Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg
ROOTS Africa, a student-led organization with the goal to fight poverty and hunger in rural Africa through innovation, entrepreneurship, and sustainable agricultural practices, traveled to Liberia over spring break to implement training and educational programs they have been organizing since last fall. The trip represents the formal launch of the ROOTS Africa program on the ground, led by faculty advisor Dave Myers of the University of Maryland Extension, and Cedric Nwafor, senior in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, founder of ROOTS Africa and the Spring 2018 Commencement student speaker for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. ROOTS Africa provided new equipment, technology, and educational resources, all while fostering a partnership with the Liberian International Christian College (LICC) that will continue to grow and support the local community well into the future.
“The people were so welcoming,” Nwafor recalls. “It was truly inspiring seeing everyone so engaged and eager to learn and talk about agriculture in their communities.” ROOTS Africa has been working with LICC students for months in preparation for this trip. The ultimate goal of the trip was to provide targeted education and outreach while connecting villagers to resources that ROOTS brought to LICC based on previously identified needs. LICC is now set up as an extension center for the country, a place that villagers can go to receive useful information and to access resources and technology that they would otherwise be unable to use. Education during the trip was focused on soil health and soil testing, plant disease, crop rotation, insecticides and pesticides, record keeping and the importance of data and budgeting, training the villagers and LICC students nutrient testing technology that ROOTS donated for future use, and encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation among the villagers and LICC students.
The major keys to this process were the months of preparation and value and respect given to the community members and their knowledge of the issues. Experts were even sat alongside community members for roundtable discussions to promote a more open and accepting environment. “You have to listen first - only then can you really have an impact,” explains Nwafor. “For communities that are struggling, one size does NOT fit all. But we came in as equals to students at LICC and put in the months of prep work with weekly meetings and constant communication to build the most impactful program based on the actual needs and problems facing the community. It was about bridging the gaps, connecting the community to resources, and sparking conversation that would actually lead to change. But all that change and innovation is right there in the community and will ultimately come from them.”
Myers taught soil health on the Liberia trip and has been a mentor and faculty advisor for the ROOTS Africa program since it began. “I am so proud of the whole team,” says Myers. “The business development workshop was truly impressive. Over 150 people including Peace Corps, AgriCorps, and major local politicians participated and were very engaged in the importance of record keeping and bookkeeping as important aspects of their business. Liberia is one of the poorest countries in the world with years and years of civil war and health issues, but has so much potential to grow and expand given the large amounts of land and the entrepreneurial spirit they so clearly possess. It was amazing to see the response and how much work the ROOTS team was able to accomplish in such a short amount of time.”
In addition to training in agriculture and agribusiness, Leyla Merlo of the ROOTS team held a women’s only group session on maternal health and food safety. Nearly 40 women attended, talking openly and asking their questions in a safe space free of men or external pressures. Anna Glenn, a UMD alumni working at LICC, will continue this work to train future female community health leaders. “Participation from the women in the communities was great to see,” says Myers. “There were just as many women as men involved in the agricultural education programs we held, and Leyla’s presentation was really needed and valued. The women were really happy to be talking about these issues and wanted to know more and more.”
Myers found the experience to be very rewarding. “Every time I go somewhere else to teach, I become a better educator,” says Myers. “You will always discover something meaningful, and I sincerely believe that farming is the best way to improve economics and inspire change in the world. If people are going hungry, they won’t be inspired to do anything. That is why I love international work, and I am so proud of the ROOTS team for their commitment and passion.”
ROOTS is continuing its presence in Liberia and working with LICC to plan an Ag Expo for sometime in September. This will bring farmers and vendors together to help them grow their businesses and connect them to the resources they need. “Groups that want to help and develop things in Africa come and go, with no regard for the long game. But ROOTS is not leaving - we are continuing the relationship, planning next steps, and working to make sure that community members are aware of the new resources available to them and can use them effectively. We will be working to expand our presence to other countries throughout Africa, and I hope to grow this as a nonprofit foundation,” says Nwafor.
Nwafor will be speaking at the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Spring 2018 Commencement, held Saturday May 19th at 3:00 pm in the Reckford Armory building on UMD campus. For more information on ROOTS Africa, contact Nwafor.