African fellows work with IANR faculty to tackle plant health, international trade

The eight fellows with the Scientific Exchanges Program who have studied with IANR faculty are (from left) Florence Munguti, Charles Mgeni, Zena Mchomvu, Luitfrid Nnally, Betty Waized, Fatiha Bentata, Intissar Zarrouk and Wilton Mbinda.
Monday, February 27, 2023

African fellows work with IANR faculty to tackle plant health, international trade

by Geitner Simmons, IANR Media

Each year, crop contamination by disease and pests costs producers and industry an estimated $220 billion worldwide. That loss hits African countries especially hard. If those countries can make progress in reducing such contamination and the trade barriers related to it, the boost to their exports and long-term economic development could be tremendous.

An academic fellowship program this semester at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln aims to help African countries tackle the challenge. The eight visitors — scientists and researchers from Morocco, Tunisia, Kenya and Tanzania — studied this semester with a range of faculty in the university’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service funded the 11-week initiative as part of its Scientific Exchanges Program. At Nebraska, the SEP fellows focused on sanitary issues involving health concerns for humans, animals and plants, and technical barriers to trade.

“Having networks in this particular field is a great breakthrough for our country,” said Florence Munguti, who oversees a range of operations at the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Service that analyze plants for disease and pest concerns. “I can foresee that the network I’m establishing here will really help us go to greater levels” in strengthening Kenya’s ability to address plant health issues.

The SEP fellows pursued projects in their individual specializations, working with one of three IANR departments: plant pathology, agricultural economics, and food science and technology. They also attended joint presentations providing a well-rounded background in relevant science, economics and trade policy.

Liana Calegare, global programs manager with IANR’s Agricultural Research Division, helped coordinate the program at Nebraska.

Betty Waized, an agricultural economist at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania, said she found great value in the networking opportunities, both with Husker faculty and with experts at the World Food Prize events that SEP fellows attended this fall.

The SEP experience was well-structured, Munguti said.

“We had areas for the specific interests of the fellows, and then the common programs we have been exposed to,” she said. “We have been exposed to many things, including topics on leadership and communication of science. Most importantly, we got the opportunity to network and exchange contacts.”

In returning home, the SEP fellows will put in practice the techniques they learned and organize locally, subsequently hosting their American mentors. The mentor visits will involve meetings with academics and policymakers, as well as training workshops.

Waized worked on developing economic analysis methods to study how food safety standards adopted by East African nations affect or block the flow of trade in the region. Her Husker collaborator was John Beghin, Mike Yanney Chair and professor of agricultural economics. Once she completes the analysis, Waized said, she will have a good, evidence-based policy brief she can use to communicate with policymakers in Tanzania, her home country.

Luitfrid Nnally, a research officer in nutrition for the Tanzanian Food and Nutrition Center, studied cutting-edge methods for genetic analysis and scientific database creation. The experience at Nebraska, he said, “is very critical for me. We will use this system to develop policy documents I can use to educate my country to set up a similar system in our country.”

Wilton Mbinda, a biotechnologist with Pwani University in Kenya, said he benefited greatly from the advanced lab experiences he had in working with Richard Goodman, research professor with the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at Nebraska.

The other SEP fellows are Fatiha Bentata, with Morocco’s National Institute for Agronomic Research; Intissar Zarrouk, with the National Institute of Agronomic Research of Tunisia; Zena Mchomvu, an agricultural economics specialist from Tanzania; and Charles Mgeni, with the College of Economics and Business Studies at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania.

The benefit from this program is mutual, Husker leaders said. In addition to the gains for the SEP fellows, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln benefits because the academic exchange achieves not just cultural diversity but scientific diversity, as fellows point to issues that are not always on the radar of Husker scientists yet can emerge as new threats. After returning home, the fellows serve as Husker ambassadors, raising the university’s flag abroad and improving the university’s visibility as an important research institution.

The SEP fellows, Goodman said, are “a very good, experienced group of scientists” and stand out for the breadth of their professional backgrounds. “This is a good program that Liana and USDA have developed.”

Munguti found the advanced scientific work at the Nebraska Center for Virology and Department of Plant Pathology to be directly relevant to her work in Kenya. “There is a lot of great work going on” by the Husker scientists, she said. “Most of the technologies currently done here are applicable to developing countries.”

Husker faculty, she observed, “are doing research that can solve the challenges we face on a daily basis.”