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“The ultimate goal is to have an African society that eats better and more nutritious food”

“The ultimate goal is to have an African society that eats better and more nutritious food”

Mel Oluoch (PhD)

Mel Oluoch (PhD) is the new regional director of Sasakawa Africa Association based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here, he reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on his own career, the work of Sasakawa, on helping develop the African agricultural scene, on the challenges, successes, on the lived experiences of other nations and in the areas of nutrition and better health within the continent. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Congratulations on your new appointment. I am aware you are no stranger to the country. Can you please share me with the highlights of your own career?

Mel Oluoch (PhD): Thank you for the warm welcome! I am a Kenyan by Nationality and did my first degree in Kenya and continued to do my graduate degrees elsewhere. I obtained my Master’s degree was in horticulture from the Philippines and my PhD degree in Horticulture from the United States. I worked in several countries before my posting in Ethiopia, including in Nigeria, Tanzania, Mali, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States for a number of organizations. I have been all over the map.

My first posting was in the Netherlands at Plant Research International where I spent few years working there. Then back to the US as a research associate carrying out research in horticulture. Then I moved to Tanzania where I worked for a decade for the World Vegetable Center as a training specialist and as a horticulture scientist. Then from there, I moved to Harvest Plus and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), where I was helping to develop and disseminate Biofortified High Nutrient Crops rich in Vitamin A and Iron to help address the widespread malnutrition problem in Africa. Additionally, I worked in Nigeria for several years with the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) where I was leading efforts to eradicate Striga Weed in Africa, a devastating weed that affects a range of cereal crops. 

So I have a long multidisciplinary working experience in the fields of Training and Capacity Building, Project/Program Management, Horticulture, Agronomy, Nutrition, Agriculture Research for Development, Research management, Rural Development, Seed Systems, Agrobio diversity, Public-Private Sector Partnerships, Value Chain Development, and Technology transfer at regional and International level so as to advance the agriculture development and improve agriculture knowledge systems within Africa. I have helped train thousands of farmers, research scientists, extension personnel and all kinds of actors working within the agriculture field.

Some of my work has helped improve the nutrition, livelihoods and income status of many farmers and in return impacted the lives of millions in Africa. So my research and development work has touched on about 33 countries in Africa, reflecting my experience in the area. However, my work does not just extend within the continent alone, but also in Europe, United States and in South-East Asia. Before I came here to Ethiopia, I was working at Nairobi University as a lecturer and also as a Director of AgLink Harvest, an Agriculture Consultancy and Development Firm in Kenya. Just before that, I was working in Mali, with the World Vegetable Center, to help improve the Horticulture value chain sector there.

In a nutshell, this is what I bring to my current position.

You are now in charge of an organization seen as vital to the development of the agriculture sector. Walk me through what the organization does and why it’s perhaps different than most non-governmental organizations that are working within Ethiopia?

Sasakawa Africa Association is a unique organization that works in the field of agriculture extension delivery in Africa, a sector in which other organizations are not really focused on. Along with our work in Ethiopia; we focus our operations in Mali, Nigeria and Uganda, in addition to a few other countries. So what do we do;  we carry out a lot of training for extension workers and farmers to strengthen the capacity of extension and advisory services, and then work with them to disseminate improved crop productivity, improved post-harvest handling and agro-processing technologies, and marketing of agriculture produce across the entire crop value chains. Coming from a research and development background, I have an interest, as well as knowledge on the technologies that have been developed to help farmers become more productive.

There are a lot of improved crop varieties, crop management technologies, and a lot of other Agriculture technologies that have been developed and are lying on the shelf waiting to be disseminated and utilized by the farmers and consumers. That is where Sasakawa Africa Association comes in.  So our work is to take these modern improved technologies that have been developed and put them in the hands of farmers, using participatory extension approaches that capture the farmers’ preferences, farming systems and socioeconomic conditions. We put the voice of farmers central to our approaches. That helps us address their needs more proactively. In the end our focus is to bring solutions to the needs of the farmer. The impact of our work is to fight poverty at rural level, and address lack of adequate knowledge, resources and farming inputs that has been a significant barrier to improving livelihoods of millions of farmers in Africa and thus allowing them to meet their basic needs. That way, we, indirectly, promote better health, better nutrition and have them invest in their children’s education and health.  

In addition, Sasakawa Africa Association through its Human Resources Development component, the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education, promotes effective, demand-driven, value chain-oriented agricultural extension and rural development advisory services that train mid-career extension agents (EAs) in 26 institutions (24 universities and two agricultural colleges) across nine countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Benin, Burkina Faso and Ghana). In Ethiopia, we work closely with nine universities, namely, Haramaya, Hawasa, Mekele, Bahir Dar, Wollo, Jimma, Samara, Jigjiga and Arba Minch universities. The graduates from these Universities are serving in the agricultural extension systems in their respective countries. More than 60 percent of the graduates have been promoted professionally, attained higher supervisory positions and are helping smallholder farmers to improve their livelihoods.

What are some of the local organizations that your work with?

We work with the Ethiopian Ministry of Agriculture research and extension service in different regions (Amhara, Tigray, Afar, Southern Nations, Oromia, and Somali), Universities and Agriculture Colleges, Farmer Associations, Traders, Fabricators and other private sector players. Through Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education, we train the government extension workers to help them build their capacity as the frontline personnel in fighting poverty and hunger at rural level.

You lived in many nations, more specifically in the continent of Africa. Are all the challenges of Africa uniform like? What makes the Ethiopian challenge different or are all African shortcomings, social issues all the same?

No, they are not! Ethiopia’s challenge is quite different. All African challenges are not the same. There are some limitations you find in every country that limits your potential to fulfill your mission. Some of them are access to seeds, access to knowledge or access to information. The key challenges we find most often are in every African country, including Ethiopia, and we are addressing those to the best of our ability. In Ethiopia, the role of the private sector in the agricultural productivity of the nation is lagging behind. A good example is lack of sufficient seed companies in the country that can help expand the dissemination and utilization of new crop varieties in the country.

We rely on the government’s seed company, which may not fully address the needs of millions of farmers across the country. We have instituted a complementary approach; by training farmer associations to produce quality declared seeds and have them sell the seeds to other famers at community level.

In addition, lack of information as I mentioned is still a challenge. There is a need to have access to information on the latest Agriculture technologies along the entire value chain and then share the vital information with the main actors of the agricultural sector.  Climate change is also a challenge we have to face in Africa. Climatic variability and poor soils help contribute to low crop yields a famer gets in Ethiopia and elsewhere in Africa.  Sasakawa Africa Association and the Sasakawa Africa Fund for Extension Education is in the forefront of addressing some of these issues in Africa, in close partnership with many other organizations working in the Agriculture Research and Development sector.

You have lived in the Netherlands, an exemplary nation that has improved its agricultural productivity. What can Holland teach Ethiopia, the African continent, in terms of improving its agricultural sector that has remained low in productivity and is still showing little potential?

That is an interesting question. Let me give the example of Kenya which has adapted some of the high tech farming systems approach used in the Netherlands to a great success. Due to availability of highly trained Agricultural personnel and the right climatic conditions, a lot of Dutch Agriculture companies have invested in Agriculture operations in Kenya. Some of these companies are operating in South Africa and have also moved to Tanzania and Ethiopia in the last several years. The intensification of the cropping systems through green houses and managing the environment much better in order to improve the productivity of crops is the lasting legacy of the Dutch farming systems which is slowly but widely being adopted in Kenya by many farmers.

The crops are largely produced for export and have to meet stringent quality criteria but over time, local markets have also started adopting the quality requirements as consumers become more aware of food quality and getting better value for money. 

The Dutch agriculture is well known because of its export culture. Basically what we deal with here is marketing. Lack of market for a local farmer is still a challenge in Ethiopia. Look at the success of the Dutch farming system in the horticulture export industry and high quality crops. While we cannot compare their success to that of Ethiopia’s, we are closing the gap. This cropping system intensification and quality awareness is spreading to many countries in Africa. We are headed in the right direction

What I have noticed also, is that the famers in Ethiopia and Africa in general are still quite behind.  Most African youths still see farming as a drudgery that brings in little returns and also as something their father did. They want to be different. They want to run away from it.

We now are  beginning to be exposed to the fast-food joints of western nations that are beginning to be rejected there, but have found belated success in Africa. They are becoming frequently noticed as the many NGO’s operating in the country. What has been your observation?

The ultimate goal is to have an African society that eats better and more nutritious food. Some see the appearance of the fast food joints in the continent as a good sign of foreign and local investment that is moving the countries towards a middle income society. Each of these restaurants can be seen as a sign of affluence but is also a sign of poor eating habits that makes obesity and diabetes the norm in our society.

Our role remains to introduce and promote crops that are nutritious, of better quality and associated with better health and well-being. Be aware, 70 percent of Ethiopia’s populations are engaged in farming, one way or the other. We are here to address some of their challenges so that they can produce not just enough products to feed the populations, but also something that is good quality nutritionally for their home consumption.

Yes, you are correct, there are many NGO’s registered in the country. Not all of them are engaged in agriculture. We have a niche focus area in the agriculture field. Sasakawa Africa Association plays a vital linkage to the ordinary farmer. That is what makes our work vital in a sector that has significant importance to the country.

Give me an example of where you have such a unique success where you can take your funders, and show them around and convince them, the work you do and what the organizations does is still needed and appreciated in Ethiopia?

We are operational in most of the regions in Ethiopia. Wherever we work, we are known to significantly help increase the knowledge and productivity of the average farmer, as well as their post-harvest technologies. That is a great thing, since we are also increasing their income, as well as their living standards and ultimately change the poverty narrative of the targeted areas. We have also helped the government increase the number of well-trained extension workers who are well knowledgeable and work all over the country.  The government knows our impact because we work very closely with them and that is why our partnership has been strong over many years.

We are a partner in the transformation of Ethiopia’s agricultural sector, something that is profoundly important to the nation. The way to end poverty in Ethiopia begins in its agricultural sector which employs almost 70% of the national labor force.

Any lasting words?

Our history is directly linked to Ethiopia.   The Sasakawa Africa Association was founded in Geneva as an International NGO in 1986 by Japanese Philanthropist Ryoichi Sasakawa, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, and former US President Jimmy Carter in response to the 1984 famine in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. Instead of providing food aid, the Association developed an approach of disseminating cost-effective improved agriculture technologies supported by good agronomic practices to improve crop yields. A dream founded on the promise that the problem which led to thousands and thousands of people dying as a result of hunger will not be repeated again. That gesture has defined us and that is why are continuing on that promise.

For over the last 30 years, the association has been operating its country programs called Sasakawa Global 2000 (SG2000) in 15 Africa countries. We have been working with tens of thousands of frontline extension staff and millions of farmers in Africa to disseminate high yielding agriculture technologies to resource poor farmers. Our mandate is to help address the problem of hunger and malnutrition in Africa. 

Locally, we will do our work, disseminate the best of Agriculture technologies and continue to make sure we are part of the Agricultural transformation agenda in Ethiopia.