Blog | March 06, 2024
Bridging Research and Practice: The Case for Prioritizing Higher Education Institutions as Development Partners
Sometimes, agricultural development programs operate in silos – failing to take advantage of the often-untapped resources of higher education institutions. However, when development programs successfully forge strong partnerships with higher education institutions, it’s a win-win for all parties.
Banner photo: A CAT representative offers a tour of the project's Smart Farm located within Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR) campus.

Higher education institutions are essential for transforming societies across all sectors through knowledge generation and research — and the agriculture sector is no exception. Yet sometimes, agricultural development programs operate in silos – failing to take advantage of the often-untapped resources of higher education institutions. When development programs successfully forge strong partnerships with higher education institutions, it’s a win-win for all parties. These partnerships are critical for the much-needed overlap between research and practice.

Higher Education and Food Security: Where is the Overlap?

Higher education institutions are key for agricultural transformation and diversification. They act as centers of research excellence, generating and producing critical knowledge and information that shapes the outcomes of our ability to transform food systems and diversify our production portfolios. Critically, these institutions prioritize the efforts of young people, enabling students and young researchers to acquire the tools and knowledge they might not otherwise be able to access. In turn, students and researchers are leveraging these resources to develop new technologies and innovations for improved food and income security. Academic research is also a critical tool for the private sector as it is concurrent with business strategic planning and growth and brings about commercially driven solutions to challenges in the agriculture sector, including food insecurity.

Fostering Knowledge Sharing

The Centre for Agriculture Transformation (CAT), funded by the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World through its affiliate the Agricultural Transformation Initiative (ATI), recognizes the potential of partnerships with higher education institutions. The CAT is a consortium of four leading agricultural development and academic institutions comprising Land O’Lakes Venture37, University of Minnesota (USA), Stellenbosch University (South Africa), and Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST).  Land O’Lakes Venture37 leads project implementation in Malawi.

The CAT is currently partnering with students from public higher education institutions in Malawi to develop innovations that have the potential to  transform the agriculture sector in Malawi. These efforts are enabling smallholder farmers to make data-driven decisions that are helping them boost their agricultural productivity and incomes.

Through these partnerships, the CAT is supporting higher education institutions to develop curricula, while offering students and lecturers the opportunity to pursue demand-driven agricultural research. Ultimately, the research is supporting smallholder farmers and other stakeholders in Malawi to address their day-to-day challenges so that they can increase agricultural productivity and commercialization for improved livelihoods in line with Malawi’s vision for 2063.  

At MUST, the CAT is supporting 11 scholars with sponsorship opportunities to study at various top-tier African institutions — like Stellenbosch University in South Africa — in fields such as food and data science. Upon graduation, the CAT ensures that the scholars return to their university as faculty members where they directly contribute towards agricultural transformation.  

For example, through this partnership, Linda Chifomboti, a lecturer in Chemical Engineering at MUST, studied a Master’s degree in Food Science and Technology at Stellenbosch University. “I was focusing on the development of processing schemes for high value utilization of pumpkin by-products. This project provides database process schemes that can be employed in Malawi, especially in the agricultural sector,” she shared. “This will help smallholder farmers in diversifying their production spectrum of high-quality products and, in a way, lessening their vulnerability.”

Additionally, the CAT has been instrumental in developing MUST’s Bachelor’s degree in Food Science and Technology programme — which included 19 students in its inaugural 2021 cohort. Recognising the critical role that science, technology, and innovation play in agricultural development, the CAT also supported MUST with a world-class University Technology and Innovation Garage — a new, cutting-edge facility, designed to foster and nurture innovation, collaboration, and technological advancement where students and researchers can drop by to test out various innovations (including agriculture related) and generate solutions. The garage will serve the university and members of surrounding communities.

After receiving materials for the garage in October 2023, MUST Vice Chancellor, Professor Address Malata, shared that the CAT-funded equipment was transformative for the university, and that it was the largest sponsorship that they have received to date. “We are looking forward to 2024, when we will also have the tomato factory on campus to facilitate teaching, research and learning with the support from the CAT under the same grant from the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World through ATI," she said.

Spurring Agricultural Innovations

Through its partnership with MUST, the CAT has also supported students to develop agri-technologies that directly address the challenges faced by Malawian smallholder farmers. For example, Peter Ngwira, as part of a team of students, developed an irrigation technology called BISO SMART, which is helping farmers move away from their reliance on rainfall.

Meanwhile, Maurice Kafa, a manufacturing engineering graduate from MUST, and one of the four founders, developed an online market platform called Msika Pa Lamya, which is helping connect farmers to agro-input providers and commodity off-takers. Through the app, farmers in Malawi can connect with buyers directly to purchase products like soybeans, groundnuts, bananas, maize, rice, cassava, or sunflower.

He explained: “most farmers don’t have markets and end up selling their produce at very low prices. The app provides a link between the seller and the buyer through us; we facilitate everything in terms of how the commodity will reach the buyer and how the seller will get the money through our account.”
Maurice has high hopes for his innovation: “The app has the potential to increase the earnings of farmers because they will have better market access with better prices that will impact them directly.”
MUST students also developed AGROMAX Solutions - a solar powered irrigation solution, and GrainMate Technologies — a grain storage solution that uses microwave radiation to kill common pests. Gracian Masanjala, BEng in Chemical Engineering graduate from MUST, and co-founder of GrainMate explained: “We realized that up to 40 percent of post-harvest losses are due to the pests. The new method kills pests from egg stage and cut down the lifecycle before the storage.”

Facilitating Research on Demand

At the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), the CAT signed an agreement in 2023 to support six students conduct research-on-demand to find quick solutions to unique challenges smallholder farmers face in targeted value chains. The students — Sarah Chinula, Victor Chataika, Lenso Vincent, Jickson Kawaye, Stella Mkumpha, and Robert Kapito — were provided with the resources to design various agricultural research projects.

Through this opportunity, the students designed and conducted research on the following topics: Investigating the Agronomic Uniformity and Genetic Stability of a Groundnut Variety; Developing Tissue Culture Protocols for Rapid Propagation of Two Locally Grown Varieties of Banana (Sukali and Zeru); Evaluating Integrated Pest Management Approaches for Soybean; Assessing the Effect of Sunken Beds on Garlic; Evaluating Agronomic Performance of Chia Seeds; and Evaluating Mushroom Substrate as an Organic Growing Medium. In this research, the students have learned useful knowledge for impacting communities with positive change. By developing these innovations, the students have played a key role in supporting smallholder farmers, who will now be able to increase agricultural yields and incomes.

Partnering for Progress

By formalizing partnerships with higher education institutions, development implementers can strengthen their impact while forging the critical linkage between research and practice. As evidenced through the CAT’s efforts, these partnerships are catalyzing the development of technologies and innovations that address some of the daily challenges faced by smallholder farmers — from pest control to irrigation management. When compared with other agricultural development programs, the CAT partnership model is unique because it empowers partners to take full ownership of their portfolios — contributing as equal partners to spur greater impact.

LUANAR Director of Research and Outreach, Associate Professor Sam Katengeza, shared his sentiments about the CAT partnership model: “We appreciate what we have gone through in this partnership. This was novel for us. Upon review of this partnership model with CAT, other players have appreciated its potential  and have come to partner with us.”

As Malawi strives to increase its agricultural productivity and commercialization, as stipulated in its 2063 vision, strong partnerships like these will be critical. Through the CAT partnership model, we can see how research, investment, and partnerships with higher education institutions will be key drivers for achieving these national goals.

Learn more about the Centre for Agricultural Transformation.
By Mike Chipalasa 03/06/2024 #Blog