Ethiopian universities can play a key role in facilitating agricultural innovation and system change. At a symposium facilitated by the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, they explored what is necessary to strengthen their role in agricultural innovation: creation of an enabling environment, a paradigm shift, and strong partners.
Hawassa, Bahir Dar, Mekelle and Haramaya Universities are already engaged in structured engagement to carry through academic research into practical application. These universities have gained valuable experience through their participation in BENEFIT programmes. The Bilateral Ethiopia Netherlands Effort for Food, Income and Trade Partnership (BENEFIT) is a portfolio of programmes led Wageningen University & Research.
The four universities got to know for example the benefits of piloting innovations, often on just a few plots, which are then validated and scaled, potentially to thousands of plots. They also experienced that relevant uptake of innovations is ensured by being responsive to the market and adopting a demand-driven approach. Step-by-step institutional embedding and a focus on decentralised decision-making, all supported by continuous training and facilitative support, ensures added longevity and sustainability of the innovations.
In completing these services though, the universities encounter common challenges. These include a low level of mutual engagement with other actors, poor technical and financial external support as well as a host of internal barriers to creating incentive mechanisms for staff and procuring much-needed products and services.
Building upon these experiences, ISSD Ethiopia initiated and facilitated a symposium to discuss the role of universities in agricultural innovation. ISSD Ethiopia is a partner in BENEFIT and coordinated by the Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation.
From the start, ISSD Ethiopia has been working on an enabling environment for innovation in the seed sector. The symposium sought to identify pathways to improve the effectiveness of university services in research and community outreach, identify and assess the real value of services that are needed, and explore innovative business models. All to enable universities to more effectively deliver such services.
Among the over sixty participants were the Presidents and Vice-Presidents from fifteen key universities, the State Minister of Agriculture and Livestock, the Director of the Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research (EIAR), and a representative of the Ethiopian Agricultural Research Council Secretariat (EARCS).
Universities’ role in improving food security
‘I am here because I believe that universities play an important role in improving food security and in facilitating systemic changes to support the government reach its agricultural growth target,’ exclaimed State Minister Dr Eyasu Abraha, in his opening remarks.
Whilst introducing the symposium objectives, ISSD Ethiopia Programme Manager Dr Amsalu Ayana Aga emphasized that continued identification and deployment of agricultural innovations in Ethiopia depends on strong connections between research and communities. ‘The knowledge era demands universities to be agents of change and facilitate or broker innovation and change processes, besides their classical objectives,’ Dr Amsalu stated.
Innovation brokers needed
Innovation brokers are persons or organizations that, from a relatively impartial third-party position, purposefully catalyse innovation through bringing together actors and facilitating their interaction. Brokering is necessary to enhance interaction and communication among stakeholders as well as adoption of technologies, to minimize institutional constraints, and to seize opportunities and enhance accountability. Ultimately, this leads to impact in value chains, productivity, business orientation and incomes, and overall socio-economic development – important to reach Sustainable Development Goal Zero Hunger.
More efficacy and impact
The Ethiopian universities are well positioned to serve as innovation broker, Dr Amsalu explained, because of their academic freedom, neutrality, being trusted, multi-disciplinarity and relatively good infrastructure and facilities. But there is room for improvement in efficacy and impact.
The discussions revealed that currently universities do not make optimal use of their resources in outreach because of financial bureaucracy, lack of strong partners and the bias towards publications and education. But in most cases the necessary structure is present. On top, most universities see a role for themselves in demonstrating evidence targeting the system changes needed.
The future of outreach
Attendees agreed that to move forward, universities need to optimise their resource-use for better outreach. To do this, innovation is needed in institutional arrangements, which currently limit responsiveness to societal issues. But with a common acceptance that universities have the task to challenge the status-quo of current systems and change paradigms, it is clear that motivation is present.