Agriculture is the backbone of the economy of Afghanistan and accounts for a quarter of its gross domestic product. But decades of war and recurring natural disasters have taken a devastating toll. More than half of the country’s 30 million people live below the poverty line, and 11 million Afghans are acutely and severely food insecure. 

A five-year, $4.5 million program launched by Virginia Tech’s Center for International Research, Education, and Development aims to build capacity in teaching, outreach, and applied research and foster collaboration among institutions in Afghanistan that teach agriculture.

The Advancing Higher Education for Afghanistan’s Development (AHEAD) program supports the Afghan government and higher education institutions to increase access, improve the quality of their programs, and ensure they are responsive to workforce needs.

“Rehabilitating Afghanistan’s agricultural sector is vital for the nation’s long-term stability. In order for this to happen, institutions of higher education in Afghanistan need to be agile, adaptive, and innovative in assessing and responding to the needs of students and the economy,” said Van Crowder, the center's executive director and a professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“This program draws on Virginia Tech’s expertise in agriculture and global engagement to help Afghan universities better give the country’s youth — particularly women and vulnerable groups — the skills they need to lead productive lives, gain employment, and positively contribute to Afghan society,” he said.

CIRED, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs, will work to develop curricula, improve research capacities, and train faculty members and students at six universities or technical institutes in Afghanistan. The program is particularly focused on improving the access to agricultural extension and education for women and other populations that have historically not had access.

“Increasing access to education for the most marginalized and vulnerable people of a society is a difficult problem anywhere. It is especially difficult in Afghanistan, but that is why this work is very important,” said Larry Vaughan, director for program development at CIRED. “There is resolve of the Afghan government to promote women’s education, but there are a small number of dangerous people willing to violently oppose it.”

He said AHEAD will focus on helping more women who are eligible for higher education enroll in universities. It will also work with partner universities to help ensure that female students make it through to graduation.

The project builds on past collaborations between Virginia Tech and Afghan universities. Since 2018, the CIRED-managed Catalyzing Afghan Agricultural Innovation (CAAI) project has improved the relevance and capacity of agricultural education in five provinces. The $8 million program strengthens the teaching capacity of agriculture faculty members and improves their pedagogical skills by encouraging experiential learning and entrepreneurial thinking.

“Through the CAAI project, we’ve built meaningful, sustained relationships between educators, researchers, producers, and the private sector in Afghanistan,” Crowder said. “And these collaborations have helped enhance the capability of agricultural education and training institutions to solve agricultural problems and effectively promote technology transfer.”

CAAI has facilitated multiple collaborative activities between higher education institutions to design, develop, and implement research and academic study programs, according to Noor Seddiq, the project’s chief of party. “Long- and short-term academic research and student exchange programs are essential for the future development of universities and institutes in Afghanistan,” he said.

AHEAD will draw on a program CAAI piloted to reach more students via e-learning. One of the aims is to help Afghan universities increase the effectiveness and availability of online learning and student-centered pedagogy in order to reach more women and vulnerable groups, including students with disabilities, internally displaced populations, and the rural poor.

The U.S. Agency for International Development funds AHEAD and is led by FHI 360. Virginia Tech is one of four university consortium members, each focused on a key growth sector. The American University of Afghanistan will concentrate on business, the University of Massachusetts on education, and the University of Minnesota on health sciences.

“This sort of international, multidisciplinary collaboration to solve complex problems is at the heart of Virginia Tech’s global land-grant mission,” Crowder said. “Universities and agricultural innovation play a key role in helping to revitalize an important economic sector in Afghanistan that has suffered from years of conflict and uncertainty.”