As Robin White and her Virginia Tech colleagues drove from the Nairobi airport to meet their new collaborators in Kenya for the first time, her training as an animal and poultry science researcher kicked in. Out the window of her taxi she saw a countryside thick with lush grass, meandering cattle, and even a cow being transported in the back of an old pickup truck. 

"The recent rainy season made grass in Kenya plentiful, leading to healthy sheep, goats, beef and dairy cattle who could graze the vegetative barriers and pasturelands bordering the highway,” she told her colleagues. "Although farmer's management and transportation strategies vary all over the world, one value is shared everywhere: farmers always care about their livestock."

White and her colleagues were the first cohort of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Global Opportunity Initiative. The Kenya trip was the pinnacle of a year-long program in which five early-career faculty fellows participated in training on how to form global networks, map research challenges, understand the global agricultural innovation system, and successfully compete for funding. 

CALS Global launched a new partnership in 2017 with the Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture and Agribusiness Management (CESAAM) at Egerton University. CESAAM is a World Bank-funded African Center of Excellence with the mission to improve food security along the agricultural value chain.

During their two weeks in Kenya, the fellows networked with CESAAM faculty, developed concepts for proposals, gave presentations to departments at Egerton University, toured farms, and explored the Kenyan countryside.

“The Global Opportunity Initiative is our signature program and this first cohort of fellows really set the bar high for future fellows,” said Tom Thompson, associate dean and director of CALS Global Programs. “Before we left Blacksburg, these faculty were very well-prepared for the experience. In Kenya, they engaged fully with their new Kenyan colleagues. Our CESAAM colleagues did a great job with logistics on the ground, and we felt very supported. Productive collaborations will result from this experience”

The Kenyan scientists got as much out of the program as their Hokie counterparts. 

“What excites me most about this collaboration is the genuine commitment by all. This partnership is important because it provides a strong link between developing and developed nation scientific research and capacity development," said George Owuor, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness Management in Egerton University and center leader of CESAAM. "Together, we are working on issues such as curriculum development and improvement, student and faculty exchanges, collaborative research, and joint fundraising for common interests in food security, particularly in eastern Africa. The aim of this collaboration is to forge avenues for providing sustainable solutions to food security challenges through capacity building, innovative research, and outreach.” 

CESAAM and Egerton University leadership collaborated with faculty from Virginia Tech on a two-week-long trip to Kenya that was the capstone of the year-long CALS Global Opportunity Initiative.

CESAAM and Egerton University leadership collaborated with faculty from Virginia Tech on a two-week-long trip to Kenya that was the capstone of the year-long CALS Global Opportunity Initiative.
CESAAM and Egerton University leadership collaborated with faculty from Virginia Tech on a two-week-long trip to Kenya that was the capstone of the year-long CALS Global Opportunity Initiative.

The five Virginia Tech fellows selected to travel to Kenya were experts from a variety of disciplines, and each viewed the journey through a unique lens.  

Months before departure, Jonathan Auguste, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology, studied the Kenyan regulatory landscape and briefed the team on what agencies and regulatory authorities may be relevant to their future collaborations in Kenya. After arrival in Kenya, Catherine Larochelle, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, was observing the advertisements at roadside stands and making plans to include photos of Kenya's mobile phone money transfer service in her lectures after she returned to Blacksburg. Takeshi Fukao, an assistant professor in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences and an expert in plant tolerance to stress, was interested in a graduate student’s display of local seeds.  

“They are all new germplasm developed by Kenyan breeding programs,” Fukao said. “Interestingly, most of these new cultivars acquired early maturity due to their breeding efforts. I realized that finishing grain harvest before severe drought occurs is very critical under Kenyan climate conditions.”

During their two weeks in Kenya, one spontaneous experience the group enjoyed was a chance to attend graduation. The vice chancellor of Egerton University, Rose Mwonya, personally invited the fellows to attend.  

Vice Chancellor Rose Mwonya (red robe) invited CALS Global fellows to attend the Egerton University Graduation.

Vice Chancellor Rose Mwonya (red robe) invited CALS Global fellows to attend the Egerton University Graduation.
Vice Chancellor Rose Mwonya (red robe) invited CALS Global fellows to attend the Egerton University graduation.

"We had a meet-and-greet with the Egerton University faculty right before the processional and it got us all talking about our own experiences with graduation, as students and as professors," Thompson said. "Every university has its own unique traditions with colorful robes and tams, and faculty everywhere share a feeling of pride in celebrating the achievements of their students.”

The team spent Father's Day on a photo safari at Lake Nakuru National park, a protected park managed by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Located just 19 miles east of Egerton University in the Great Rift Valley, the park has a diverse landscape of beaches, forests, savannahs, and mountain peaks. During the photo safari, fellows saw rhinos, baboons, impala, giraffe, and Cape buffalo.  

Megan O'Rourke, also of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences, shared her research on farmscaping in Virginia for pollinators and biological controls to reduce pest damage to crops. Before the fellows departed, the Egerton University faculty treated them to strawberry yogurt produced by the university dairy. Just like Virginia Tech’s dairy, Egerton University has a dairy facility where the faculty, staff, and students teach, learn, conduct research, and produce quality products for sale. 

“We look forward to hosting faculty from CESAAM on campus this spring and returning their hospitality as we continue our collaborative work in Blacksburg,” said Ben Grove, assistant director for strategic partnerships and engagement for CALS Global Programs and Virginia Cooperative Extension.

This first group of fellows is now writing proposals and starting research projects with their new collaborators in Kenya.

“There is a large demand for agricultural research,” said Fukao. “Many agricultural issues that happen in Kenya also occur in the U.S. Climate change and its impact on agricultural production is as great a concern there as it is in the U.S. I was excited that I found motivated collaborators who can pursue mutual interests. We can work together to address common challenges.” 

In the coming weeks, CALS Global will release a call for applications for the 2019 cohort. For more information, visit the CALS Global website.
 

— Written by Nancy Dudek