Reap what you sow

On the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook website, the page dedicated to Nepal offers a summary of the country: the population, the terrain, the economy, and so forth. It goes on to explain that the “mainstay” of the economy is agriculture, accounting for one-third of the GDP. Not surprising. The Factbook website is just one example of a source which establishes the fact that Nepal relies on agriculture to survive. But take a walk into the country’s premier (and only) Institute of Agriculture and Animal Sciences (IAAS), and you’ll see the destitution of its students. While a few lucky graduates take up jobs within the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives (MoAC), they only make up a small fraction. More than 6,000 students have thus far taken some course from the institute and, considering the dearth of working agro-specialists in the country, it’s shocking to learn that most of these graduates are not engaged in any agro-related activity whatsoever. In fact, last year, 173 students graduated from the institute, and more than 85 of them are preparing to go abroad.

Dipti Rai, a recent IAAS graduate, blames political instability. “It’s not that we don’t have the talent, but there’s no encouragement,” she says. Educating students on agricultural innovation and sustainable farming methods is of little use when there’s no outlet for them to demonstrate these acquired skills. This is why most students with solid Nepal-specific knowledge on the ins and outs of the agricultural economy turn to wealthy countries where technological advancements in agriculture are already in place, and where they can actually use their skills.

Graduates, post graduates, experienced and skilled professionals are simply not getting enough opportunities to succeed in Nepal, and are consequently turning to the West. Just in the US, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors’ 2010 report, Nepal ranks 11 among international students. There were 11,581 students from Nepal in the US, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Compare this to 1990, when there were only about 600 students from Nepal. Cumulatively, foreign students are estimated to inject US $20 billion into the American economy annually. Among Nepali students in the US, around two percent undertake agriculture and give back to the American economy accordingly. But technically, the scope for agriculture students and practitioners should be higher in a country like Nepal.

IAAS was developed precisely with that in mind. With financial assistance from USAID, it began its first phase of development in 1975. The second phase, focusing on human resources, began in 1984 and the World Bank involved itself in the infrastructure development aspect. IAAS has, since then, had no external assistance. But it’s also had very little government assistance, which has taken a huge toll on the institution. By now, political instability has seeped into every government office, affiliate, wing and association, and education has taken a huge hit. IAAS, like every other government campus in the country, has instead become a playground for the political elites. The Israeli student exchange programme, a highlight of the institute, which brought in foreign students to the campus, was revoked altogether. And the cumulative effect is simply that students want out of the institute, and ultimately, the country.

Professor Sundar Man Shrestha is in his fourth year as Dean of the institute. “It’s been 12 years since I started writing recommendations for students to get out of here,” he says. He writes an average of 80-100 recommendations a year. Similarly, Professor Shree Chandra Shah, the most senior faculty at IAAS with more than 37 years of teaching experience, can’t even count how many recommendations he writes. “I have even written recommendations for students I haven’t taught, or those with no interest in soil sciences. They say that they will study even that if it means they get to go abroad.”

More than 80 research papers are submitted each year as part of the post graduate programme, and yet, the professors tell of how the number of quality researches among these can be counted on a single hand. The remaining is the kind of research that is done to simply get the degree.

Sonisha Sharma, a 2008 graduate from IAAS, is currently pursuing a post-graduate degree on Remote Sensing Applications in Crop Management at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She says the differences are not just a matter of “the West is rich and we are poor.” More knowledge and more interaction with people from different parts of the world “makes us able to apply our skills everywhere in the world” after the completion of study, she says. But here in Nepal, the few international exchange programmes that were running have already come to a close.

Sixty-six percent of the Nepali population is involved in agriculture, contributing 36 percent to the GDP, and although agriculture is prioritised at the planning level of every policy, in terms of budget allocation, less than four percent is actually allocated to the sector in the national budget. The most well-known and productive body for agricultural research in the country, the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), has also seen a huge dip in funding, rendering almost all research into the agriculture sector obsolete since 2005. NARC leadership has made it clear that its budget is substantially less than the amount the government allocates for ‘farmer training’, and ‘district development’. But it’s a wonder how both are possible without substantial research into the sector.

Another cause for concern is that the demand for agricultural scientists far outweighs availability and capacity. A significant number have retired in the past 10 years or will be retiring within the next three to five years. NARC was able to hire only 90 scientists in the past year against a reported 300 vacancies. A joint report by Michigan State University and USAID published in 2010 clearly states that “NARC scientists need additional training. To minimise brain-drain, scientists should be trained at home country institutions, especially at the masters level, rather than sending them to the United States or the United Kingdom.” The need for efficient and sustainable agricultural methods is perhaps the most significant in Nepal’s economic development, and yet the tools which could make this possible are lacking, from the government, to education, and beyond.

One initial and efficient way to limit this agro-brain-drain phenomenon would be to seek its conversion to ‘brain exchange’. This would require the intensification of scientific cooperation with universities, laboratories and research institutions in Western Europe and North America. Another alternative would be to seek membership of international institutions such as AGORA, CABI, CEI, COST, ESF, EUREKA, HINARI, OARE etc. Additionally, the IAAS Alumni Association and NRN could launch initiatives on awareness and implementation of agriculture as an attractive business. The possibilities are endless, but ultimately, it all boils down to who’s listening. But few at the decision-making level tend to pay attention to ground-realities until it’s too late.

Author: Dinesh Panday; Panday has a BSC in Agriculture and is an Alltech Young Scientist 2010, 2011, 2012

Note: This article was published in The Kathmandu Post, 21 April 2012. For this post, text and picture were taken from


One response

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