Growing Together in Africa
On what was once bare, dusty ground surrounded by a cinderblock wall, a seedling nursery now stands in the village of Notsé in the country of Togo, Africa. Trays full of native plant seedlings sprawl under shade cloth that protects them from the hot tropical sun. Local community members monitor and care for the seedlings, then share the information they collect with researchers halfway around the world.
In July 2016, a team from the Martin Institute in the UI College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences (CLASS), the College of Natural Resources (CNR) Forestry, Rangeland and Fire Sciences Department, the Center for Forest Nursery and Seedling Research (CFNSR) and the Institute for Community Partnerships and Sustainable Development (ICPSD) traveled to Togo to work with the local community to build a native plant nursery.
ICPSD is a non-profit organization based out of Moscow whose mission is to assist local populations in Africa in creating self-reliance and sustainable development by providing education and resources that they can utilize, along with the knowledge that exists in their own communities.
“Here in the U.S. in our land-grant universities, we are very successful in connecting research, teaching and extension to help our communities develop,” said Dr. Romuald ‘Ro’ Afatchao, Associate Director of the Martin Institute and President and Executive Director of ICPSD. “That extension model is what is missing in Togo and other developing countries. We want to use this type of model to help locals solve problems in their own communities.”
Early in 2016, Afatchao started talking with Dr. Anthony S. Davis, then Director of the UI CFNSR, about developing a nursery in Togo and almost immediately the plans started to come together. CNR provided faculty, staff and students who had expertise in nursery science and teaching. The Martin Institute and ICPSD brought international expertise in working on the ground in Africa and in making local community connections. Through these relationships, a partnership was created with Entreprises Territoires et Developpement (EDT), a large non-governmental organization who provides support for rural development and is managing many reforestation projects in southern Togo.
Helping to Slow the Loss of Forests
The project in Togo is the basis of graduate student Rebecca Lieberg’s master’s project.
“The world is losing forested lands at an astronomical rate,” said Lieberg. “If we can figure out how to marry the skills of the local community members with our solid nursery science, we can create success.”
Nurseries like the one in Togo can help communities develop awareness of the problem and produce seedlings that will help with reforestation. Currently, Togo has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Reforested areas will aid in maintaining plant and animal biodiversity, provide additional sources of food, shelter and heat, and provide income to communities through the sale of renewable forest products.
The team experienced some challenges in getting started. Most arrived in Togo without their luggage, which included much of their nursery-building supplies. Luckily, they were able to use their local connections to get the supplies needed and the team was able to hit the ground running.
The first part of the trip focused on training. Through ICPSD, a local women’s group who promotes community and culture was identified, and agreed to take on the project to run the nursery. The UI team provided classroom and hands-on training and once the combined team was at the nursery site, the work began. Local volunteers jumped right in and quickly mastered every task that they were given.
Sharing Knowledge and Experiences
In a team meeting in Moscow before they left for Togo, team member Dr. Jackie Maximillian emphasized how important it was for them to be open to learning in Togo and that this trip was about “exchange of knowledge,” not “transfer of knowledge.” In order to be successful, the team would have to rely on the people in the community and the project partners in Togo to help them understand cultural expectations and collaborate on solutions.
A key piece of the extension model the team wanted to use was high school student engagement.
“We felt that if we could get in the classroom with the high schoolers and teach them about how plants grow, why the nursery is important and why native plants are important, we could show that they could really make a difference in helping to reforest their country,” said Randy Brooks, department head of Forest, Rangeland and Fire Sciences and extension specialist. “We spent two half days at the high school teaching through translators. The kids were really interested and asked great questions and then later on came out to work with us at the nursery.”
At the end of the first trip, the nursery was finished and the majority of the 5,000 plant containers were sown with native seed. In fact, some of the fast-growing tropical seedlings were already stretching towards the sky. The team from Idaho left with the promise to be back in the fall.
Back to Togo
In October, a team of seven returned to Togo. They were gratified to see how well the plants were doing; so much so that they expanded the nursery to make more room while they were there. They met with members of the women’s group who were managing the nursery to understand what was working well and what wasn’t. It was also an opportunity to take a group of the healthy seedlings to create a test planting in the field.
Graduate student Kelli Roemer was one of the team members that journeyed back to Togo. She was struck by how well the diverse team worked together.
“At one point, our UI team, local high school students, members of the non-profit organizations, and University of Lomé students were all there working together,” Roemer said. “Our language and cultures were different, but we were really all on the same page with one goal.”
Additional return trips are planned to continue work on the nursery and to strengthen relationships with the University of Lomé and the local high school teachers and students. There are many additional potential research and development partnerships possible in the future.
“It was great to be able to go there and build the foundation of this native plant program,” said Lieberg. “But the people of Notsé are the ones that are going to really make it happen. They are going to train others to take care of the plants, and then eventually start using the seedlings to reforest and to create income for their families. Our team from Idaho is building a model that we can use all over the world to create partnerships to do this work.”
Article by Kim Jackson