December 9, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

Learning by Doing

Learning by doing is the philosophy of the Pan-American agricultural school known as Zamorano in Honduras.  Students come to class every day dressed in their uniform of blue jeans and blue shirt.  They come to work, not just to study; more often than not, their classrooms are the fields and the food production plants on campus.  They plant seeds and pull weeds and milk cows and nurture fish and make ice cream and inseminate queen bees.

It is all part of the curriculum which leads them to graduate as agricultural engineers in one of four careers: Agribusiness Management, Agricultural Science and Production, Food Agroindustry and Socioeconomic Development and Environment.

Like the ag schools at U.S. land-grant universities, Zamorano is on the front line of the fight against hunger as the world reverses its long neglect of agriculture development.  These blue clad students are eager to take on the great challenge of the world: doubling food production by 2050.  Already at Zamorano, they are learning by doing seed research, helping farmers adapt to changing climate, developing more nutritious foods.  In particular, they will be forging progress on the south-south axis, taking their knowledge to other developing countries facing the same problems as the countries in which they grew up.

Zamorano, nestled in a gorgeous valley outside the capital of Tegucigalpa, has about 1,200 students from 20 countries, and, since 1942, more than 6,500 graduates, known as Zamoranos.I visited Zamorano last month to speak at a symposium titled Creating Leaders for Sustainable Agriculture in Latin America.  Among other things, it looked back on the decade-long Ryoichi Sasakawa/Norman Borlaug scholarship program, funded by the Nippon Foundtion.

Mr. Sasakawa was a Japanese philanthropist who prodded Dr. Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, to get involved in African agriculture development.  After the Ethiopian famine of 1984, when about one million people starved to death, Sasakawa convinced a reluctant Borlaug to try and bring to Africa the same elements of the Green Revolution that conquered famine in Asia.  At the time, Sasakawa was in his 80s and Borlaug was 70.

“I’m too old to start over,” Borlaug said.

“Young man, I’m 15 years older than you,” Sasakawa replied.  “Let’s get to work in Africa and not waste any more time.”

Soon, the Sasakawa Africa Association was established and Borlaug was off to Africa to work with smallholder farmers.

In 2002, the Nippon Foundation established the Sasakawa Borlaug Scholarship Program to foster future agriculture leaders in Central and Latin America.  In the past 10 years, it has supported 144 Zamorano students.  Many of them returned to campus for the symposium.  They renewed friendships and they recharged their ambitions and urgency to change the world.  They are seeking to lead their governments, to lead agriculture industry, to lead a transformation in the productivity of smallholder farmers.  Some of them spoke glowingly of internship work with the Sasakawa Africa Association in Ethiopia and Laos.  There, the learning through doing continued.

 

Chris Dowswell was looking forward to attending the symposium and regaling the students with stories of Borlaug and agriculture revolutions.  Chris was Borlaug’s aide-de-camp for three decades.  He was the executive director of programs at Sasakawa Africa Association.  He was a frequent guest at the annual World Food Prize Borlaug dialogue in Des Moines and the Borlaug Youth Institute.

Chris was also a great source for Scott Kilman and I when we wrote the book ENOUGH: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty.  He was a source of information and a source of encouragement.

He, like Borlaug, was a master of learning by doing.  He was in his element out in the fields with students and smallholder farmers.  Borlaug was pretty much out in the fields until his death at 95 in 2009.  Same with Chris.  He was in Mali, commemorating 25 years of Sasakawa Africa work there.  He reminded everyone that the organization had a long way to go, a lot of work yet to do, and shouldn’t sit on some past laurels with self-congratulatory celebration.

After the ceremony, he was boarding a plane in Mali to fly to Nigeria when he collapsed.  He recovered in a hospital (treated for low blood pressure) and flew back to his home in Mexico.  He contacted the organizers of the Zamorano symposium and said he regretfully couldn’t come.

When the symposium was finished, and everyone was heading off in different directions to take up the work of agriculture development, word reached Zamorano that Chris, just 64, had passed away.

Chris certainly would have enjoyed meeting the students and hearing their ambitions.  For sure he would have summoned the spirit of Sasakawa and Borlaug from back in 1985.  And most definitely he would have told the students, “Let’s get to work and not waste any more time.”

Archive


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My Moment of Great Disruption

In a 2013 TEDxChange talk, Roger Thurow talks about the smallholder farmers of Africa and the potential for good news in agricultural development.


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Hay Festival 2013: a look at the effects of famine

In the first year classroom of Shemena Godo Primary School, in Boricha, Ethiopia, three dozen children study the alphabet. On a black chalkboard, teacher Chome Muse highlights the letter B and writes the combination with each vowel. Ba, be, bi, bo, bu.

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A Mother's Day parable from Uganda

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1,000 Days Project

Roger Thurow’s next book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

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As word spread earlier this week of the food aid reform section of President Obama’s 2014 budget, I wondered how Jerman Amente would greet the news.


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As the ballots were being counted in the recent Kenya election, I saw photos of people displaying the encouraging message: Give Peace a Chance.  So far, that sentiment seems to be holding.


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The young man from the farm was looking smart in an olive green suit, salmon tie and cufflinks.  His black shoes were a bit scuffed, but his English was polished.  “We are moving forward,” he said.  “Forward ever, backward never.”

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Learning to Fish

In the vast assembly room at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, overlooking one of the nation’s premier food banking facilities, Drexton Granberry joyfully came to the end of his speech.  


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A Thanksgiving Tale: The Hungercloth

I often write and speak about the awful oxymoron, "Hungry Farmers." How can the smallholder farmers of Africa suffer through an annual hunger season when every morning they rise with one task: grow food for their families?


Multimedia

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »