COLUMBUS, Ohio -- In areas of the world where poverty and malnutrition are palpable, efforts to address food insecurity are matters of life and death.
But in addition to helping food producers in those nations boost production today, it’s just as vital to strengthen their institutional capabilities to address the challenge for generations to come.
So say the leaders of Ohio State University’s Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative, or iAGRI. Now about halfway through its $25.5 million, six-year grant, the project in the East African nation of Tanzania is becoming a prototype for strengthening the capacity of agricultural universities to improve African food security for the long term.
“The iAGRI project is an excellent example of human and institutional capacity development that has positioned Ohio State as one of the leaders in this area,” said iAGRI Administrative Director Mark Erbaugh, who also directs the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences’ Office of International Programs in Agriculture (IPA).
Earlier this year, the project received the 2014 Emerging International Engagement Award from Ohio State’s Office of Outreach and Engagement for its initial results and potential for long-term impact, achievement and scholarship.
The project is one of IPA’s largest international efforts. It’s part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s principal global hunger and food security initiative, and is supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development. Funded initially as a five-year project in March 2011, this year the program received a year’s extension along with additional funding and is now scheduled through February 2017. The iAGRI grant is one of the largest single grants ever received by the college.
The project focuses its efforts on strengthening the training and research capacities at Tanzania’s Sokoine (pronounced so-ko-EE-nay) University of Agriculture and the nation’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives.
David Kraybill, project director and a professor in the college’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics, has worked on-site at Sokoine University since 2011. He said Tanzania is an ideal location for the project: While home to Mount Kilimanjaro and Serengeti National Park, more than 60 percent of the country’s rapidly growing population of 50 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. Malnutrition stunts the growth of more than 40 percent of its children under the age of 5. Many rural Tanzanians are moving to urban areas, increasing the need to boost agricultural productivity. Despite the poverty, a stable central government supports policies encouraging growth and productivity, he said.
“We have one major goal,” Kraybill said in an interview conducted by video conference. “We are helping to prepare the next generation of agricultural scientists, leaders, entrepreneurs and institutions to make Tanzania food secure.
“Most projects of this sort focus only on the human capacity-building — sending someone somewhere to get a degree. That’s extremely important, but if you train that person and they return to an institution that is not transformed for the 21st century, that has very limited resources, that has outdated management, then the value that individual brings to their society is going to be much lower than if you also transform the institution.”
Examples of progress include:
• Long-term training. Advanced academic training is vital to address the long-term food security needs of the country, Kraybill said. For instance, more than half the faculty in Sokoine University’s soil science department are at retirement age, and the iAGRI project is providing the training necessary for junior faculty to replace them.
“It’s extremely important in agriculture to have scientists working on a range of agricultural challenges including emerging plant virus diseases, limited use of improved varieties and fertilizers, lack of linkages to markets and problems of soil fertility — particularly in the tropics, where soil fertility is an enormous problem,” Kraybill said. In addition, scientists in other fields are needed to increase agricultural productivity in other ways and to study markets and technologies to increase profitability.
The project’s goal is to support graduate degree training for 135 students. To date, 128 students, including 108 master’s degree and 20 doctoral students, have earned or are working on agriculture-related degrees thanks to the project. Sixty-seven of the students have been trained in the U.S. at Ohio State or at one of the project’s U.S. partners: University of Florida, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University and Virginia Tech.
Others study at Sokoine University or at one of nine other partner universities in East and Southern Africa. Degree training programs in Africa are administered through the Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture, or RUFORUM, based in Kampala, Uganda. In addition, six students have studied at long-time CFAES partner Punjab Agricultural University in India.
The iAGRI project also focuses on supporting women in agricultural leadership positions. “At Sokoine University, only 19 percent of the faculty and 27 percent of the undergraduate student body are women,” Kraybill said. But in Tanzania, it’s women who primarily are responsible for not only food preparation, but providing farm labor as well.
“Women have been under-represented in the field of agriculture in Tanzania, so our goal was to have 50 percent of the students trained through iAGRI be women,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to hit that target.”
• Research. In addition to the research that graduate students are conducting, iAGRI is sponsoring major projects in which scientists in Tanzania — from both Sokoine University and the Ministry of Agriculture — collaborate with faculty from one of the six U.S. partner universities. Projects focus on food security needs identified at the project’s outset and include research on crops, water, gender issues, climate change, nutrition and agricultural policy.
While the new knowledge generated by iAGRI research will have its own payoffs, the cross-continent teamwork — supported by face-to-face visits and frequent video conferencing — provides a framework for continuing partnerships in the future, Kraybill said.
• Institutional Capacity Building. The idea is to help Sokoine University structure itself to become more like land-grant universities in the U.S. — to embrace a three-tiered mission of academics, research and outreach, and to work more closely with the private sector on practical needs and applied research.
“In the past, the university primarily prepared students for government jobs,” Kraybill said. “Those roles are important, but it’s also important to connect students strongly with farmers, with agri-business processors and others in the agricultural industry.”
In this project, iAGRI students are working with farmers who manage as little as 1 acre of land as well as with major corporations, Kraybill said.
“Getting researchers and teachers to make connections outside of the ivory tower is always a challenge,” Kraybill said. “In the United States, this happened through the land-grant system.”
To adopt such strategies, the iAGRI project created the Innovation Portfolio to strengthen such connections, and has staff members whose primary responsibility is to connect faculty and students with companies interested in applying their work toward growing the economy.
In one such project, iAGRI connected an international company interested in making equipment to process cassava, a staple crop in Tanzania, with three Sokoine researchers to determine the feasibility of doing business in the country. “Now they’re considering next steps,” Kraybill said.
Other facets of iAGRI are strengthening the participants’ English language capabilities, creating a classroom services unit to maintain teaching facilities, providing training to improve teaching methods and initiating a mentoring program for junior faculty members, Kraybill said.
In addition, after Kraybill heard that graduate students couldn’t access online journals they needed for their academic work, he visited the university library and found that even the front-desk library employees were unsure how to connect to those databases. Kraybill and his staff worked with the library and information technology departments to install a new platform, called LibHub.
“Now, students can access journal articles just by logging on with their university IDs,” Kraybill said. “They don’t need any special password, and they can do so even when they’re off campus, as well.”
• Global Linkages. Through its partnerships with other African universities via RUFORUM and with Punjab University, iAGRI is fostering collaboration throughout the “global south.”
As a complement to the iAGRI program, the Office of International Programs in Agriculture also sponsors Ohio State graduate students to globalize their research efforts in Tanzania, Erbaugh said.
“Four Ohio State graduate students from the U.S. have participated in this program, using our own budget, allowing them to do international work,” he said. Two are focusing on soil science, while the others are studying agricultural education and development economics.
“We talk about globalization and the importance of working internationally, but in order to do it you need to put resources behind it,” Erbaugh said. “We want to train the next generation of U.S. scientists, too, so that they have a broadened perspective of food security issues in developing countries.
“Ohio State faculty members who have gone to Tanzania are very positive about the experience. It expands their horizon and provides an opportunity for them to tackle challenging global issues.”
See related story, "Building African Food Security One Student at a Time" at go.osu.edu/iagristudents2014.