The latest ASTI data from Kenya, showing dwindling agricultural investment levels and a dearth of national level agricultural researchers, took center stage at a recent high-level conference on agricultural research in Nairobi.
The conference, organized by Kenya’s State Department of Agriculture Research in collaboration with 12 international and national research and donor partners, focused on priority-setting, with a goal towards sustainable food and nutrition security in the context of a changing climate: the perfect setting for demonstrating the importance of evidence-based policymaking.
The first in what is planned to be an annual conference on agricultural research, the conference aimed to identify trends, opportunities, and solutions for challenges in research for agricultural development; provide a platform for interdisciplinary exchange of ideas; recognize researchers and their findings and innovations; and inspire the closing of gaps in agricultural research.
There are certainly gaps that need closing. As ASTI head Nienke Beintema told participants in a session on closing gaps in human resources for agricultural research, a large share of Kenya’s agricultural researchers is nearing retirement -- without younger research staff to take their place. The situation is most dire at the national agricultural research institute, KALRO, where two thirds of the PhD-qualified researchers and about half of bachelor of science and master of science-qualified researchers were more than 50 years old in 2016. High turnover is an additional serious constraint.
Agricultural research spending lags far behind other agricultural spending, both in Kenya and in the region overall. In Kenya, both funding and spending have dropped precipitously from 9.3 billion Kenyan shillings in 2014 to 7.6 billion in 2016 (adjusted for inflation).
According to Beintema, one concrete step to maintain research capacity is for the Kenyan government to lift its current hiring freeze to allow for recruitment of new, junior researchers. Other ideas include hiring retired researchers on a contract basis to train and mentor junior researchers, promoting government-higher education collaboration through joint PhD and master of science degree programs, and enhancing linkages with regional initiatives such as RUFORUM and AWARD.
Participants left the conference with a sense of momentum. “The Government of Kenya is keen to enhance its support to agricultural research. This is one reason it established the State Department for Agricultural Research, which is the first time this has happened in the history of Kenya," said Festus Murithi of KALRO.
Findings on Kenya’s human resource crisis in agricultural research made a considerable impression, garnering attention both in the media and among policy makers. Beintema presented these findings at a policy maker breakfast meeting, and was quoted in a handful of news articles. According to Murithi, policy makers expressed appreciation for the role of agricultural research and pledged to seek the necessary support for it. Kenya's agriculture sector and overall economy may depend on it.