By Silas Allen
STILLWATER, Okla. —
A group of Kenyan and Ugandan journalists, policy makers and community leaders are wrapping up a visit to Oklahoma State University this week as a part of a U.S. State Department initiative aimed at tackling food security issues in developing nations.
The visit is part of a program funded by a grant from the Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs. OSU is one of 17 universities nationwide included in the program. Other universities are involved with partnerships that deal with a range of topics including gender issues and government.
The group arrived in Oklahoma last month. The group wraps up its visit to Oklahoma on Sunday, after which the members will travel to Washington, D.C., for a conference with the other groups in the program before heading home.
Shelly Sitton, a professor in OSU’s agricultural communications program, said the idea behind the program is to help improve and develop food security in Kenya and Uganda.
The department hopes to do that through the use of communication, she said. If food producers, media personnel, advocates and policy makers are in a better position to communicate about food security issues, she said, they stand a better chance of finding solutions.
The chief component of the visit is an internship program in which group members are linked with organizations that relate to their professions. For example, she said, group members have interned with media outlets as well as a number of governmental agencies.
Group members have also visited a number of sites around Oklahoma, said Craig Edwards, one of the faculty members involved in the project. Members of the group visited the Grand River dam in northeastern Oklahoma, a site that held a great deal of interest for many. Visitors have been impressed with the level of infrastructure in the area, he said, particularly with water control.
“They’re fascinated with impounded water,” he said.
The group has also visited a number of Native American sites in the state, Edwards said. Many of the group members identify strongly with Native American groups, he said. They often find similarities between ideas about social stratification in Native American and African tribes, he said.
The two groups also share a mutual understanding of forced resettlement, Edwards said — the African visitors due to political unrest and the Native American groups because of government policies that demanded their removal.
“I’ve seen that with several groups,” he said.
This visit is the last of two such visits included in the program, Edwards said. Another group of Kenyan and Ugandan food security fellows made a similar visit in April. The program also includes a component in which OSU faculty and students, as well as several project collaborators, visit Kenya and Uganda, he said. OSU will make its final visit to Africa sometime next year, he said.
Peter Wamboga-Mugirya, a member of the visiting group, is a journalist in Uganda, where he works as a correspondent for SciDev.net, a British online science and development publication. He also serves as director of communications for Science Foundation for Livelihoods and Development, a Kampala-based nongovernmental organization that advocates for the use of science and technology for sustainable development in Uganda and sub-Saharan Africa.
During his time in Oklahoma, Wamboga-Mugirya worked as an intern with the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. He said he’s noticed a strong partnership between the public and private sectors that is largely absent in Uganda.
In the United States, he said, producers work with government regulators. Regulations keep food safe, he said, and producers understand that abiding by regulations is good for business.
In Uganda, he said, the relationship between food producers and government regulators is more adversarial. Producers see regulators as agents who are sent to shut down their operations, he said, and in many cases, corruption is present in the regulatory process.
It’s been an important experience for Wamboga-Mugirya and the other food security fellows, he said, because it gives them a chance to see the United States firsthand.
Africa as a whole relates closely with the U.S., he said. Traditionally, that relationship has mainly been political and economic, he said, but as the Global War on Terror has progressed, a number of African nations have come to be seen as U.S. partners in the conflict.
Despite that close relationship, he said, many Africans don’t have a concept of what the U.S. looks like. Many of the visitors were surprised to find that the U.S. isn’t a homogenous country, he said. Many had formed a mental image of boundless industry, but agriculture-rich states like Oklahoma clearly don’t fit that model. That misconception is largely the product of television, Wamboga-Mugirya said.
“What the media shows is New York,” he said.
Wamboga-Mugirya said he has been particularly impressed with the integration of every link in the chain of food production. Production is linked to transportation, meaning it is well linked to processing and, eventually, consumption.
In Uganda, he said, that isn’t the case. Roads, if they exist at all, tend to be poor, he said, meaning food producers have a difficult time getting a product to market. So even if Ugandan farmers produce enough food, much of it goes to waste.
American farmers also can get crop insurance to cover their losses in case of a natural disaster, such as the drought and wild fires Oklahoma experienced during the summer. Ugandan farmers don’t have any such assurance, he said, so a lost crop means financial ruin. That level of risk discourages Ugandans from working in agriculture, he said, which is a problem for the country as a whole.
“Without them, there’s no food security,” he said.
One of the chief lessons Wamboga-Mugirya said he hopes to take back home is the relationship between universities like OSU and the agriculture sector. The key component of that relationship is the university’s extension program, he said.
As researchers develop new technologies and methods, extension agents bring those ideas to farmers. The extension program also gives farmers a mechanism through which they can communicate their needs to the university, he said.
“It’s a lesson we’re learning,” he said. “We need to go and advocate for it.”