When it comes to awarding of bachelor degrees by institutions of higher learning here, there is an ironclad requirement. Someone enrolled in a regular program has to complete a minimum four-year-long study in a field of one’s own choosing, or another discipline one happens to be (randomly) assigned to. A credential obtained otherwise would mockingly be referred to as degree baquarach (degree obtained through a shortcut). Such labeling was employed in 1997 when the Zimbabwe-born agricultural specialist, Jeff Mutimba, proposed a new curriculum at Haromaya University which aimed at building the capacity of agriculture experts who were mostly trained at diploma level but closely worked with farmers. At that time, the Zimbabwean scholar wanted to introduce a mid-career two-and-a-half year extension experts’ degree program for those who had already earned their diplomas.
At first, Mutimba’s novel idea faced fierce resistance not only from his colleagues, but also higher-ups in the Ministries of Education and Agriculture. It took some convincing, and he eventually oversaw the project as a team developed a curriculum for the university, which was first piloted and approved in 1997.
Many at that time had misgivings about the idea, and viewed it as “an attempt at issuing fake degrees by means other than the conventional way”.
Despite the challenges he faced at the beginning, Mutumba’s idea of a mid-career extension program gradually became a model for other universities in different parts of the country. Thus, the program is currently being implemented at nine universities in Ethiopia, including Haromaya, Hawassa, Bahir Dar, Mekelle, Wollo, Jimma, Arba Minch, Jigjiga and Samara. The program was also later adopted by institutions throughout Africa, such as the Bunda College of Agriculture (now Lilongwe University in Malawi), Makerere University in Uganda and Sokin University of Agriculture in Tanzania.
Among those who at first had been resisting introduction of the program was the former president of Haromaya University, Belay Kassa (Prof.). He now works for the African Union (AU).
“It’s great to see the program succeed now, and I am proud of it,” Mutimba told The Reporter the previous Tuesday at an emotional farewell ceremony at Hebir Restaurant organized by Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education (SAFE) Ethiopia.
Mutimba, the East Africa regional coordinator for SAFE over the past 20 years, has never forgotten those early days — or what it means to have a bumper harvest at the end of a season. He knows how far that could go in terms of changing the livelihood of farmers and their families. And he has used his expertise to help other small-scale farmers prosper, working with universities and ministries of agriculture to increase the number of extension programs and agents throughout Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi.
“Agricultural extension is the interface between science and farmers,” Mutimba said, adding that it’s the best way to make new technologies and methods accessible to people who need them most.
Mutimba has an undergraduate degree in adult education and a PhD in agricultural extension from the University of Zimbabwe, where he also served as a professor. He was undersecretary with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Agriculture, has co-authored a book on intervention in smallholder agriculture, and gives public lectures frequently.
Mutimba is regarded highly by many experts and civil society organizations engaged in works to improve agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods. He is best known for his initiative and unreserved effort to realize extension programs that he believes would be a “key driver and engine to modernize agriculture” in Ethiopia and other countries whose agriculture has yet to develop.
His oft-quoted refrain is: “Extension workers are the key drivers of the agricultural modernization process. If agriculture does not take place at the farmer level, it is unlikely to take place at any level.”
Though he finally retired, he takes consolation at the fact that the program he had initiated has produced so many extension professionals.
Among his students is Samson Eshetu (PhD). For Samson, a representative of the Ethiopian Society of Agricultural Development and Extension, Mutimba was not just a teacher and mentor alone, but a father figure as well, and he made statements to that effect at the farewell ceremony.
SAFE was one of the first organizations to realize the crucial role played by extension agents in efforts directed towards improving agricultural productivity in sub-Saharan Africa. SAFE was launched 25 years ago when Winrock teamed up with Sasakawa Africa Association (founded by Nobel laureate and former Winrock board member Norman Borlaug, Japanese philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa and former President Jimmy Carter) to lead an innovative agricultural pilot in Ghana that brought together agriculture schools, farmers’ associations, institutions of higher learning and the private sector. Since then, SAFE has expanded to nine countries and has trained thousands of mid-career extension agents.
Mutimba has worked for SAFE for 20 years, first assigned as a resource staff with the second SAFE partner educational institution, viz., Haramaya University.
According to SAFE Ethiopia director Abera Debelu (PhD), the Zimbabwean scholar has been one of the prime forces behind the rapid expansion of the SAFE program in Ethiopia and other countries in east and southern Africa.”
A career highlight for Mutimba is seeing the career progress of his former students. “It can be rewarding — really rewarding — when you see people improve because of what you advised them,” he said. “Many, many graduates of this program have risen in rank within the ministries where they work. They occupy positions of influence and now lead their organizations by providing guidance on how extension should best be done.”
In Ethiopia alone, SAFE alumni include the current Ethiopian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, extension-training director in the Ministry of Agriculture, the general manager of the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation, and the vice president of Dire Dawa University.
The Reporter approached Samson asking if Ethiopians and other experts and extension professionals would be missing the long serving and architect of the extension program.
“Ethiopia will miss a devoted agricultural expert, but his legacy lives on. We are here to carry on what he started. He (Mutimba) has already produced thousands of young Mutimbas,” Samson replied.
Meanwhile, the SAFE program office in Addis Ababa awarded him a certificate of recognition as a symbol of gratitude for his service. Its citation read, “We shall forever remember you and your favorite quote — ‘Extension requires someone who has passion for the job, passion to see farmers prosper, to see farmers do better’.”
Asked if he would miss Ethiopia, Mutimba said, “Please don’t ask me that question; don’t make me feel sad,” he replied.
One of Mutimba’s long-time colleagues and friends is the prominent soil scientist and former president of Mekelle University (MU) Mitku Haile (Prof).
The soil scientist, in fact, knows the Zimbabwean extension expert for more than 27 years, even before the latter introduced the mid-career extension program to Ethiopia.
Describing the program, which is hoped to improve farming in various African nations, Mitku said, “It is purely the brain child of Jeff.”
The former MU president also recalled how challenging it was for Jeff to get his program accepted by institutions (mainly Haromaya University) in a bid to improve agricultural productivity.
Speaking of Jeff’s work, Mitiku noted that Jeff has contributed more to Ethiopia than he did for his birth country of Zimbabwe.
“He is a true friend of Ethiopian extension workers as well as a friend of Ethiopian farmers,” Mitku told The Reporter.
Similarly, his successor as president of MU, Kindeya Gebrehiwot, on his part, described Jeff as “more of an Ethiopian than a Zibabwean”.
Kindeya was a student at Haromaya University, where he later worked as instructor. He lamented the fact that Mutimba was an unsung hero despite his immense contribution to Ethiopian agriculture.
Samson chimed in: “With what he did for this country and all, it is so sad to see no proper recognition or honor given to him. He did no less than what other foreign-born figures did. You can definitely call him the Professor Richard Pankhurst of Ethiopian agriculture. You may even count him along the likes of Karlheinz Böhm of Menchen fur Menchen or Catherine Hamlin of the Fistula Hospital.”
Professor Mitiku and Dr. Kindeya seconded Samson on the lack of recognition accorded to Mutimba.
“Absolutely, he did not receive due credit for what he has done for Ethiopia,” Mitku said. Kindeya, on his part, opined, “Ethiopia as a whole and the universities in particular owe him a lot…”
It is hard to find a person in his closest circle here who would consider Jeff a foreigner or an expat who came here in search of greener pastures. Even though he hails from Zimbabwe, his colleagues and friends here take him as one of their own.