U.S. college professor promotes ag education back in his native Mali

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- Years ago, when he was boy in Mali, Harouna Maiga walked seven miles to school and another seven miles back home. Now, the University of Minnesota-Crookston professor is working to enhance agricultural education is his native ...

Harouna Maiga
Harouna Maiga, associate professor of animal science at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, also is involved with agricultural education in Mali, his home country. One of his projects involves training future high school ag teachers in the landlocked West African country. (Jonathan Knutson / Agweek)

CROOKSTON, Minn. -- Years ago, when he was boy in Mali, Harouna Maiga walked seven miles to school and another seven miles back home.

Now, the University of Minnesota-Crookston professor is working to enhance agricultural education is his native land.

"Ag education will help with food production, food education and food safety. This can do a lot of good," Maiga says of a proposal he and another UMC professor have made to the Mali government.

In the United States, some colleges offer programs that train their students to teach agriculture to high school students.

Mali currently has no such program. Maiga and UMC colleague Lyle Westrum, along with Sue Westrom, Lyle's wife, hope to change that.


Their proposal, which would take about 10 years to implement fully, would begin with training seven to 10 future high school ag teachers, and adding the same number of students/future ag teachers in each following year.

Mali has eight regions. The goal is creating at least one high school ag program in each region initially, with the number of programs growing through time, Maiga says.

Eighty percent of Mali residents are involved in production agriculture, so government officials there are "very receptive to the idea," Maiga says.

More will be known about the proposed program's future next year, when Maiga goes to Mali again.

If all goes well, training of Malian students could begin in 2013 or 2014.

U.S. college ag teachers could play a role, early on, in helping to train the Mali teacher/educator who will lead the ag education program.

Once the program is established,

there could be an exchange of U.S. college ag students, including ones at the University of Minnesota, and Malian ag students, Maiga says.


The proposed ag education program in Mali eventually could be expanded to include adults as well.

'Passion for agriculture'

Maiga stresses the role that Lyle and Sue Westrom have played in the project.

Lyle Westrum leads the University of Minnesota-Crookston ag education program.

Sue Westrom is a district director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency in 10 northwestern Minnesota counties. She says her involvement in Mali is on her own behalf, reflecting her "passion for agriculture," and has no connection with her FSA position.

Lyle Westrum says he got involved with the project because he knows Maiga and because of his own belief that "people throughout the world deserve an opportunity."

The Westroms visited Mali for the first time in 2010. Both say they enjoyed the country and the people they met.

Sue says she didn't see any hunger in Mali because its people generally produce enough for their own needs.


But with more mechanization -- "I saw very few tractors" -- Mali might produce more food and export it to other African countries, she says.

Any efforts to modernize Mali agriculture must respect the country's family farm structure, she says.

Lyle Westrom says that financing for the program will be sought over the next 12 to 15 months. The goal is obtaining about half of the necessary funding from private industry and the other half from various government sources, including the Mali government.

The cost of starting the program is relatively modest, he says.

A Malian farm kid

Maiga was born and raised on a livestock farm. The operation had dairy, beef, pigs, sheep, goats and donkeys, and also grew rice and millet.

His brother and sister still farm in Mali, a landlocked, primarily rural country with 14 million people in western Africa. Mali once was a French colony and French still is the official language, but 13 native languages are spoken as well, Maiga says.

Family members in Mali, where temperatures of 50 to 60 degrees are common in the winter, have been skeptical of reports that Minnesota temperatures fall to 30 below zero, he says.


"They say, 'People can't live where it's that cold,' " he says.

Maiga went to public schools in Mali. After earning his bachelor's degree in animal science from the country's agricultural school, he worked for the Mali Extension Service for three years.

Then, "My boss called me and said, 'You go the U.S. to study the American agricultural production system. We want new ideas to help our farmers.' "

Maiga came first to Buffalo, N.Y., where he took language courses to improve his English. He went next to Texas, intending to study agriculture. But he had trouble understanding what people there said, so he went instead to the University of Maine, where he earned his master's degree in science.

Then, as a condition of his studies in the United States, he returned to Mali and spent four years with the Extension Service there.

His obligations in Mali completed, he came back, on his own, to South Dakota State University and earned his doctorate in animal science with dairy emphasis.

Degree in hand, he was hired by the University of Minnesota Extension Service and was stationed in Detroit Lakes, Minn., where he worked in four counties.

For the past 11 years he's been teaching, primarily courses in animal science, at the University of Minnesota-Crookston. He's also conducted applied research in dairy nutrition.


Symposiums and students

Since 2000, Maiga has returned every other year to Mali in the summer, when UMC isn't in session, to promote ag education.

Besides teaching, he helps to organize what's known as the Mali Symposium on Applied Sciences, which is held every other year.

Maiga served on the board of directors and as scientific coordinator for the 2010 event, according to the event's web site.

Both Malians and non-Malians present their research at the symposiums.

Maiga encourages U.S. college ag students to visit farms overseas and to develop a broader, more international perspective.

"What happens in other countries affect (commodity) prices. For example, if Brazil produces a lot of soybeans, that will affect the price," he says. "Our students need to have a global view of ag production."

Educating young ag students is satisfying, he says.


"I like watching a student going from freshman to senior level and getting a job," he says.

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