Remarkable insights from attaching university students in agricultural markets

Remarkable insights from attaching university students in agricultural markets

Knowledge Transfer Africa (KTA) has been providing attachment or internship to university students since 2014 in agricultural mass markets where the organization works. Attachment/internship opportunities have been offered to students studying agricultural economics, pure economics, banking &finance, food science, sociology, geography & environmental science, development studies, ICTs, supply chain management and many other cross-cutting disciplines.

The students have been from University of Zimbabwe, Midlands State University, Chinhoyi University of Technology, Harare Institute of Technology as well as National University of Science & Technology, among others. Outside Zimbabwe, some of the students have been from universities South Africa, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands (Wageningen) and New Zealand.

How far do university students understand their curricula?

Upon accepting students for attachment/internship, the first exercise is assessing the extent to which they understand their curricula as well as how it relates to KTA’s work in agricultural markets.  What has been consistently revealed is that most students are not able to interpret their courses or synergies between their modules within their degree programs. For instance, those studying agricultural economics are not able to articulate synergies between agriculture and economics as well as components that constitute agriculture or economics within their degree programs. Questions that have remained unanswered include:

  • Where is the dividing line between the agricultural component for students studying agricultural economics and those studying crop science and animal science?
  • Where is the dividing line between those studying pure economics and those studying agriculture and economics?

As currently framed, the agricultural economics curricula in most universities does not bring out the importance of students understanding commodities and their supply chains as well as the operations of the markets where principles of economics can be applied. Also missing is behavioural economics so that students are able to understand the behaviour of markets, farmers and traders. In order to close some of these knowledge gaps, we spend some time trying to build the capacity of students and their lecturers/academic supervisors to clarify differences and synergies between degree programs as well as modules within particular courses.  For instance, we ensure the agricultural component in markets does not only look at production but commodity types, prices, sources and volumes flowing into markets from diverse production zones. The economics component focuses on trading (demand and supply of those commodities). 

During attachment/internship, agricultural economics students become aware of the fact that unless they understand operations of supply chains, markets and food distribution systems, they cannot adequately advise extension officers who are mainly on the production side.  For agricultural economists to provide such services they should know what type of data to collect, process and package for use by supply chain actors in order to realize economic benefits in farming, trading and processing business. That is where economics becomes relevant.

The power of exposure

Through attachment/internship in markets, KTA exposes students to methodologies of collecting data (what data to collect, how to collect and for who?) as well as data analysis and interpretation. To be able to interpret data, students should be well versed with the production side, distribution systems, markets and consumption side (demand side).  While some of this exposure should be acquired before the students enrol for the degree program, it appears most of them have never been exposed to the whole agricultural supply chain. Having no idea what happens in communal farming or commercial farming renders their studies very theoretical.

Exposure is very important in ensuring the whole learning route does not become too academic. It is clear that students grew up in different environments. Some grew up in urban centres and only hear about agriculture when they enrol for an agricultural economics degree program at university merely on the basis of scoring high points in related subjects at advanced level. The majority of students have never been to mass markets from where the majority of urban consumers get food. Others did high school in rural areas and only get to know about markets when they go to universities in the city.  For all these students, lack of exposure becomes a very big gap to the work environment related to their degree programs.

Being intentional about exposure can reduce current situations where most university students look for attachment blindly. When exposed to different environments ahead of time, students can develop interest and passion that can direct their industrial attachment choices. For instance, some can develop passion for women’s issues while others can develop passion for community-based food processing, among other potential interests that can eventually evolve into careers.

Before enrolling for an agricultural economics degree program, students should visit their potential areas of study like agriculture markets, wholesalers, exporting companies, financial institutions and input suppliers so that they have an appreciation of the work environment.  Those from dry regions who grew up seeing communities struggling to process small grains should develop passion for small scale engineering in order to solve these challenges. The same applies to those from areas where fruits are a dominant commodity who should be passionate about generating knowledge that assists in adding value to abundant fruits that are always going to waste due to absence of appropriate technology.

University or tertiary level studies must be driven by passion not academic symbols

In addition to absence of orientation before students enrol for degree programs, there is an increasing counter-productive practice where universities choose university degree programs for students based on academic symbols. Students end up being given agricultural economics irrespective of whether they have an appreciation or passion for agriculture or food systems.  A student can score 15 points in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry and be directed to study for becoming a medical doctor irrespective of whether s/he has passion for that profession.  

As if that is not colonial enough, when student selection is done using academic grades, some degree programs are given a false of superiority over others. For instance, by indicating that students keen to study law should have 14 points and those interested in development studies or any other course can get in with 7 points, universities are valuing degree programs differently and saying law is more special than development studies. However, students are shocked when after graduating they discover than things do not turn out that way in real life. Those who did development studies may pursue more fulfilling careers.

Industry or employers should participate in student enrolment processes

If universities want to generate relevant knowledge they must not continue quietly using academic symbols to place students on various degree programs. To the extent university or tertiary education is about making students mature and ready for work, industry or employers should be involved in enrolment processes. Besides assisting in identifying students with passion, industry or employers can ask important questions such as: What challenges do you want to solve by studying agricultural economics?  

When industry or employers participate in student enrolment that becomes a strong baseline for assessing students when they go for attachment or internship.  For instance, the baseline should be on industry’s expectations and students’ passion as expressed during university entry interviews. That way, during attachment the students will be assessed against their specific job descriptions or passions unlike the current scenario where industry is expected to assess students whose enrolment criteria was not influenced by the industry or employers.

Universities and their students should be attached to ecosystems they hope to transform

The same way engineers are educated for specific engineering pursuits like road construction should see university degrees being tailored for particular careers and professions. More than 50 percent of education should be practical on-the-job training. This is critical for industries that require soft skills like how to interact with communities when collecting data and converting data into intelligent objectives. From KTA’s experience, students spend 50 -75% of the attachment period trying to understand the work environment.

Agricultural engineers should be working with artisans in the SMEs sector so that they are immersed in refining contextual knowledge just as nurses and doctors are always seen in clinics and hospitals practising what they learn. Just as medical schools are located at hospitals, departments of agricultural economics, engineering and food science or nutrition should be located in mass markets and production zones. Ideally, students should start understanding organizations from the lowest levels upwards because each level contributes to organizational and learning objectives. The attachment period of one year out of a four-year course is certainly too short for students to master how organizations or ecosystems function. Strangely, when they graduate most students expect to start at managerial level and be paid more money merely on the basis of academic certificates yet field officers have more knowledge. 

If properly examined, graduate unemployment is increasing due to lack of experience which should be addressed before, during and after attachment/internship. Attachment/internship should be linked to the growth path of an organization/ecosystem.  For instance, students working on a particular project during attachment should continue doing so when they go back to university. That is how they also become part of the growth path of the organization or ecosystem that grooms them through attachment. For agricultural economists their ecosystems should be agriculture markets and processors. 

Absence of linkages between faculties

One of the biggest dilemmas in university education is lack of inter-linkages between faculties. In most cases, lawyers are doing their own thing, the same with medical students, political scientists, nutritionists, engineers and all other faculties. The real world does not work like that but all these specialists are supposed to collaborate at some level. For instance, African mass markets need lawyers, sociologists, engineers, economists, nutritionists, pharmacists and many other professionals all in one ecosystem. This is key in the current environment where the informal sector is driving most African economies.  While formal companies have experts in particular fields, self-organized institutions like mass markets and SMEs need similar kinds of expertise which should come from tertiary institutions like polytechnics and universities.

Who are the users of knowledge from universities and other tertiary institutions?

Those responsible for curricula review should always have the above question at the back of their minds.  Who needs to understand the principles of supply and demand or price determination? If it is the farmer, consumer and trader, to what extent is academic curricula informed by these end users of the knowledge? Where is the knowledge gap among these users that should be addressed by the curricula or students that go to university? Students should go back to their communities with solutions.

The state of digital literacy among university students

Given that students are expected to collect and analyse data during attachment, they are supposed to be digitally literate. KTA has discovered that almost 90% of students are not digitally literate when they show up for attachment. They can only go as far as typing using Microsoft word but cannot use other packages or software like Excel for data entry, analysis and presentation.  This means ICTs should be major cross-cutting subjects at university.  However, since ICTs are a very broad field, particular ICTs studies should be informed by the work environment like ICTs for agricultural economists, ICTs for nutritionists, ICTs for bankers, ICTs for sociologists and so on. It cannot be a one-size-fits-all. What is tailored for everyone does not have specific users.  / /

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