement Programme (SMIP),
which seeks to strengthen national programme capabilities to conduct research on sorghum and millet
in order to increase productivity among poor farmers in drought-prone regions.
According to the 1999 SADC Report, during years of poor rainfall the improved sorghum and pearl
varieties have produced more grain with an advantage of 50-200 percent over hybrid maize.
This programme has also invested in human resource development, including training to more than 90
national scientists in different disciplines of sorghum and millet, workshops and regional exchange of
research ideas and technologies. As a result, those advancements in agricultural technology are now
beginning to reach SADC small-scale farmers.
Some believe, however, that there has been a lack of balance in the focus of agricultural research in the
region. Investors and researchers have targeted crop improvement to the detriment of vital areas such
as soil fertility and natural resource management.
Agricultural research programmes are not profit-oriented and still rely on funding from donors.
Despite the several examples of high returns to research investment, many countries in the region have
not committed significant budgets to this purpose. (SARDC)