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Cornell and CRS Take on Africa Food Crisis

By Debbie DeVoe

When you're working with 1 million farmers across six countries to stem the spread of cassava diseases so families don't go hungry, you need all the help you can get.

Dr. Beth Medvecky learns about cassava.

Cornell University course instructor Dr. Beth Medvecky, right, learns about cassava from a farmer in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Ariel Bleth

Catholic Relief Services leads the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This initiative is taking on diseases decimating cassava plants—a staple food like the potato in the United States—in eastern and central Africa. The four-year project is helping government agricultural institutions, local partners and farmers to grow, distribute and plant disease-tolerant cassava varieties so farmers can rely once again on this important food source.

But informing 1 million farmers about disease symptoms and how they can replant healthy fields is no easy task. So when CRS heard that Cornell University was seeking hands-on learning opportunities for a diverse set of graduate students a partnership was born.

Cornell Heads to the Field

Over the last two years, Dr. Beth Medvecky and Dr. Terry Tucker of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development have taught a class that ties into CRS programming. During the school year, International Agriculture and Rural Development students develop short courses called modules for CRS field agents. They build skills such as: group collaboration and management, business and marketing, and family health and nutrition. The modules give field agents a standard base of knowledge they then use to train groups of rural villagers, with the ultimate aim of helping villagers to escape poverty.

Each summer, many of the students also head overseas to field-test and refine the modules with CRS staff. In 2009, after CRS won a $100,000 award from Intel to pilot use of miniature laptop computers in the field, the students shifted from creating paper-based modules to computer-based modules using GoCourse, a software program from Agilix.

Field agents train farmers.

Computer-based modules developed by Cornell and CRS help field agents improve trainings offered to farmers to increase business and agricultural knowledge. Photo courtesy of Ariel Bleth

From late May through late July, five students joined Dr. Medvecky on a trip to Africa, where they teamed with three students from Kenyatta University in Nairobi to field-test draft versions of GoCourses for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative. Three other students went with Dr. Tucker to India for three weeks, teaming with four students from the G.P. Pant University to work with CRS partners on health and nutrition trainings.

"We gained a lot of practical experience about things we'd been theorizing about," explains Tom Archibald, a Cornell student pursuing a master's degree in adult extension and education. "There's no better way to learn than to really do it. We learned things that could have taken three to four semesters in a classroom."

Technology Speeds Sharing

The students who went to Africa worked at a furious pace to field-test various GoCourses in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. Collaborating closely with CRS staff, partner staff, field agents and farmers, they used the feedback they gained to fine-tune the computer-based training modules.

Of particular importance was the feedback of field agents: paid and volunteer community members assigned to organize and mentor groups of farmers. During regular field visits, these agents share critical data with farmers, including information about disease symptoms, how to plant disease-resistant cassava, and how to market cassava products. The GoCourses make sure that the field agents have the basic knowledge and skills they need to train these farmer groups effectively.

"The introduction of the modules let us move very fast to train our farmers," says Beatrice Otieno, microfinance unit manager with the Diocese of Homa Bay, a Great Lakes Cassava Initiative partner in Kenya. "Using GoCourse, you prepare as a facilitator and then go to the field."

Field staff and Cornell students review field test results.

Project staff and Cornell students come together after field tests to evaluate and plan next steps for the computer-based training initiative. Photo by Debbie DeVoe/CRS

"It's not a dream. This training initiative has a good impact, and it helps the farmer groups achieve their goals," adds Celestin Hitimana, a supervisor of the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative for CRS' local partner Rwanda Rural Rehabilitation Initiative. "For example, we needed to train groups about leadership but couldn't find a consultant. Now, farmer groups are already starting to be trained because the information is passing so easily to our field agents."

Rewards Outweigh Challenges

While the minicomputers have enormous potential, including automated monitoring and evaluation of the project, the field testing brought a number of problems to light. Virus control tops the list because of difficulties training users how to protect computers from viruses. Slow internet connections also hamper regular updates of virus software, resulting in frequent infections. The lack of computer literacy of many field agents already trained by the project is another serious concern. Finally, staffing constraints delay updates to the training modules as new information becomes available.

But overall, the gains offered by the computer-based training outweigh the problems. CRS is now distributing five modules to select farmer field agents for use on their mini-laptops. These first modules provide key principles of adult education, group management, cassava pests and diseases, and growing disease-resistant plants for dissemination.

"The world is moving forward with new technologies. We are in the revolution," says Sylvain Hakizimana, CRS' program manager for the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative in Rwanda. "CRS' partnership with Cornell University is helping Africans make good use of this technology to improve their lives."

Debbie DeVoe is CRS' regional information officer for eastern and southern Africa based in Nairobi.

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