A Third Way to Fight Hunger in Africa

We are confronted with two solutions when it comes to decreasing hunger and related issues in Africa. Agroecology is a systematic approach offered from an environmental perspective. Biotechnology presents a dramatically different solution. Both approaches have their merits. Both of them have their critics. As a food scientist, my leanings tend toward biotechnology. And yet, there is a yearning for a middle path, one that is neither too dismissive of technology or too enamored with it. Along comes a distant colleague of mine at the University who works closely with growers and producers of foods through appropriate technology toward commercialization.

William Kisaalita and I were two of eight Senior Teaching Fellows at the University of Georgia in the class of 2005-2006. I wish that I could say that we hit it off well and became close colleagues. I cannot. William was so intense. I was not. After our term was over, I had the opportunity to review his dossier as a member of a committee for a prestigious teaching award on campus. I was blown away by his accomplishments and became his advocate during the discussions. I must have tried too hard as I was accused of personal favoritism for someone located in my same college. Odd! Ironic! Development Engineering was recommended to me by my successor at Georgia. I ordered it from the United Kingdom and read it. William’s words blew me away once again!photo of book by Dr. William Kisaalita

Background. Dr. William Kisaalita was born in Kampala, Uganda. As he grew up on a smallholder farm outside the city, he worked hard on the family farm and excelled in the classroom. After graduating from Makerere University as a mechanical engineer in Kampala, he ventured out to help smallholder growers. He designed a hand-operated cane mill to replace the mortar and pestle operation. After nine months of effort William and his partner had sold two mills and were broke. He took up an opportunity to do graduate research at the University of British Columbia. He graduated with a PhD in Chemical Engineering. He longed to go back to his native country, but it was politically unstable. After three postdoctoral positions, he looked for more permanency in employment, ending up at the University of Georgia.

Although William’s job was in the American South, his heart was still in sub-Saharan Africa. His goal was to conduct a teaching and research program in development engineering for African countries that needed simple solutions to alleviate poverty, to build prosperity and wellness, while sustaining the planet. His mentors at the university lauded his noble goals but told him that he would never make tenure that way. He continued his doctoral research in tissue engineering and made tenure. By this time his dream research was not that far-fetched. Funding was becoming available for such projects. As a tenured professor, he had more independence in charting his direction. What he built was a completely integrated teaching/research program focused on developing solutions to smallholder needs in sub-Saharan Africa.

William’s research and teaching were seamlessly integrated. He spent parts of each summer at Makerere University. Projects were designed in labs and classrooms in Georgia with development, testing, and redesign by students during summer stays in a specific African locale.

Guiding principles. His mission was to focus on low-cost solutions to problems that would make a high impact. His projects focused on ways to increase income and reduce labor. He acknowledges that academic disciplines are ill suited to solve real problems. In selecting projects to tackle he aimed to alleviate poverty, build prosperity and wellness, and sustain the planet. Some projects worked out better than others. Lessons learned in less successful projects helped increase the success of subsequent ones.

The resilience of the poor guided his work. One reason for the failure of many interventions by foreign projects in Africa is the lack of understanding of indigenous knowledge. Rather than being bound by such knowledge, he sought to understand the underlying reasons and come to solutions that satisfy both indigenous ways and advancement of smallholders. Another consideration in William’s projects is land insecurity. Outside help must advance local growers and companies without threatening their land. A third ingredient in the mix is reliance on family labor and diversification. Every member of a farm family is needed to contribute to the common good. It may involve labor in the field, gathering in crops, tending animals, of working outside the home to bring in needed funds to keep the enterprise going.

Cautions to the outsider are provided based on knowledge gained in his youth and his experience in sub-Saharan nations. He warns project leaders to seek transactional transparency. The situation as it appears on the surface may not be real. Underlying financial incentives may hide the motivations of key players. Corruption is a fact of life in many African countries. Understanding hidden agendas and power axes can help achieve the desired goals without compromising integrity. Likewise, it is crucial that local ownership be protected. Aid that replaces local businesses with foreign ones may make the process more efficient in the short term, but it doesn’t solve critical problems in the long run. Building activities from the ground up is critical!

Practical advice gained by William’s experiences overseas can also apply for project success closer to home. He suggests that we listen carefully to all partners first before we start asking probing questions. We don’t learn while we are talking. He urges us to keep quiet in a large group until at least five people have spoken after us. Man, I wish I knew about that rule while I was in discussion groups or faculty meetings! Too often we think we know more about a situation than we do. To make progress in any project we must understand the context and the positions/motivation of the players. Then is the time for a project leader to connect the dots to develop a workable plan.

When executing a plan, start with innovators and measure outcomes. Successful innovators stimulate early adopters who develop into an early majority which becomes a late majority bringing along the laggards. Participants must have the opportunity and incentive to advance. Each one must have a stake in the overall outcome. Giving away equipment or materials is not productive. Selling items to the partners is essential in keeping their interest. William advocates careful education and training of the users of any equipment as failure at this level can destroy all the progress made to this point. Development projects lead to pain. Managing that pain is essential for long-term success.

At this point, it becomes apparent that William is a believer in the motivation provided by self-interest and capitalism. He is for assistance rather than aid. Both cooperation and competition put money in the hands of hard-working people who need it the most. Money gives the smallholder the power to overcome the corruption of banking and political interests. His methods provide an alternative between high-tech solutions of GMOs and inadequacies of agroecology.

Projects. Of the projects William and his students have taken on three particularly impressed me. They developed a diffusion cooler using biogas as fuel to preserve milk collected in the evening until morning for transportation to the milk plant. The cooler prevented milk waste and increased smallholder incomes. Another project helped close the water supply gap by collecting water during the rainy season for use in growing high-value crops in the dry season. This project increased smallholder farm productivity. A third project enhanced the nutritional value of high-carbohydrate diets through supplementation with insect protein and micronutrients. Throughout his projects he used learning outcomes assessment techniques to help improve the experiences of his students.

First-Year Odyssey Seminar (FYOS). At the University of Georgia, every freshman is required to take a FYOS. These seminars link faculty members to no more than 18 first-year students in an area of particular mutual interest. My seminar in Chocolate Science was the most popular on campus. We ate chocolate each week to demonstrate an important scientific principle. The class designed, manufactured, and evaluated the quality of a unique chocolate product. They also developed a marketing campaign for the product. I was very pleased with the effort.

Once again, William overshadowed me in this effort. His seminar, What you can (or should not) do to end global poverty, was a much more serious topic than mine. What a reach! What a difficult topic. In his typical way he approached it with logic and discipline. He began with the class defining poverty from a typical freshman perspective and from the point of view of government. He progressed through steps to reach the “Seven habits of undergraduate students with change-making potential.” All of this instruction was both iterative and interactive. The final project included such projects as panhandling one night on a city street, eating at a soup kitchen, or living on $5.00 a day! Some of these experiences are described by the students in the book.

Take home lesson. Select the persons you get close to carefully. I wish that I had taken my opportunity to get to know William better when I had the opportunity. If I had listened more and talked less, I would have taken away some wonderful lessons! I am glad that I read his book, What an enriching activity. If you have any interest in international research or in understanding food in Africa, READ THIS BOOK.

Coming soon: Overcoming binary solutions to global problems

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