18 April 2023 | Story NONSINDISO QWABE | Photo SONIA SMALL
Prof Adipala Ekwamu and Prof Bonang Mohale
Prof Adipala Ekwamu with UFS Chancellor, Prof Bonang Mohale, following the conferral of his honorary doctorate.

Africa has 60% of the land for increasing arable agriculture to feed the world. Yet, food imports have been increasing, especially as the continent’s food systems change with increased urbanisation. By 2020, Africa's annual food import bill has reached US$ 35 billion, a reduction from 40 billion in 2019. Notwithstanding, these worrisome statistics have a silver lining.

This is according to Prof Adipala Ekwamu, one of the recipients of an honorary doctorate from the University of the Free State (UFS) during its April 2023 graduation ceremonies. He addressed graduates of the Faculties of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and Economic and Management Sciences at a ceremony on the Qwaqwa Campus on Friday 14 April 2023.

Prof Ekwamu is a crop scientist by training and one of the most influential figures in higher education in Africa today. He is also a founding member of the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM), a body that works closely with the African Union to support the implementation of the African Union Science, Technology, and Innovation Strategy. 

A trailblazer in the field of agriculture and mentor to hundreds of students, one of his most significant accomplishments was mobilising close to one billion US dollars for higher education in Africa as Executive Secretary of RUFORUM. 

Addressing Africa’s challenges

In his acceptance speech, Prof Ekwamu said that Africa, like the rest of the world, faces multidimensional development challenges – from economic, socio-economic, and political to biophysical challenges such as climate change. According to him, the post-Second World War multilateral approach to these common human development challenges has held steady. 

“The need for intensified multilateralism is therefore still high, especially given the limited resources we have when we operate individually. The African university must therefore continue to harness this approach as neutral convenors and hosts of a wealth of talent in their faculties and student bodies to find solutions to these development challenges.”  

“They must inspire and cultivate graduates who are independent, creative, and most importantly, able to adapt.  They must be well embedded into the societies they serve – drawing on them to focus their research and curricula agenda; working with them to create and adapt innovations; reaching out to share information and strengthen networks and link these to supporting appropriate policy development.” 

Posing a question to those graduating, he asked them what they are doing to change Africa so that it becomes the powerhouse that its natural resources promise.

“We have a wealth of land, water, forests, grasslands, solar, coastal, wind, mineral, and human resources. Africa has 60% of the land remaining for increasing arable agriculture to feed the world.  Yet our food imports have been increasing, especially as our food systems change with increased urbanisation. According to Brookings Institute, while sub-Saharan Africa imports much more food today than it did two decades ago, it exports much more too. Indeed, from 2016 to 2020, Africa imported roughly $40 billion per year and exported roughly $35 billion – food imports not being symmetrical across the continent,” said Prof Ekwamu. 

Leverage the growth in agriculture to create jobs

He continued to say that Africa's lower-middle-income countries, led by Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Kenya, are leading in net agricultural trade surplus of more than $5 billion per year. “By developing agriculture in an inclusive manner, the continent can leverage that growth to create jobs, given that nearly 70% of all jobs created in agricultural value chains on and off the farm will be associated with agriculture. 

“The African university should see this as an opportunity to latch on its training and research for development programming that will equip our youth – Africa's greatest asset – and store of wealth.  Universities must just unlock these opportunities in ways that benefit Africa as well as the world.  Africans need to be the captains of their future, and you graduates of today and tomorrow have the responsibility of leading that charge.”

Dedicating his honorary degree to academics and university leaders across the continent, Prof Ekwamu said he was humbled by this recognition “for a role that we have done collectively and continue to do for Africa. I therefore accept this honour that you have bestowed upon me as a recognition of all the academics in Africa who are working so tirelessly to see our universities lead us towards the Africa we want”.

Universities must remain powerful drivers of innovation

He challenged his ‘fellow graduands’ to be drivers of change in their respective industries.

“I was very impressed by the quality of the students and graduates this university has trained. May I remind everyone that universities have always been the drivers of development and reform? Elsewhere, and in Africa too, they have contributed to the political discourse and catalysing the rate of economic development. I appeal and call upon all universities to remain the powerful drivers of innovation and environmental protection, poverty reduction, and inclusivity in all their undertakings.”

“The UFS in this country and region is taking a leading role in trying to ensure that universities become closely embedded into the social, economic, and environmental development of the societies around them.  RUFORUM, the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Development in Agriculture, is happy and proud to join with the University of the Free State on part of that journey.”

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