UMD ROOTS in Liberia

For the past few months you may have seen me talking about ROOTS on social media and how awesome it is to be partnering with them- here is a little background information on how we came to be involved with this group and all the work we have since accomplished together!!!

A couple days before we were scheduled to fly home from Liberia last summer, we got an email from the CEO at AgriCorps who wanted to connect us with a student at University of Maryland (our alma mater, yayyyy!!). This student, Cedric Nwafor, was looking to create a new student organization called UMD ROOTS Africa. The goal of the organization was to connect students at UMD (with an interest in combating food insecurity and poverty) with farmers and students in developing countries so that together these groups could discuss local challenges and opportunities and then find ways to implement solutions. I LOVED this idea. Too many times we see groups try to work “for” the people rather than with people. When I heard about the collaboration that UMD ROOTS was interested in doing and the genuine benefits it would have for both groups of students involved, we were immediately intrigued to learn more so we set up a meeting with Cedric  for our first week back in the US, not knowing really what would come of it all.

After meeting with Cedric and hearing more from him personally about what his vision was and the passion that drove him, we knew we wanted to be a part of it but there were still many factors to figure out: would there be other students interested in joining this club? would the two universities be open to partnership and what would that look like? would finances or resources be a problem? was there enough time? would it be effective? etc etc.

In time, all of these questions were resolved and things started coming together. Starting in November we began having virtual meetings with the two groups of students where they introduced themselves, grew to understand what partnership might look like, discussed challenges that farmers face in agriculture in Liberia, as well as started brainstorming ideas for practical solutions that the two groups of students might be able to put into place together during spring break.

Two months before the UMD spring break, we still weren’t 100% sure if the group would be coming but we planned as if they were. There was still a lot of fundraising to do, passports and visas to secure, and tickets to buy but that didn’t discourage anyone- if anything it made everyone work harder. One month before their scheduled departure date I got an email saying tickets had been purchased- it was definitely happening!!!!

On Friday March 16th, we picked up the ROOTS group- 6 students (1 being Nathan’s little brother), 1 professor/extension agent, and 1 photographer-from the airport. After getting some sleep at a nearby guesthouse and doing a last minute tire-change in the morning, we hit the road in the bus. Upon arriving to LICC in Ganta, we were welcomed by the agricultural students dancing in the street and waving branches around in the air- a traditional way of receiving guests. After getting off the bus, the UMD students quickly found themselves with the opportunity to practice a hundred times over the traditional Liberian handshake that they had just learned that morning 😉

 

Over the next two days the students got to know each other through professional meetings, through social activities like soccer and volleyball, as well as through tours of the Agricultural Research Center (ARC) and it’s demonstration sites on campus. It was awesome to see these cross-cultural relationships forming between the students and to see them genuinely interested in each other and in their cultures, beliefs, and ideas.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday we had the opportunity to visit a few local villages: Gbedin, Kpein, and Flumpa. During the virtual conversations that had started in November, the UMD and LICC students had identified that one of the major challenges facing agriculture in Liberia is farmers not having enough access to technical agricultural information that would help them to better manage their soil health, plant health, and business health, thus increasing their yields. It was decided that we would host some workshops in order to help understand where farmers are in their knowledge of these topics, to share new ideas and solutions as applicable, as well as to encourage farmers to partner with LICC in the future when they have questions and use us as a resource. In these workshops, we had the professor from UMD, Dave Myers, do some teaching as well as one teacher and two students from LICC and one student from UMD. It was truly a partnership and I was really impressed with how it all came together!! The UMD students helped to bring some technical knowledge as well as some creative ideas for how we could engage the audiences and the LICC students helped to provide some technical knowledge as well and bring ideas on how to make things culturally relevant and fit within the Liberian context.

team after workshop in Flumpa

During these visits to the villages, we were able to interact with over 75 farmers and share information about composting, mulching, integrated pest management, record keeping, and enterprise budgeting which was all well-received and from the Q&A session at the end,  left people eager to learn more. It was also a chance for us to promote LICC and encourage people to attend school there or at least come and visit us or call us if they were having any problems on their farms. LICC has so much to offer local farmers; however, not enough people know about us or are taking advantage of the services we offer- we hope that will soon change with the occurrence of more outreach events like this!

At the end of each workshop, we invited the farmers groups to select 5 people to send to our big agricultural entrepreneurship day on Thursday. A lot of farmers here have entrepreneurial spirits; however, not everyone has access to the information needed regarding how to practically turn those ideas into successful profitable agricultural businesses. During the video talks between LICC and UMD students, this was identified as another one of the biggest challenges facing farmers and agriculture in Liberia and so we wanted to make it a priority in our educational outreach work.

On Thursday we made sure to invite as many people as we possibly could- we invited members from local agricultural cooperatives, farmers from local villages, LICC agricultural students, local agricultural business owners and employees, etc. We estimated that the minimum number of people we would have would be 50 and the maximum number of people we would have would probably be around 130 but we never dreamed we’d actually get there because events like this are always just so unpredictable. Well, the morning came and  people just kept flowing in and we just kept registering and registering! In total, we ended up with 140+ people!

Throughout the day, the UMD and LICC students gave short presentations on the importance of writing a business plan and how to do a simple version of it, what is value-added agriculture and why and how we can do it in Liberia, as well as how to market and sell a product. Following these short presentations, the students helped to facilitate discussion groups among the participants, allowing them to ask questions of each other, share their own ideas, and learn from one another. The groups even had a chance to develop their own miniature business plans as they put into practice all that they had learned in the morning sessions- it was a super fun activity and the participants got really into managing and marketing their fake little entrepreneurial projects haha.

After lunch, in which participants were given an opportunity to taste some new foods and value-added agricultural products, we welcomed Mrs. Mai Urey as the keynote speaker. Mrs. Urey and her husband have been key leaders within the agricultural industry for many many years.  Today they run one of Liberia’s only agrotourism businesses which is well-recognized throughout the country for it’s innovation and impact. You might remember I went on a field trip with my students from last year to a place called Wulki’s Farm—well that is her place! During her keynote speech, Mrs. Urey spoke on Ethics in Business, a topic we decided was absolutely essential to address given the prevalence of corruption in Liberia, in both the government and private sectors, in both small-scale and large scale operations.  If this issue is not addressed and ethics is not made a cornerstone of every single business, development in Liberia will continue to be slow and farmers and those they are attempting to feed will continue to suffer. We were so thankful for the way in which she handled this topic and got everyone thinking and talking about this very important subject. Fun fact that we learned during her speech: Mai Urey is a proud graduate of University of Maryland!! We had NO idea when we invited her that she was also a fellow Terrapin! How fitting 🙂 Go Terps!

Later in the afternoon we had a panel discussion, but it wasn’t your typical panel discussion where you invite experts to sit up on a prominent table on stage and allow them to discuss things amongst themselves as the participants just sit back and listen. No, we all wanted to try something different- something that empowered the participants to value their own ideas and recognize their own knowledge that they have to contribute to these conversations rather than always looking up toward to “experts” or “teachers” of the world to provide an answer. For our panel discussion, the students decided it would be better if we did away with the panel table all together and instead had the experts serve as facilitators rather than lecturers. These experts thus rotated throughout the room and facilitated short discussions with small groups regarding various challenges and opportunities in business in Liberia as well as the potential of some specific industries such as honey, coconut oil, livestock and feed production, chocolate, etc. In the end, the experts help to synthesize all that they had heard from the groups and help draw conclusions and suggest ideas for moving forward.

At the end of the workshop we heard people saying that this was one of their favorite workshops they had ever attended because of the level of engagement with the participants. Because the students did a lot of small group discussion-type activities, every single person had a chance to talk, share their ideas, and be heard. The technical information that the UMD and LICC students gave the participants was definitely important, but I think the most important thing they did that day was simply to listen and encourage and remind the farmers and participants that they themselves had so much to contribute to making Liberia the place they want it to be- it’s not up to the “experts” alone, it’s up to all of us.

This whole project and trip was certainly exhausting, but overall I think it was a huge success. Throughout their week here, I saw how to the UMD students quickly adapted to their new environments, how they opened themselves up into experiencing a new culture and developing new relationships even if was tricky, confusing, and exhausting at times; how they encountered hurdles and setbacks with perseverance and grace; and how they humbly embraced an attitude of learning rather than coming in a thinking they had all the answers. I also saw how my LICC students graciously welcomed the newcomers and patiently, excitedly, and proudly taught them about their culture; I saw them also welcome the challenge to think about things in a new way as they discussed complex issues with their UMD counterparts, their minds being stretched and pulled in new directions; I saw them empowered to speak, teach, and even question their foreign colleagues at times (which I celebrated because it meant that they truly felt comfortable and confident in themselves and their knowledge); and I saw how they too sought out opportunities for new friendship and understanding- being far more interested in relationships and knowledge above all else.

I was proud of each and every single student from both universities and I am so honored to be a part of this unique pilot program connecting students around the globe who have similar passions for improving our world and working toward improved food security and health for all. And this is only the beginning of what’s to come, this doesn’t stop here. I can’t wait to see what else these students come up with in the months and years to come as they continue to work together, share ideas, and build farmers up. They’ve already got a few plans up their sleeves and I’m excited to see how they will continue to take shape and pan out. Some examples of things to come hopefully are 1) a new student club on campus focused on agricultural entrepreneurship and 2) an Agricultural Expo- where farmers can compete and show off their produce as well as promote agricultural entrepreneurship within the community.  Stay tuned for updates on these and more!!

A Vote of Thanks

To our GlennsGoGlobal and Hope in the Harvest sponsors and partners: THANK YOU for supporting this work and for supporting us. None of this would have been possible without you! Through this project, not only did your support help to train and educate local farmers and connect them with valuable resources that they need to better provide for their families and their country, but it also helped to develop and support young and innovative leaders on BOTH sides of the Atlantic and equip them with knowledge, life skills, and life experiences that will serve them  and their communities for years to come. THANK YOU for supporting and believing in  all of them.

Also, a huge thank you to everyone who helped collect agriculture books to be sent over to our library. Liberia International Christian College (LICC), has a very good agricultural program with engaging curriculum, hands-on learning, a small laboratory, and a large research/demonstration farm. However, they were missing one key element: agricultural textbooks. Before last week, the school only had 5 agriculture textbooks in the library and yet they have 60+ students and are offering 25+ different ag classes. In Liberia, West Africa where electricity is not reliable and most students don’t have funds to have computers or smartphones at home, let alone internet access, textbooks provide the best way of empowering students to take ownership of their learning. Thanks to UMD ROOTS, UMD AGNR alumni, individuals from Sigma Alpha and Alpha Gamma Rho alumni, University of Maryland Extension, and more- we were able to add 40 books to our library. The students are thrilled, already pouring through the pages, and are banging down my office door to make sure that these books get cataloged and set up in the library immediately. It’s not often that you see students so excited to be reading textbooks, but these students are so eager and thirsty to learn!! Lucky for them, we still aren’t finished collecting textbooks 🙂 lf you have any books you want to donate, please contact me directly and I’ll connect you with the right people. If you don’t have books, but would like to contribute financially to help us ship and/or purchase books, you can donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/rootsafrica-liberia-library-project. 

Photo Album from the UMD ROOTS Africa Trip

Photo Credit: Edwin Remsberg  

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