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Monmouth students have deeper understanding of food security after Ghana trip

Barry McNamara
In back are, from left, Rowan Williamson, Antoinette Grizzell, Farida Mohammed, Jameyrae Valdivia and faculty member Megan Hinrichsen. In front are Emily Billin and Mackenzi Lafferty.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College students interested in food security have now seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears the issues related to feeding the West African nation of Ghana.

Led by Monmouth’s Global Food Security Triad faculty members Eric Engstrom and Megan Hinrichsen, six students took part in a two-week trip to Ghana from June 23-July 8. Through the College’s innovative Triads, students learn about an issue through the lenses of multiple disciplines – in this case, biology, anthropology and economics. The for-credit experience was called “Food Security in West Africa,” and the trip was funded in part by the College’s crowdfunding initiative last fall.

“You don’t have a full understanding of a situation until you have something to compare it to,” said Engstrom, noting the “tools of the trade” for Ghanaian farmers were a machete and a hoe. “Now our students can think about food security here in the U.S. versus food security in West Africa. Many of the things we already knew, but there’s reading about it, and then there’s seeing it. … The students talked to farmers and breeders, actually hearing about the issues from them firsthand. This is their situation, and we could really feel it. It gives us some real street cred when we come back and talk about Ghana and West Africa.”

The students also took courses from instructors at the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement and met with local organizers and officials. On one memorable day, they met with former Ghana President John Kufuor, co-winner of the 2011 World Food Prize for helping Ghana become the first Sub-Saharan African nation to cut in half the number of its people suffering from hunger.

That meeting came about through a family connection of one of the Monmouth students on the trip – Farida Mohammed ’18 of Accra, Ghana’s capital.

“Farida’s interest in food security and cultural knowledge of Ghana was invaluable,” said Hinrichsen. “The experience would not have been as rich if we had not stayed in Farida’s home."

The Monmouth group also witnessed agricultural history – the release of three new hybrid maize varieties by the West Africa Center for Crop Improvement.

“These are the first ever maize hybrids to be produced by a university in the history of Ghana,” said Mohammed, who serves on the Presidents United to Solve Hunger committee at Monmouth and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in food economics.

Engstrom said 60 percent of Ghanaians work in agriculture, as compared to less than 2 percent in the United States. About 42 percent of Ghana’s GDP is directly related to agriculture.

The Monmouth group learned about a five-pronged initiative to improve food production in Ghana, which aims to enroll 2,000 farmers committed to increasing their production by at least 32 percent.

“They don’t have our deep Midwest soils, and transportation costs are through the roof,” said Engstrom, describing two major impediments to better yields. “They have nutrient-depleted soils, with not a lot of cover cropping and not a lot of manure use. On the other hand, they do get to grow year-round, and they basically have two growing seasons around their rainy season. But climate change is changing their rainy season.”

Mohammed said she is encouraged by the progress being made in her native country.

“There are several non-governmental organizations that are working to ensure that farmers get access to better crop-yielding seeds, better irrigation facilities, credit and means of transporting crops to the larger cities in time before they go bad,” said Mohammed, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in food economics. “These initiatives will help to reduce poverty and promote the government’s food security management program.”

Hinrichsen said the course had a strong anthropology element because social science is an important factor in implementing food-security programs.

“Culture was a main focus, and it’s something the students could experience non-stop from the moment of our arrival,” said Hinrichsen, who also noted the students “were exceptionally attuned” to the need for a multidiscipline approach to food security.

“One of the key insights communicated by our students with the faculty at the University of Ghana, who are all trained in various fields of crop sciences and genetics, is that there is a gap between developing and then implementing new farming technologies and that this is a gap that social scientists can help fill,” said Hinrichsen. “The scientists developing new technological innovations for crop improvement need to understand the local farming communities’ needs and limitations in order to successfully introduce their new crop varieties. Our students really highlighted the strength of the liberal arts approach to understanding and addressing complex issues.”

Also on the trip were May graduates Emily Billin and Rowan Williamson, as well as Antoinette Grizzell ’18 of Richton Park, Ill., Mackenzi Lafferty ’19 of Canton, Ill., and Jameyrae Valdivia ’19 of Rock Falls, Ill.

The group was also able to meet three Ghanaian students who have committed to studying at Monmouth in the fall and had the opportunity to interact with another three dozen students who are considering attending college in the U.S., telling them about Monmouth and a liberal arts education.