Q&A: Agriculture Meets Education Through USAID Back to School Farming Program

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Written by Makula Dunbar

In the upcoming phase of the Back to School Gardening program — largely facilitated by the Community Youth Network Program NGO and USAID FED Liberia — small issues and expansion efforts will be tackled. Launched in April of last year, the program which gives students and adult learners access to farming and agribusiness techniques, was created to encourage the youth to take on the responsibility of pushing forward the country’s agriculture sector.

In an interview with AFKInsider, Boima Bafaie, Deputy Chief of Party of USAID Food and Enterprise Development (FED) Program for Liberia, expanded on the program’s offering, initiatives and nearing re-launch.

AFKInsider: Can you tell us a bit about the program and what the launch date, goals are for 2014?

Boima Bafaie: The Back to School Gardening activity has seen great results with the student gardeners, so USAID FED and partners have decided to expand the scope in 2014 to five more counties: Margibi, Montserrado, Nimba, Bong and Lofa. The program expects to enroll between 15 and 20 schools per county. Each school group has an average membership of 25 members.

AFKInsider: When was the official start and what was has the program accomplished so far?

Boima Bafaie: The program was kicked off in April 2013 in Grand Bassa county in Liberia. USAID FED piloted the program at 20 schools. Ten schools are normal public grade schools and 10 schools are Alternative Basic Education Program schools designed for adult learners who are going back to school (and attend classes in the early evening). In 2013, the pilot program reached 2500 youth —people between the ages of 16 and 30.

AFKInsider: What organizations are behind the program and what do they envision for the participants and overall outcome?

Boima Bafaie: Liberian NGO Community Youth Network Program (CYNP) sought partnerships and created the Back to School Garden Competition to provide the youth a new look at agriculture within the context of education. CYNP coordinated the program and mobilized youth from conventional schools.

USAID Food and Enterprise Development (FED) Program provided agricultural trainers, tools, seeds and know-how while Advancing Youth Program provided logistical facilitation for field extension teams and mobilized youth attending the Alternative Basic Education Program. The Ministry of Agriculture provided technical training and materials while the Ministry Youth and Sports provided the prizes for the competition.

 AFKInsider: Exactly what type of training will the program offer and who can participate?

Boima Bafaie: As I mentioned, USAID FED provides all the agriculture training and inputs (i.e. tools, seeds). We provide a trainer who gives farmers a new look at vegetable and cassava farming, learning concepts like crop calendars, better land management, soil fertility and improved irrigation techniques. The beneficiaries are many, from normal grade school students to young adult learners who have gone back to school to learn to read, learn to write, mathematics, and eventually finish their high school diploma. For the young adult learners, the USAID funded program Advancing Youth Program provides those learning services.

AFKInsider: How will this program help to facilitate the growth of Liberia’s agriculture sector?

Boima Bafaie: There is a huge lack of interest in agriculture from Liberia’s youth. Most see agriculture as a means of survival and not a career or a way to make money and create wealth.  At USAID FED we are trying to change the paradigm of subsistence farming by providing support and innovation across the entire value chain, from supplier to distributor to market.

If we put agriculture back in the schools, we can make a difference in the lives of Liberia’s largest demographic and hopefully produce future farmers who already know the potential of growing food, both for herself as well as for her community. In addition, this program brings improved agriculture techniques such as processing to these farmers.

AFKInsider: Why is it most important for programs like these and others to exist?

Boima Bafaie: Ten years after the end of the war, the majority of Liberians live in poverty, depend on agriculture as a livelihoods and grow their own food for survival. Over 60 percent of the nation’s GDP comes from the agriculture sector. However, most of this comes from rubber and palm oil plantations. Liberians should be investing in food based value chains and not just industrial agriculture. Empowering the youth and training young farmers is critical to rebuilding and the country’s ability to grow their own food.

AFKInsider: Were there any hurdles in implementing the Back to School Garden initiative?

Boima Bafaie: Student farmers did face challenges especially in post-harvest management as many of these farmers have no place to store their produce. Other hurdles faced include pests, which are typically faced by all Liberian farmers growing food. USAID FED has identified the problems and will address them in the next phase which is now getting underway in the months of March/April 2014.

AFKInsider: What type of feedback has the program received from student farmers and agriculture officials?

Boima Bafaie: [One] student farmer champion is Grace Nyantee from Buchanan’s Seventh Day Adventist High School. She sold 4,000 Liberian Dollars worth of vegetables from her group’s garden. That’s a significant increase in income for these students. Nyantee, for example learned nursery, planting, management and harvesting techniques. School officials are very welcoming to the program and provide a potential market for some of the produce. And both Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Education welcome the program to the country’s youth.