Food security in South Africa and the world is a key aspect addressed within the 17 Sustainable Development Goals for the period of 2015-2030. The French – South African collaboration contributes to this goal through the French South African Agriculture programme (F’SAGRI), established in 2015. Primarily based at the University of Fort Hare, South Africa, this institute also partners with the universities of Limpopo and Venda.

The main goal of the F’SAGRI initiative is to increase the number of South Africans with high level skills in agriculture, especially the field of food science and technology. Agriculture is seen as a central tool towards socio-economic development since it addresses both food security and creates an accessible pathway to rural development through the establishment of competitive and profitable rural enterprises. The objectives of F’SAGRI are accordingly; to develop strong links and novel strategies between the university, the economic sector and the local communities. This will empower the people with innovative knowledge and research outcomes to create new agri-businesses. Strategic to this initiative was the placement of two French scientific experts within the Faculty of Science and Agriculture at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), Alice Campus. Combined with this maintained academic support is the establishment of mobility programmes for South African students and staff to complete part of their tertiary education in France. The mobility programme is largely financed by the continious support of the National Research Foundation (NRF) of South Africa in collaboration with the French Embassy in South Africa.

Through the South Africa – France mobility programme, highly skilled individuals in sufficient quantities will become available to develop the F’SAGRI initiative and to transfer new knowledge with impact on the agricultural sector, contributing to the growth of the South-African economy. South African students currently in France testify positively about their academic and cultural experience in France.

Hombakazi Mercy Nqandeka, a UFH undergraduate student, received, through the F’SAGRI programme, a master’s scholarship in 2016, co-financed by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the French Embassy in South Africa (organized by Campus France). Hombakazi enrolled in the European Master of Science: Agriculture Climate Change Transitions (ACT) which gave her the opportunity to study in two European universities. She completed her first year (2016/2017) at the National University of Ireland, Galway in the Climate Change Agriculture and Food Security master programme (CCAFS), and the second year (2017/2018) in the Resources, Agricultural Systems and Development program (RESAD) at Montpellier SupAgro, France. Included within this master’s programme was a four week summer course at BOKU HEIM, University in Vienna, Austria, which offered a network opportunity with attendants from around the world. She also had the occasion to familiarise herself with the French culture and language combined with a two week, hands-on practical experience on a smallholder organic farm in Saint Chinian, France. Two internships formed part of this two year master programme that was conducted in yet another two francophone countries. Located near the foot of the Atlas Mountains, Mercy studied for a two week period, the water use systems for smallholder farmers in the village of Tahannaout, capital of Al Haouz Province of the Marrakesh-Safi region of Morocco. Her final, 5 month master’s thesis internship was completed at a farm in Entebbe, Uganda, in collaboration with Makerere University. The internship was about studying how the transfer of innovations from a reference farm with multiple systems (e.g. piggery, fishery, cattle and crops) can attract youth into farming and thereby reducing the alarming rates of unemployment in Uganda.

Hombakazi will return to South Africa by the end of November 2018 to enrol for a PhD at the University of Fort Hare. See her Youtube testimony, inspiring and educating prospective students to follow in her footsteps.

Apart from her academic commitments, she took the time to write a book titled “The Dissonant Rainbow” which has been accepted for publication early 2019 by Lesedi House in Cape Town. When she arrived in Europe, she expected racism from White people because it is the foundation of South Africa’s history. To her surprise, she experienced none of that, instead people in Ireland and France interacted with her as another normal human being and not some inferior or lesser being. She wrote this book, digging deep into the South African History, comparing her experiences back home and the new life she has had in Europe. To conclude she proposes recommendations on bridging the gap between the Black and White in South Africa. Mercy and her friend Avuyile Xabadiya are also active writers sharing their articles with HuffPost. They address the heating issue of land reform and the unemployment issues in South Africa

Five more South African students excitedly started their full time master’s programmes in September 2018 in France through the co-financed scholarships provided by the NRF and the French Embassy. Zwanga Ratshikombo and Katlego Levy Ntwampe from the University of Limpopo follow the Agrofood Chain master’s programme at ENSFEA (Ecole Nationale Supérieure de Formation de l’Enseignement Agricole), Toulouse, France. Zenande Wisegirl Booi, Luthando Simphiwe John Gcaza and Viwe Tyibilika from UFH are studying a master’s in Microbiology and Physicochemistry for food and wine Processes at the University of Burgundy, Dijon, France.

Zwanga Ratshikombo has had a great experience during the first 2 months in France. Through the support and guidance of the French Embassy in South Africa and Campus France in France, she felt well prepared for her trip and settled easily in Toulouse. She finds the people in France very welcoming and enjoys the discovery of the French language and culture. “This is a great experience because I get to explore how different cultures do different things.”

The Agrofood Chain master’s programme at ENSFEA will give her and Katlego the opportunity to study various aspects of the food chain such as food processing, food safety, economic aspects of the food chain, and also the link of the food chain within the ecosystem. “It is a good experience because one gets to know what happens on the agricultural products from a farm level up to the final consumer.” Upon completion of her French degree, Zwanga plans to return to South Africa with a vast of knowledge on how things are done in France, especially in the agricultural sector. Through the internships that form part of the degree she aspires to acquire skills which can be adopted by companies in South Africa. She does, however, also aim to make an impact in France with the knowledge she gained in South Africa. “I miss my parents and siblings every day, but I always focus in the bright part of my stay in France. I never told myself it was going to be a smooth journey but a journey worth taking.”

The academic programme: Master’s in Microbiology and Physicochemistry for food and wine Processes at the University of Burgundy is delivered by AgroSup Dijon, one of the 6 major French institutions dedicated to Agricultural Sciences, Food, and Environment in France.  Through the coursework and internships our future researchers and managers (Zenande, Luthando and Viwe) will be trained in the food and wine science industry. They will return to South Africa with job-relevant competencies and skills to pursue a PhD and career as research project leaders in academic laboratories, research institutes or R&D departments of international companies. The students express their continued gratitude to the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at UFH, as well as to the former scientific manager of F’SAGRI: Dr. Laurence Mioche and to the former deputy director: Ms. Catherine Constant, for their assistance in preparation for the mobility. They also convey their corporate appreciation to both the NRF as well as the French Embassy and Campus France for their generous financial and organisational support.

Yanga Nonelela Mhlomi and Zomsa Yako, master level students from UFH, also spent some time in France during a Human Nutrition laboratory visit at the University Clermont Auvergne, France in 2018. Lwando MAZULE, also for UFH, in addition acquires technical skills in 2018 from French scientists at the CIRAD Agriculture laboratory in Reunion Island  - a part of France not too far from South Africa.

The partnership between France and South Africa aspires a fruitful collaboration and hope to develop even more scientists and leaders in the food sector field in the near future. The governmental level driven organisation of F’SAGRI will adapt and continue to grow through guidance from its steering committee (comprised of DST, DAFF, ARC, NRF, French Ministry of Agriculture, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, French Embassy in South Africa and French and South-African higher education and research institutions) as well as its Technical Advisory Committee and F’SAGRI Implementation unit (composed of the Director based in the ARC in Pretoria, two Deputy Directors : one French and one South African and eventually French and South-African trainees and “supporters”).