OSU grad visits Kenya to teach agroforestry; use of trees can enrich soil, increase yields
BY KATHY LEESE
ANNA — After graduating from Ohio State University with a bachelor of science degree in agriculture in 2012, a Shelby County man found himself in Africa, teaching young children about agroforestry.
Dustin Homan, 24, son of Mike and Diane Homan of Anna, decided to visit Africa after graduating Summa Cum Laude with Honors Research Distinction. His major was in agricultural and extension education with a focus on leadership and minor in international studies.
Homan is a 2007 Anna High School graduate, where he was involved in FFA, including serving as a state officer. It was his high school experiences that led to his interest in agriculture that eventually took him to Africa.
“I chose agricultural and extension education because of my involvement with 4-H and FFA and the influence of my advisors — Michelle Brunson, Jason Haak and Lori Elsass,” he said. “I wanted to eventually influence agricultural public policy.”
Currently, Homan works for the Adayana Agribusiness Group, an agricultural consulting firm in Indianapolis, where he manages multiple client projects ranging from strategic planning to conducting primary agricultural research, such as farmer focus groups.
At OSU, Homan was named an Outstanding Senior by the university, which recognizes less than one percent of graduating seniors who excel in leadership, service and scholarship. He was also a Top 10 Senior in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. He received OSU’s Scarlet, Gray and Green Student Leadership Award for his role in advancing campus sustainability efforts.
As if that is not enough, Homan was active at OSU in Undergraduate Student Government and the Micki Zartman Scarlet and Gray Agriculture Day, was an Agricultural Ambassador, belonged to the Agricultural Education Society and was on he Beanie Drake Student Leadership Endowment Board.
Currently, Homan is a member of the Indiana Farm Bureau and volunteers at a food bank.
It was many of those experiences that led Homan to Africa.
“One of my goals while at Ohio State was to embark on my first international trip, which I thought would be through a standard study abroad program. However, as I pruned down my passions at Ohio State, I began to gravitate my involvement towards two specific areas — hunger and education,” Homan stated.
“As a result, I became active in the Micki Zartman Scarlet and Gray Ag Day, which is a student-led agricultural awareness event hosted on campus for nearly 600 local elementary students to learn about agriculture.”
Homan noted that “one of my mentors and the founder of Scarlet and Gray Ag Day, Micki Zartman, linked my passion with the interests of Dr. Dennis Garrity, director general of the World Agroforestry Center, also known as the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) in Kenya, to initiate a student internship program with Ohio students, which was coined the Buckeye-Borlaug Program.”
Homan’s trip was primarily funded through a Summer Holbrook Research Abroad Fellowship, supplemented by donations from his family and church and a grant through the OSU Undergraduate Student Government.
Because he had never traveled overseas before, Homan was a little nervous. The trip took more than 20 hours, including short layovers in Newark, N.J.; Zurich, Switzerland and Brussels, Belgium.
“This was my first international experience and (I was) full of anxiety and insecurity at first because this was the first time I had ever felt in the minority,” Homan said. “One of my first journal entries read, ‘I’ve been on high alert since I got here, especially because my roommates don’t lock the front door and even leave it open’.”
“Many of the Kenyan students had never seen a Caucasian before, so it took me a few school visits before I wasn’t so paranoid about their stares. Initially, I felt like an animal being observed in a zoo,” Homan said.
Homan, who said he was “not too picky” on where he would travel internationally, found himself “surprised” when he began to experience African culture. “I was most surprised by the country’s development. I felt like I took a time machine back to the early 1900s in the United States, with a few current technologies mixed in.”
“We couldn’t drink water directly from the tap and driving on the roads was like a scene out of a motocross race. Yet, nearly every Kenyan had a cell phone,” he noted.
Homan worked to teach African children about agroforestry, which, he said, “focuses on utilizing trees on farms and in rural landscapes to provide fertilizer to crops from falling leaves to boost production output.” But first, he had to win the children over.
“The African children were very well behaved and disciplined, which caused some initial issues when we tried to engage them through our activities. Kenya used to be a British colony and their education system mimics a lecture approach. The students were not used to responding to questions or getting out of their seats, which were components of our lesson plan, so we quickly learned that we had to spend time breaking the ice, usually by teaching them the O-H-I-O cheer and asking their teachers to encourage their participation. We also quickly learned that taking them outside of the classroom helped to remove some of these barriers,” Homan said.
Once he arrived in Africa, Homan spent much time at the World Agroforestry Centre headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. He also visited 10 rural elementary schools around the country and spent a weekend at a beach in Mombasa.
Homan did not have too many problems with language barriers, noting that most Kenyan elementary students know three languages — English, Swahili and their tribal language. “We taught all of our lessons in English and enjoyed, with some struggle, learning Swahili from the students.”
Homan helped to teach the children, of elementary and junior high age, about agroforestry. “The World Agroforestry Centre has identified specific fertilizer trees that, when incorporated into farming systems, have been proven to nearly double crop yields in Sub-Saharan Africa. Incorporating trees also benefits farmers by increasing their soil health and food security, providing fodder that improves smallholder livestock production and producing timber for shelter and energy.”
“Unfortunately, ICRAF lacks strategies to disseminate and implement this technological innovation throughout Africa,” Homan explained.
“All of the 10 schools we visited were part of the Healthy Learning Programme, which provides resources to schools to enhance the quality of learning and health. The World Agroforestry Centre is a supporter of the program, so we were tasked with visiting 10 of the 30 schools in the program to evaluate how the schools had utilized their funds, to increase awareness of the benefits of agroforestry and outlining the benefits of planting trees on farms, which we coined as the four F’s of agroforestry — food, fodder, firewood and fertilizer.”
“The Kenyans know a lot about agriculture since it has been their main industry for generations,” Homan said. “However, they do not have established research or extension services like we do….so new technologies and practices spread extremely slow. Their agriculture would be viewed as primitive to us, but the lack of disseminating information is a huge barrier to advancing their productivity. The schools are beginning to serve as research stations, though,” Homan said.
“New agricultural techniques and practices are being taught in the classroom and then the students go directly to the school’s garden to apply what they have learned. Periodically, the school will invite the parents and community members to visit the school to prove the new techniques work and to teach them how to use the new technology,” Homan said.
Growing crops in Africa is a challenge because of what Homan described as their “diverse climate.” It has a “bread basket” area that receives rainfall and allows grain farming to thrive, but it also has a lot of arid areas where only livestock can be produced. The lack of adequate and accessible water in the bread basket area, though, is the main issue plaguing the country and preventing it from becoming food sustainable, Homan said. “Growing crops is a gamble each year. There is a wet season and a dry season, so it is imperative for farmers to get their crop in the ground during the wet season with adequate time for the crop to take root.”
“Water is such a rare resource that the people there collect rain during the wet season from their roofs, to hopefully last them through the dry season. At the end of one of our visits, we asked the students how we could help them in the future. Some asked us to come back to provide additional training, but the one response I will never forget came from a young, desperate boy:. ‘Can you please bring us rain?’”
Interestingly, the country is also home to a lot of British-owned greenhouses producing flowers for the rest of the world.
Homan found that the African students were anxious to learn about agriculture.He noted the students view going to school as a privilege. He said African students will skip sleep and “walk miles each day, get to school early and stay late….to soak up any extra tidbits of information, which they then take home and apply. By doing this, the students are educating their parents, many of whom did not attend school, and helping to spread new agricultural technologies and practices.”
Homan said Africa does have some agricultural advantages over the United States. “I developed an addiction to avocados and mangoes while in Kenya because of their abundant availability and fresh, juicy taste. Kenya has an advantage over the United States in fruits and vegetables because of its tropical climate.”
While focused on agroforestry, Homan said, they had an opportunity to provide “strategic insight” for the Healthy Learning Programme’s future direction, looking specifically at “how the program can fund additional agricultural projects to help benefit the schools, such as anaerobic digesters to provide gas for cooking.” The students already benefit from the program’s health and sanitation programs such as gardening and hand washing stations.
“Kenyan farmers really aren’t that different from Ohio farmers,” Homan stated. “Both are entrepreneurial and business minded, both are trying to provide for their families and….feed the world, both trust their livelihoods to unpredictable weather and both know resources are limited and that you must put back into the land what you reap from it. The biggest blessing for us, though, is the dissemination of research and knowledge, particularly through our extension service, which Kenya does not have.”
Homan said tractors are a rare thing in Africa. “Only the large farms, which are mainly owned by the British expatriates, have tractors. The few tractors we did see were quite old and used. Most labor is done either by hand or with animals.”
Homan got to experience the food grown by Africans. “Kenyans eat a lot of roasted meat, which they call nyoma choma, usually served with steamed kale and a cornmeal mush. I became very fond of nyoma choma, especially the goat meat. I also ate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, with my favorites being mangoes and avocados. I had an avocado tree growing next to my first home. My most memorable meal….was at The Carnivore, which is appropriately named. We filled ourselves up with different kinds of meat, including lamb, crocodile, camel and ostrich.”
Homan also encountered wildlife during his visit, including some that visited during meetings at the ICRAF offices. They visited a giraffe sanctuary,
elephant orphanage and saw a number of other animals.
Even though the children lived in primitive conditions, Homan was surprised by their positive attitude. “The students I met in Africa were so full of life — happy, content and generous — even though they had nothing by our standards. Some of them were sleeping in crammed huts made of dried cow dung and sticks. Many of them walked miles home after a 10-hour school day to put in another four to six hours on the family’s farm. Yet, many of them told me they had been blessed by God
because they knew of people who were in worse situations,” Homan said.
Looking back,Homan is glad he took the trip to Africa. He said it “was the tipping point for me to stop settling for ‘what is’ and start creating ‘what could be’.”
He hopes one day to return and continue teaching students the concepts that will help them become successful farmers and successful people.
Homan may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kathy Leese writes for the
Sidney Daily News.