Science Technology and Innovation (STI) for Sustainable Rural Development
By Tengetile Hlophe
The concept of ‘sustainable rural development’ is increasingly becoming central to the debate about rural development, poverty reduction, and environmental management. With 75% of the Swazi population residing in rural areas and 70% dependent on subsistence agriculture , Science Technology and Innovation (STI) and STI policy have a decisive role to play in increasing agricultural productivity in rural areas and boosting rural development.
Currently STI is the biggest contributor to increased productivity in the world, and countries that have sound STI policies have gleaned the greatest benefits. These countries, the literature shows, have made significant investment into research and development, put in place sound policies that promote and reward innovative activities, and provide a solid ecosystem that supports the commercialisation of the outputs of the research system.
However, rural communities have not benefitted from the explosion in innovative activities in the last 25 years. A question of interest is: Why are rural communities increasingly at the bottom of the development spectrum?
The answer to this question lies in how different countries support innovative activities that fast-track economic growth and development. The transfer and adaptation of technologies to rural communities can contribute immensely to solving the problems facing rural communities. Indeed, countries that have done this have gone on to emerge as winners in the development spectrum.
The answer also lies in the speed with which different countries have operationalised their STI aspirations. Swaziland’s STI aspirations are stipulated in the National Development Strategy (NDS). The NDS highly supports research and development and appreciates the role of STI education and skill in driving industrial development, agriculture, manufacturing, and processing. In a similar vein, the NDS identifies agriculture as the driving force of economic activity in rural Swaziland, suggesting that innovative activities should be focused in this direction.
The implementation of the Poverty Reduction Strategy and Action Programme (PRSAP) under the Lower Usuthu Smallholder Irrigation Project (LUSIP) in Siphofaneni confirms the vital role of agriculture in eradicating poverty and jump-starting the much needed economic recovery in rural areas.
In Siphofaneni, agribusiness development has resulted in the growth of economic activity, infrastructure development, employment creation, and improved housing, all of which have helped improve the quality of life of the people in the constituency. In line with SDG 2, LUSIP strives to “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”.
Unfortunately, farmers in Siphofaneni are faced with a number of challenges. These include low productivity rates which are attributable to pests and diseases, unsuitable soils and poor fertilisation, a low success rate of artificial insemination in livestock, high transportation and transaction costs, and a lack of adequate facilities for agro-processing, cold storage, and packaging.
Whereas some households have access to basic infrastructure like electricity and smart phones; internet costs are still high in Swaziland which precludes many from using the internet to solve everyday challenges on- and off-the-farm. The direct effect of this is that farmers have been slow to adopt and use some of the advanced technologies emanating from the international agriculture research and development system.
Immediate examples include, the lack of policies that govern the use of transgenic crops or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These crop technologies have transformed the agricultural production landscape in both developed and developing countries that have provided the right policies to allow farmers to benefit from them.
This suggests that there are areas which the country could consider that do not require a lot of resources to improve the productivity of smallholder farmers. The absence of a GMO policy is a case in point: it makes it near impossible for farmers to import these technologies from outside to improve their yields.
But it also means that the country cannot think about conducting research and development (R&D) in this area. Developing and enacting a GMO policy would provide guidelines and procedures for using GMOs including their importation.
To-date, farmers are unable to switch to drought and pest resistant maize and other seed varieties to increase production. Because of this, the country is losing out. Developments in genetic engineering have led to the production of locality specific crop cultivars which have improved production processes for smallholder farmers in many developing countries.
It does not end there. Innovative activities in information communication technology (ICT) have led to the development of mind-blowing software and technologies. These are helping farmers get access to market information, storm warnings, agricultural insurance, and a host of other benefits.
In Kenya, for example, through development of information software, applications, and knowledge sharing on market prices, rural farmers have benefited from i-cow and M-farm technologies.
Similarly, rural farmers in Uganda have benefited from the genetically modified orange sweet potato which is drought and pest resistant. Literature shows that GMOs increase production on one hand, whilst also substantially reducing production costs on the other hand.
But rural households in Swaziland are not deriving the maximum benefits from agriculture; due to an inadequate supply and lack of access to relevant technologies, research, and information. For instance, privately supplied technologies are highly costed and often sourced outside the country. With low household incomes, rural farmers are unable to afford these up-to-date technologies for farming.
Moreover, the weak research-extension-farmer linkages inhibit demand driven research and the adoption and development of relevant and improved technologies. It is for this reason that farmers in rural areas are highly dependent on government subsidies and extension services which unfortunately, has limited resources, human capital, and machinery (only 130, tractors).
Agriculture without R&D is very fragile, and can have detrimental effects on an economy that is heavily dependent on agriculture for both domestic consumption and commercial production. As such, there’s room for Government to consider enforcing agricultural research and development by increasing its investment for R&D.
Investments in rural development should surpass strategy and policy framework – it should focus on technology development to meet the technological needs of rural communities. Increased investment and institutional capacity is needed to close the technology gap between commercial and smallholder farmers.
This could be achieved through a robust STI policy and research and development to improve education, develop local skills, and foster knowledge dissemination for informed decision making. This transformation will also involve improving the effective engagement of young people in agriculture activities, as youth are technology savvy and 59% of the total population. STI provides an oasis for rural development. This implies a greater role for innovation to reshape rural agribusiness, and create opportunities for leap frogging less efficient and non-green stages of development. This again puts STI at the centre of rural development.
About the author: Tengetile Hlophe is a Graduate Research Intern at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre, and can be reached at email@example.com. She writes in her personal capacity.