African women apply skills, knowledge gained through NMSU program
In the few months since Francisca Ansah returned to her job in Ghana after completing the Service Learning for Women program at New Mexico State University, she reports that she has approached both her professional and personal life with heightened levels of confidence and assertiveness.
The coordinator of the Food Security and Livelihood Programme for the organization Concern Universal, she is one of four African women, all professionals in agriculture-related fields, who participated in the second year of this NMSU professional development program.
Other participants expressed similar improvement in self-confidence and awareness of their leadership potential.
Ansah says that many of the program's activities have strengthened her professionally in other ways, too.
"I have built upon lessons from the training and field visits during my stay at NMSU to improve upon my project activities," she said recently. "The knowledge I gained through the program has enhanced my proposal-writing skills and the diffusion of innovation course has helped me to effectively use community dynamics in targeting appropriate recipients for project interventions."
The other women in the 2012 SLW cohort were Angela Manjichi from Mozambique, manager at a business incubator center at the Instituto Superior Politecnico de Manica; Asimenye Nthakomwa from Malawi, project coordinator for the Catholic Development Commission Enhancing Community Resilience Project; and Catherine Sakala from Zambia, an entomologist and tsetse control biologist for the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.
Service Learning for Women is a month-long NMSU program designed "to empower women from developing nations to achieve their highest potential and be catalysts for positive change in their home countries through a cross-cultural exchange at New Mexico State University," according to the program's website.
The program is the brain-child of Linda Stout, an NMSU alumna whose love of travel and sense of social justice have led to a realization that supporting women's education is a key to making the world a better place.
Through her reading and her travels, she came to understand that in many developing countries, especially in Africa, "women tend to do the majority of farm work while men tend to hold most of the corporate, academic, and governmental positions of power where policy is made about agriculture.
"My intent is to give women agricultural scientists an edge in reaching for those important positions," she said.
She approached NMSU in 2010 to discuss how she and the university could collaborate in developing a new professional development program that would provide an intensive learning experience for a small set of women from sub-Saharan Africa.
Her conversations involved individuals in NMSU's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, as well as the provost and the president.
Teaching the teachers would be the approach the program would take, and the women chosen to participate would be ones who work with women involved in agricultural activities.
Ultimately, Stout has not only funded SLW, she has been an integral part of the planning and support network, even accompanying the participants in their activities and teaching the leadership training component.
An important partner in the endeavor has been Brenda Seevers, a professor in NMSU's Department of Agricultural and Extension Education who shares Stout's views and values. She was asked to coordinate the program, and has participated in goal-setting, developing an appropriate set of activities, and recruiting faculty mentors and teachers for the participants.
The program's agenda included workshops in grant writing and teaching methods, leadership training, visits to NMSU classes, field trips to NMSU and private agricultural facilities and local food processing operations, and an array of cultural activities.
A key aspect of the program that the planners hope will have lasting impact on the participants' home countries was the "diffusion of innovations" workshop.
"The concept was how you take an innovation or an idea, diffuse it to a population you want to work with, and then have them adopt that idea," Seevers said.
On one of the program's field trips, Ansah was struck by New Mexico's iconic chile roasters. Food security and extending food availability beyond the harvest season are priorities for her in her work, and she wondered if the basic chile roaster could somehow be modified into an enclosed, rotating, solar food dryer for use back in Ghana. Traditional food-drying methods in that country typically involve spreading the fruits and vegetables out on the ground to be dried by the sun. Drawbacks to this method include loss and contamination.
Ansah worked with her NMSU mentor Willis Fedio, the director of NMSU's Food Safety Laboratory, and with Kenny Stevens, a faculty member in NMSU's Civil Engineering Technology program, to ensure that the device she was designing would be effective and could be produced from locally available materials.
Since her return to Ghana, she has continued to develop the idea with a colleague who is a food engineering professor.
"We are currently working on determining the amount of energy it can trap to sufficiently dry food, the time it will take to process commonly dried products under certain air temperatures, and the quantity of food it can dry, so the final product can be as effective and efficient as possible," she reported.
She said they will build a prototype and test it before promoting the approach to local communities.
The other innovation ideas developed by this year's participants were Manjichi's variation of the food dryer concept for a business incubation context in Mozambique, Nthakomwa's adoption of the "sack garden" concept to enhance the earning potential of farm women in Malawi, and Sakala's pilot project to involve local women in data collection related to tsetse fly impact on both humans and livestock in parts of Zambia.
A new aspect of the program is a documentary film project that Stout and Seevers hope will capture the participants' experiences both in New Mexico and back in their home countries.
Philip Lewis, a professor in NMSU's Creative Media Institute, agreed to direct the film. He, along with student assistants, documented many of the program's activities this year and interviewed participants individually. He will follow up with a visit to Africa in July with Stout and a student crew member, where he will get updates from participants from both the 2012 and 2011 programs and document their activities in the communities they serve.
"My vision for the documentary is not only to introduce to girls new possibilities for their lives via these role models," Stout said, "but also to educate women about what it takes to raise a daughter to be like these amazing scientists."
Stout and Seevers both stress that the program provides a two-way street, having enriched the lives of everyone involved.
"The exciting thing about working with Service Learning for Women is not just what this program has been able to do for the eight participants from the past two years," Seevers said. "When their NMSU mentors and other people who have worked closely with the project were asked what it has meant to them, the response is always the same: 'I, too, have been changed for the better.' It's a win-win for everyone."
For more information about the program, go to http://aces.nmsu.edu/slw.