Higher Ed and the Fight Against World Hunger

January 31, 2013

R_Mabokela- HESN launch

Professor co-leads global food systems center funded by USAID

Michigan State University is using a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to improve agricultural production and reduce poverty in parts of the world suffering from rapid urbanization, population growth and skills gaps.

Receiving up to $25 million over five years, finding solutions to the problems that affect food production will be the focus of MSU’s new Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

The center will work with food and agricultural sciences, engineering and education experts to discover, test and implement food system changes in Central America, East Africa and Southeast Asia. Reitumetse Mabokela, professor of Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education (HALE) in the College of Education, is co-director with Ajit Srivastava, professor and chair in the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at MSU.

“One of our goals is to reach not only the academics and technical experts but also the people on the ground who are going to be addressing these major issues,” Mabokela said. “That requires us to engage youth and train the next generation of development experts.”

With extensive international experience, Mabokela will play a lead role in building collaborative relationships with the partnering institutions around the world:

  • Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania
  • Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands
  • The Energy and Resources Institute in India

MSU’s International Studies and Programs will house the center.

Higher Education Solutions Network

More broadly, the new center is part of USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network (HESN) — a partnership with seven American and foreign universities designed to develop solutions to global development challenges.

More than 20 people representing MSU — including Mabokela and HALE doctoral students John Bonnell and Tonisha Lane — went to Washington, D.C. in November 2012 to celebrate the launch of HESN. The trip included meetings with USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as an opportunity for students to showcase their work.

“By collaborating with top universities around the world, we hope to tap today’s brightest minds and focus ingenuity on global development challenges,” said Shah. “With the right ideas, we can reduce extreme poverty by more than 60 percent — lifting more than 700 million people back from the abyss of hunger and malnutrition — in just one generation.”

The other universities receiving grants are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, the College of William and Mary, University of California-Berkeley, Duke University and Makerere University in Uganda. Each will establish Development Labs that will work with USAID’s field mission experts and Washington, D.C. staff to apply science and technology to address problems in areas such as global health, food security and chronic conflict, he said.

John (Jack) Schwille, assistant dean for international studies in the College of Education, said the HESN will help Michigan State strengthen its international impact significantly.

“It reflects MSU’s priority on working across colleges, as well as with institutions outside the U.S.,” he said. “There is a lot of important work going on in other countries and this project will be a basis for helping us understand that better.”

Farming, literacy, equity and more

PrintLeaders of MSU’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation will start by visiting each region being targeted to identify the top problems in food production and distribution. They will then develop a set of interventions with potential to create long-term change.

Solutions will be disseminated to stakeholders, such as USAID, agro-industry businesses, farmers, traders and other food system workers throughout the globe. Undergraduate and graduate students will form the Translational Scholars Corps, and as future leaders will be key to the center’s success.

Mabokela has long-conducted interdisciplinary research in developing countries such as Ghana and Pakistan. She is excited about the center’s potential to increase the involvement of women in global food security and to create brighter futures for all people in the targeted regions.

“This project gives me an opportunity to engage with a set of issues that are not only food-related but, in the long run, influence whether children go to school for example,” she said, noting literacy is a major issue in food system improvements. Using a new fertilizer can help crops grow faster, she said, but that will not happen if farmers struggle to read the application directions correctly.

Up to two-thirds of the world is hungry according to UNICEF and the center will be exploring solutions all along the chain, from food production to consumption.

Says Srivastava: “If we ‘bend the trend’ toward equitable and sustainable development and build the body of knowledge on how to harness these trends, we can have the largest impact on the productivity of global food systems.”