Agricultural Capacity Building in Africa: Action Research, Community Education, and Web-Based Resources

  • John B. Kaneene, D.V.M., M.P.H., Ph.D.
  • University Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology
  • Director, Center for Comparative Epidemiology
  • College of Veterinary Medicine
Students interviewing farmers in Africa

As a young man working on his father's dairy farm in Uganda, John Kaneene had a role model, a Ugandan veterinarian who was a close friend of his father and who provided veterinary services on the family farm.

"So I grew up with that image of a veterinarian," said Kaneene, who is himself a veterinarian. He also holds a Master of Public Health (M.P.H.) degree and a Ph.D. in epidemiology and statistics.

Dr. Kaneene's combination of training has allowed him to address issues related to both veterinary medicine and public health, specializing in diseases transmittable between animals and humans, identified as zoonotic diseases. Much of his research involves working on the well-being and economic improvement of farmers and their livestock in rural communities.

Kaneene realized that he could make his best contribution by working with rural, African smallholder farmers (mostly women), and with colleges that provide their training. He works with eight universities in six African countries, and is currently involved with five community-based, interdisciplinary, capacity building research projects.

Improving the Food System and Food Security

Dr. John B. Kaneene

While the dairy industry in East Africa continues to improve, it still faces many challenges such as production levels, milk quality and safety, value added improvements, and marketing. An important issue related to farming is land ownership. The person who owns the land may be different from the one who is actually using it for farming. This is particularly true in the case of women farmers, who typically lease or borrow the land they farm from male landowners.

"The majority of the small farm holders are women. Therefore, if we are going to make a difference in the food system and food security, we have to look at programs for the people who run these farms. These women's educational needs can be met through offering community level short courses. The goal for them is to be able to produce enough for their family and have a little extra to sell," said Kaneene.

The smallholder farmers also need other types of information such as how to get credit to improve their farms and how to market their produce. Providing this information directly to farmers in a cost-effective and sustainable manner is the goal of Kaneene and his partners, who work to address these issues via four approaches: student-led action research, local training of trainers, community based-education programs, and web-based open education resources.

Partner Institutions in Africa

  • Makerere University, Uganda
  • Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania
  • University of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania
  • Moi University, Kenya
  • U.S. International University, Kenya
  • Haramaya University, Ethiopia
  • Mekelle University, Ethiopia
  • University of Pretoria, South Africa

U.S. graduate students involved are from:

  • Michigan State University
  • University of North Dakota
  • University of Minnesota

Student-Led Action Research and Community Education Initiatives

Before Kaneene and the graduate students undertake their research and education initiatives, they work to build relationships and trust with the communities involved. They talk with a few farmers, find out who they should connect with, get help organizing some small groups, and conduct train-the-trainer sessions. This method, he has found, makes for the most sustainable programs.

In one example of student-led action research in the dairy value chain project (see project description box), graduate students from Makerere University in Uganda spent several weeks in each community getting to know the farmers' needs. They then developed a research proposal, which they presented at the university. The university provided feedback and the students returned to the communities with priority areas to address, like improving milk production and milk safety. Students from different disciplines worked together on the same dairy farms. Following the identification of the farmers' needs, the students designed interventions to meet those needs. The dairy farms were monitored over a 14-month period, and the impacts of the interventions were assessed qualitatively and quantitatively.

These student-action research projects have been found to make a significant positive impact in the communities where they were implemented. Four contributing factors stand out:

  • the students' clear understanding of the farmers' needs and their current farming practices
  • utilizing the farmers' indigenous knowledge in designing the interventions
  • frequent visiting of the farms to monitor progress
  • providing results of the progress to the farmers periodically and in a simple and understandable format

One of Kaneene's graduate students from Makerere University in Uganda said of the experience, "I love the action research because what I have produced made farmers happy. They are making more money because their milk is now of high quality, and they have reduced the waste milk so they can sell more." Another Makerere University graduate student commented that, "Results of my action research will be incorporated into a new course that will be on the web for everybody in the world to use."

Benefits and Web-Based Open Education Resources

In addition to community benefits (e.g., higher milk yields, less milk spoilage, and better prices for their milk), the research is utilized by the students for their Master of Science degree, and the universities also benefit by using this knowledge to improve the teaching of the courses. Makerere University is now embracing action research, having seen its value firsthand. In addition, an independent initial evaluation of the work done to date, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has shown promising results.

Open Education Resources about successful practices and interventions, written up by the students, have also been developed and are being put on websites that are free and accessible to anyone who wishes to use them. MSUGlobal, led by Christine Geith (co-PI on this project), assists in this dissemination, providing, for example, help in turning students' photos into attractive, easily understood videos.

Challenges and Rewards of University-Community Engagement

Kaneene readily admits that doing this type of international community engagement has its challenges both here and in Africa. "International work is more difficult because of many factors. It takes longer to see the fruits. Designing the study takes longer. It's a challenge for beginning faculty because they are focused on achieving tenure," said Kaneene.

One significant challenge, according to Kaneene, is for researchers and students to understand the community in which they are working. "It's extremely important to really understand that culture, not coming out like 'Mr. Know-it-all,' but identifying that you are part of them and that you are together trying to solve a problem," he noted.

Kaneene thinks it is important to be in a place long enough to earn people's trust and achieve real results that the people involved in the project can see. "It is so critical that you get the results back to the communities, and in a form that they can understand. Many of the farmers have limited formal education, but are extremely intelligent and have amazing indigenous knowledge that they have depended on for centuries to build resilient communities," he said. "That is when you see me smile the widest," says Kaneene. "You see the welcoming eyes of those women and it's unbelievable. There is nothing that captures the smiles of those women—nothing. Some of them don't read, but they can see the results on the graph and the improvement they have made and they say, 'I love that,' and they say to their children, 'I want you to study and be like him'—and that is the greatest compliment for me."

Dr. Kaneene is currently involved in the following community-based, interdisciplinary capacity building research projects in Africa:

  • Agshare/Global Development of Open Education Resources in Africa
    Funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; joint project partner with MSUGlobal
  • Capacity Development for Modernizing African Food Systems
    Funding from the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development; joint project partner with the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Dairy Value Chain
    Funding from the USAID through the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service; joint project partners with MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University, India
  • Two Major Zoonotic Diseases—Tuberculosis and Brucellosis
    Funding from USAID; joint project partner with North Dakota State University
  • The Effect of Climate Change on Transmission of Tick-borne Diseases in Livestock
    Funding by endowment
  • Written by Catherine A. Gibson, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs courtesy of John B. Kaneene, College of Veterinary Medicine and Paul Ssajjakambwe, Makerere University, Uganda

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