Science - March 12, 2009

DON’T ABANDON RURAL AFRICA

Many students at African agricultural universities are happy to have escaped the poverty of the countryside, and they turn their backs on it. ‘But they have a moral obligation to work with farmers for a better future for the rural community’, says Dr. Paul Kibwika, the Ugandan alumnus who received the Alumnus Award at Wageningen University’s dies natalis.

Paul Kibwika: ‘In Africa people go for higher education to escape from agriculture and the rural areas, not to contribute to their development.’
Born in 1965, Kibwika is the son of poor farmers who, like most Ugandans, had to scrape a living growing beans, maize, cotton and coffee on a small plot of land. He was lucky enough to be the youngest, and his parents saved up to send him to school. At a later stage his sister and brother paid his school fees. And so he managed to reach Makerere agricultural university in the capital, Kampala, where he did a BSc in agricultural extension and an MSc in education.
‘When I began my PhD research in Wageningen in 2002 with Professor Paul Richards, I was asked in a workshop what my research would contribute to the development of agriculture in Uganda’, says Kibwika. ‘That got me thinking. I hadn’t actually given it much thought. Just like many researchers, I wanted to collect data and publish research. I hadn’t yet thought about whether that research would contribute to change.’
It struck Kibwika that a lot of research and teaching at his university in Kampala was of real academic value, but didn’t relate to what farmers needed. And even when the research results did have practical value, they didn’t reach the farmers. ‘In Africa, people go for higher education to escape from agriculture and the rural areas. Even if they study at an agricultural university, they hope to get office jobs in which they will tell others what to do. Agriculture is associated with poverty, and that's what people want to get away from. What is more, many courses at agricultural universities in Africa stem from colonial times, and train instructors rather than farmers.’
Kibwika decided that this had to change. As part of his PhD research, he set up a training course for teachers from Makerere university, with the aim of getting them thinking about their role in society. It would not be enough just to adapt all the courses and make them more practical, Kibwika realized. Teachers and researchers themselves would have to start to value farmers and agriculture more highly. And they would have to address the obstacles facing farmers together with those farmers.
In the training course, which Kibwika is still running, he first shows the teachers that there is a huge rift separating the theory taught at universities from the practice on farms in the countryside. He then goes on to show that it is possible to conduct research differently, together with farmers. And finally, the teachers and researchers learn the social competencies they need to conduct this action research. ‘Above all, this new way of working requires self-reflection from the teachers’, says Kibwika. ‘They have to confront themselves, just as I did at one point, with the question of what their work is contributing to the rural areas and the community.’
Kibwika meets resistance from the teachers, who would rather hang on to their familiar way of teaching and doing research. And from university managers, because this innovative work demands a new system of assessment. Researchers should no longer be assessed on their publications alone, but also on their involvement with farmers. And yet Kibwika’s work is popular, and in other universities in the region too. A group of researchers in the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, a network of African agricultural universities, is already working in the same way.
Kibwika sees the Alumnus Award for Innovative Development with which Wageningen University Foundation has honoured him as recognition that he can use in Uganda to take his work further.
‘Many teachers come from the rural areas, but it is precisely those who have had more education who are more detached from rural life. That is betraying the community’, says Kibwika. ‘I make a moral appeal to African university students. It was the rural poor who brought them where they are now. They have a moral duty to do their best for rural development.’

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