Agricultural Research Council Strategic Plan briefing

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Meeting report

AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
05 June 2007
AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH COUNCIL STRATEGIC PLAN BRIEFING

Chairperson: Ms D Hlengethwa (ANC)

Documents handed out:
Agricultural Research Council, Strategic Plan presentation
Agricultural Research Council, Strategic Plan
Committee Minutes of Proceedings

Audio Recording of the Meeting

SUMMARY
The Agricultural Research Council briefed the Committee on its Strategic Plan. The objectives of the Council were outlined as conducting research, development and technology transfer in order to promote agriculture and industry; contribute to a better way of life; and facilitate or ensure natural resource conservation. All work was linked to the national priorities. A recent review into science, engineering and technology institutes had noted that there was a need for changes to be implemented in operations, noting also that there were problems in weak linkages to sources of knowledge outside ARC, a poor record of publishing own research, HR policies that were out of touch and questions as to the quality and relevance of research. The new strategy focused on basic research, human capital development, technology development, targeted focus on user groups and commitment to agrarian reform. The programmes were outlined and explained. Priority actions were taken to improve communication, match job profiles with competency profiles, align of finance and infrastructure resources, and improve performance and change management. A new HR strategy was formulated. The budget figures for the seven years up to 2005/06 were presented.

Questions by Members addressed the asset register, the AG report, the ownership and possession of Nguni herds in Loskopdam, funding of the Council, the relationship with other research institutions, communication within the Department of Agriculture and between that Department and the Council, an explanation of the appointment procedures for certain posts, and the reason why no budget figures were presented for 2006/07.
Further questions related to the employee breakdown, plans for retention and recruitment, research on climate change and irrigation schemes, the selection process for bursaries, and the future of certain agricultural stations.
 
MINUTES
Agricultural Research Council (ARC), Strategic Plan
Dr Shadrack Moephuli, President and CEO: ARC, reported that the objectives of the ARC were to conduct research, development and technology transfer in order to promote agriculture and industry; contribute to a better way of life; and facilitate or ensure natural resource conservation. In its work the ARC had regard to the Government’s National Priorities, being the National Programme of Action around agriculture, and the African Agenda of the New Economic Partnership for African Development (NEPAD).

The Science Engineering and Technology Institutes (SETI) Review had noted that there needed to be a management process to identify necessary changes in operations and to implement them. There were weak linkages to sources of knowledge outside ARC, a poor record of disseminating its own results of research in international literature, HR policies were out of touch and the quality and relevance of research needed to be considered. A diagram of the interplay between the various organisations and the core activities and business divisions was tabled and explained. The new strategic considerations were therefore an increased focus on basic or fundamental research, human capital development, technology development, targeted focus on user groups and commitment to agrarian reform.

Dr Moephuli then outlined the programmes that would support the strategic thrusts. TheNSP1 programme of Agri-BEE and Integrated Food Security would address natural resource management, access and participation, infrastructure and inputs and integrated food security. The NSP 2 programme addressed sector investment and competitiveness and the infrastructure.  NSP 3 addressed Food Security and Disaster management with emphasis on managing and mitigating agricultural risks and enhancing nutrition and food safety. All programmes were aligned also to the Sector key result area and national objectives.

Priority actions taken to facilitate implementation included better communication, matching job profiles with competency profiles, alignment of finance and infrastructure resources, better performance management and change management. The new HR strategy was outlined, which addressed recruitment and retention, performance agreements, collaboration agreements, endowment chairs.

Dr Moephuli gave comparative figures for the budget over the last seven years and indicated that the budget for 2005/06 indicated total income of R654 million from the parliamentary grant and external income, and a surplus of R14 million.
 
Discussion
Mr S Abraham (ANC) acknowledged that Dr Moephuli had taken over from his predecessor at a critical juncture of the ARC, and it was clear that he had not had an easy task in turning the organization around. He commented that in a developmental state like South Africa research played a crucial role both in ensuring that South Africa remained ahead and in meeting challenges beyond human control. These included challenges faced by climate change.

Mr Abraham noted that the ARC had been aware of the Committee’s meeting for some time and made it clear that there was no excuse for the absence of his some of his colleagues.

Dr Moephuli assured the Committee that he would relay the Committee’s disapproval as to absence of members of his delegation to his colleagues.

Mr Abraham enquired whether the ARC had compiled an Asset Register and whether it could be made available to the Committee.

Dr Moephuli said that the issue of the Asset Register was one of the reasons for a qualified audit report in the 2005/6 financial year, but that a register had now been compiled. He would need to consult the ARC’s board as to the of rules of releasing it.

Ms Ntuli expressed the view that the Committee was certainly entitled to see the asset register.

Dr Moephuli said that he did not want to be misunderstood; he merely wanted to follow due process. He added that since the last audit the ARC had presented the register to the Auditor General, who was impressed by it.

Mr Abraham referred to reports that certain Nguni herds belonging to the ARC in the Loskopdam area had been claimed by another person and enquired whether the herd had yet been returned, and, if not, what the reasons were for this.

Dr Moephuli commented that the herds were still the property of the ARC and that the farm in question also still belonged to the ARC, but added that he would have investigate this particular incident further and report back to the Committee.

Mr S Abraham asked Dr Moephuli to request his board for clarity on the Nguni herd in the Loskopdam area and report back to the Committee on this issue. He also wanted to know if the report from Auditor General could be made available to the Committee.

Mr Abraham voiced his concern as to the apparent under-funding of the ARC but added that there also seemed to be a problem with the private sector not assisting the ARC. In light of the other institutions that were also conducting research in various areas, he asked if the ARC should not be playing a bigger role in collating these research organizations.

Dr Moephuli stated that on the issue of under-funding was not unique to the ARC but was the case in most science-councils, although funding had increased in the last three years. He further commented, in relation to the concerns on funding from the private sector, that he had been conducting a number of meetings with the private sector, and stated that many of them were currently reviewing their funding to the ARC. Dr Moephuli further explained that he now served as the chairperson of the National Agricultural Research Forum, which aimed to involve all role-players in the sector.

Mr A Nel (DA) commented that the strategic-thrust and objectives that the ARC currently were pursuing seemed to be more appropriate than in the past. He expressed his concern whether there was sufficient communication between the extensions within the Department of Agriculture. He further asked whether the transfer of technology was being efficiently relayed to the ordinary extensions of the department, as they had to transfer this knowledge to the grassroots level, and also wanted to know whether they were aware of the results and aims of the ARC.

Dr Moephuli confirmed that in an organisation that employed 3 000 people communication was of vital importance and that this had in the past been a problem, specifically in relation to clients. However, he had recently been meeting with clients and the problem was currently being addressed.

He continued that the ARC had printed 7 000 copies of a booklet, which aimed to transfer useful scientific information to grassroots level. He added that in addition to that, that the ARC also ran workshops on the booklet and had further identified areas on which workshops will be run in future.

Ms B Ntuli (ANC) asked the meaning of the acronyms IKS and KRAs, and asked what was meant by Endowment Shares and Adjunct Posts.

Dr Moephuli explained that the abbreviation IKS stood for Indigenous Knowledge Systems, and KRA for Key Result Areas. He further explained that Endowment Shares was a method in which a post was created within the ARC, by funding it through donors in a particular area. He added that because the position was high profile, the individual recruited would most likely be a leader in his field, and that this would in turn attract outside funding. Adjunct posts were those that would be created by recruiting a Professor from a University and sharing his salary between the University and the ARC.

Ms Ntuli asked why the budget only reflected figures from 1998/9 to 2005/6 and why there were no figures available for the period 2006/07.

Dr Moephuli apologised for the fact that the budget report for 2006/7 was not included, but explained that this was mostly due to the report’s focus on the 2005/06 year.

Ms Ntuli requested a breakdown of the 3000 employees currently working for the ARC and enquired as to the plans in terms of human resource development and the retention of expertise.

Dr Moephuli commented that the ARC had about 63% black employees. It currently had around 180 individuals with PhDs, close to 300 with Masters, 118 staff studying towards their Masters and 4 people that were currently doing Medical or Engineering degrees. He also said that there were currently 69 black students in the Professional Development Programme, with 16 of these students studying Engineering, and 25 students doing agricultural degrees, and added out of all these about 30-50% are woman. The rest of the staff consisted mostly of support staff. The total staff complement was 2 698.

Dr Moephuli highlighted that the ARC was trying to grow numbers by signing agreements with Universities and other countries that were willing to assist South Africa. He added that in a recent visit to the Agriculture Research Service in the United States a Memorandum of Agreement was signed for the training of students for Masters and PhD degrees. He further explained that the ARC was currently in the processes of creating standardised remuneration networks that were linked to performance so as to retain employees that were performing well.

Mr M Baloyi (ANC) wanted to know what the ARC were doing to increase the focus on climate change. He also enquired what the ARC planned on doing in terms of irrigation systems and schemes.

Dr Moephuli further highlighted that it was a strategic objective of the ARC that expediential research was done and that a linkage with a certain European satellite was assisting in obtaining this objective. As far as irrigation systems were concerned he commented that the ARC was involved in the design of structures such as greenhouses, and also in providing assistance in rehabilitating irrigation schemes.

Mr Baloyi enquired about the relationship with the agriculture infrastructure, and the relationship between the ARC and the ANC, seeing that ANC would most likely want to assist in this process.

Dr Moephuli that the ARC was definitely in discussion with the ANC for input on how trade in certain products impacts on the economy.

Mr Baloyi asked if the target of 60% black farmers was attainable and also whether this figure included subsistence, black commercial and family farmers.

Dr A van Niekerk (DA) wanted the ARC to explain what was going to happen to the agricultural research station at Citrusdal, which seemed to have been abandoned.

Dr Moephuli commented that this was one of the weaknesses of the ARC, but added that the ARC was compiling an asset management strategy to counteract this.

Ms C Nkuna (ANC) commented that the ARC was at a critical stage of finding amicable solutions for its problems. She asked for a clear indication of how under-served areas were being assisted. She agreed that there as a definite need for farmers to have workshops.

Dr Moephuli confirmed that the ARC tried to be as inclusive as possible, but added that it would also convey certain information to the Department of Agriculture, who was tasked with assisting farmers. 

Ms Nkuna asked how the selection for bursaries was done

Dr Moephuli stated that the selection process for bursaries was interesting, and that ARC was currently compiling a strategy for the selection, which would be publicised once completed.

Ms C Nkuna (ANC) wanted to know whether the ARC fund could be used to bring the research closer to people. She also wanted to know how many ARC stations were functional and added that this information would enable the Committee to debate for more funds for the ARC.

Dr Moephuli promised to make this information available to the Committee. He added that there were also some land claims on ARC facilities but that the ARC intended to ask the government to retain these as properties of the ARC, as it would take a long time for the ARC to obtain other farms.

The Chairperson hoped that Dr Moephuli would continue his work in turning the ARC around.

The Chairperson noted that the Minutes of the previous meeting had been circulated, and Members should study them and adopt them at the following meeting.

The meeting was adjourned.

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