When Monica Ponder first looked out over the horizon and scanned the East African landscape, her initial impression was one of surprise, though not for the reason she expected.

“I was caught off guard by the fact that I was looking out at vistas that looked very much like home,” Ponder said. “I thought it would be more savannah-type landscape, but the western part of Kenya has mountain ranges that are about the same age as our Blue Ridge Mountains.”

Ponder, a food microbiologist and associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology, is one of six faculty members chosen for the second cohort of the Global Opportunity Initiative, a faculty development program the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Global Programs office launched last year with the goal of helping early-career faculty to address complex research challenges, refine their research pitch, and build collaborative relationships with organizations active in global agricultural engagement.

The rigorous year-long experience involved a series of meetings and workshops in Washington, D.C., and Virginia, culminating in a capstone trip to the Center for Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture and Agribusiness Management (CESAAM) at Egerton University and several of its partner sites throughout Kenya and Rwanda. Once there, fellows — each selected to participate in the program for being uniquely suited to address different problem areas in agriculture and health — work with CESAAM faculty to jointly develop research concepts and co-advise students, give presentations, understand local agricultural production systems and value chains, and address issues that impact the global food supply chain.

“After our 2018 trip with our first group of CALS faculty, our partners at CESAAM soon proposed our bringing another group in 2019,” said CALS Associate Dean and Director of Global Programs Tom Thompson, who was one of three mentors who guided the fellows throughout the program. “Because of what we accomplished last year, we’re now working together to improve education, tackle research challenges together, and explore how we can partner to strengthen agricultural extension.”

Just as much as Ponder’s initial impression of eastern Africa was tinged with familiarity, it was also unlike anything she or any of her colleagues had experienced as researchers in the United States. Developing countries like Kenya and Rwanda face many of the same agricultural challenges that developed countries do, but often on a different scale, said Ponder.

“I’m used to the way things are done in the United States, which is very large farms,” she said. “In Kenya, they talk about how everyone is a farmer. Everyone desires to own land because the ability to grow food and sustain their families is very important. So, educating people on food safety becomes a much larger task.”

Fellows and Egerton faculty converse during a bus ride to the next site
Global Opportunity Initiative fellows and faculty from Egerton University and the University of Rwanda converse on the bus ride to Kigali after a day of partnership building at the University of Rwanda's College of Agriculture, Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine. Jamie Stewart for Virginia Tech

During the two-week trip, the group experienced these agricultural differences firsthand. They visited a smallholder farm, where they learned about how the family that owned it, with help from the county extension service, implemented a drip irrigation system and used the profits from their increased crop yield to send their children to school. They browsed an outdoor market in the Kenyan countryside, where farmers showcase bushels of bananas and other freshly harvested produce. They also visited Egerton University’s campus research facilities, where they found collaborators in the faculty and student researchers who have been working tirelessly to address eastern Africa’s food supply chain issues.

Gillian Eastwood, an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology and a vector-borne disease ecologist, was excited to study ticks and the diseases they spread. She partnered with David Omondi, an Egerton University lecturer in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology who has published several papers on tick and mosquito-borne pathogens, to write a grant proposal on the subject.

“Both continents are affected by diseases vectored by ticks, and it is important to identify these pathogens and their systems for diagnostics and intervention,” Eastwood said. “By understanding the pathogens from both regions, we can share methods and solutions for treating and controlling these diseases as well.”

Ponder is working with CESAAM partners on a large-scale project to improve the quality of Kenya’s macadamia nuts — an enormously profitable cash crop for the country — by developing education campaigns to help farmers prevent the conditions that result in their harvest being contaminated. Jamie Stewart, an assistant professor in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, shared with Egerton University faculty the research she’s done on improving the reproductive efficiency of food animals, the findings of which could be invaluable in a place where so many families’ farms are their only source of income and sustenance. 

Water pump
Ben Grove, associate director of CALS Global Programs, tries his hand at operating an irrigation pump under the watchful eye of Ellen, a Kenyan smallholder farmer. Jamie Stewart for Virginia Tech

Throughout the course of the trip, each of the fellows found ways to both put their skills to use and learn from those of their CESAAM partners. Tiffany Drape, assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education, utilized her experience in program evaluation to help Kenyan colleagues assess the potential impacts of proposed outreach activities. Gonzalo Ferreira, associate professor of dairy science, was intrigued to learn from local farmers about how smallholder farms are able to provide high-quality feed for their dairy cattle. Ben Grove, associate director of CALS Global Programs and one of the initiative’s mentors, explored the potential for expanding Virginia Cooperative Extension’s involvement in the CESAAM partnership and for Egerton faculty to visit Virginia Tech.

According to Cassidy Rist, an assistant professor in the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine, these are exactly the type of experiences that the program was designed to foster — ones that will teach faculty how to be effective global citizens. The College of Veterinary Medicine joined the GOI in partnership with CALS this year, which Rist said makes perfect sense given the program’s basis in One Health, the idea that human, animal, and agricultural health are all inextricably linked.

“There’s a different set of skills needed to work on collaborations with international partners,” Rist said. “It’s a lot easier to understand the challenges or priorities of agricultural producers in those communities if you can talk to them and see what they’re dealing with. I think that’s the greatest benefit.”

The partnerships that the 2019 cohort established there are already beginning to bear fruit. The University of Rwanda, another CESAAM partner, has asked fellows to provide feedback on the accreditation process for its agricultural sciences doctorate program, and Ponder is assisting in the development of the university’s brand-new food science doctorate program. Vivica Kraak, assistant professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise, and her Egerton colleagues were able to submit a concept note to a funding agency before the group had even left Kenya. CESAAM sent a group of faculty to Virginia Tech in October to explore additional linkages for the partnership. The trip may be over, but the collaboration is just beginning, said Thompson.

“Now we’re searching for funding opportunities to help us take collaborative action to address the One Health challenges we jointly committed to tackle,” he said. “We’ve developed concepts together and have already begun to write proposals for funding."

—Written by Alex Hood