Mung bean recipes and cooking competitions. Drones carrying medical supplies. An app that tracks vegetables from field to market. Projects like these are changing lives, thousands of miles and an ocean away from Blacksburg. Africa is at the heart of much of Virginia Tech’s work as a global land-grant university. Here, Hokies from all walks of life and research disciplines are making a difference, providing food sources, education, technology access, agricultural expertise, and hope for solving the world’s major problems. These stories highlight a few of the many ways that Virginia Tech’s influence travels far and wide to transform communities for the good.

hands holding destructive worms and plants with damage

Taking a Closer Look

If Muni Muniappan calls you into his office first thing in the morning, there’s a good chance it’s to peer through a microscope at an insect he picked up in the parking lot.

Most of the renowned entomologist’s research, and that of his colleagues at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development (CIRED), is centered on this simple idea: take a closer look.

Muniappan directs the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management (IPM), one of many programs managed by CIRED, the university’s hub for international development. At CIRED, university expertise is harnessed to address some of the world’s most pressing problems—including food insecurity, gender inequality, youth unemployment, and more.

One of the center’s focus areas—and where it has long-built relationships—is Africa. By 2050, the continent’s 54 nations will account for more than half of the global population growth.

“Africa is growing more rapidly than any other part of the world, representing the next great frontier for innovations in business, science, agriculture, natural resources, and technology,” said Guru Ghosh, vice president for Outreach and International Affairs. “The opportunity for collaborative research projects on capacity-building initiatives is immense. Furthermore, the prospect of working in partnership with African governments, businesses, universities, and others to meet the extraordinary challenges of Africa’s future offers Virginia Tech faculty and students unparalleled transformational experiential learning opportunities.”

In Kenya, Muniappan has spent hours scouting for tiny parasitic wasps that are natural enemies of a maize pest. In Uganda, gender expert Maria Elisa Christie has conducted countless interviews with female farmers to cull local cooking knowledge. In Malawi, drone specialist Kevin Kochersberger asks students how technology could transform their hometowns.

Ever-evolving social, cultural, political, and environmental dynamics challenge the center’s researchers to innovate to ensure that global development remains relevant to communities and supports the strategies of the U.S. government and other funders.

Tailoring solutions to community needs—looking closely—is the secret to the center’s lasting impact.

two drone operators

“Drones can be used to help us solve many problems that we have the vision to address, but are physically unable to reach. Where roads are nonexistent, drones are able to fly in, collecting aerial data to improve agriculture, land use, and planning.“
-Kevin Kochersberger
associate professor of mechanical engineering and head of the program

Finding Gaps From A Bird’s-Eye View

In remote areas of the southeastern African nation of Malawi, a trip to the clinic for medical supplies can be a full day’s walk. The use of drones, however, can help address such barriers.

Launched in 2020, CIRED’s African Drone and Data Academy trains African students to construct, test, and fly drones, as well as analyze drone imagery and data. The academy partners with the Malawi University of Science and Technology to help students earn drone certifications to enter the drone workforce or the data analytics industry.

The first of its kind in Africa, the academy, which is located in Malawi, has hosted students from 23 African nations. One of its missions is to help students address humanitarian needs.

Take, for example, Theodore Kamunga Regeza. When he enrolled at the academy, he resided in the Dzaleka refugee camp and wanted to learn to use drones to bring lifesaving medical supplies to remote areas. After graduating, he did just that—working for Swoop Aero, the world’s first provider of a drone-based vaccine delivery service.

“Drones can be used to help us solve many problems that we have the vision to address, but are physically unable to reach,” said Kochersberger, associate professor of mechanical engineering and head of the program. “In remote communities around the world, gaps in infrastructure prevent affordable access to services and data that are critical to sustainable development. Where roads are nonexistent, drones are able to fly in, collecting aerial data to improve agriculture, land use, and planning.”

Developing the curriculum to best meet student needs required calibration with African regulatory and operational environments and evaluation of safety management and ethical practices valued by local employers and customers. Kochersberger said the drone technology developed for Malawi’s needs could be transformed for communities closer to home.

“Our projects in Malawi have resulted in flood modeling tools that are applicable right here in Montgomery County,” he said, “where we combine standard flood modeling methods with high-resolution drone imagery to create accurate risk maps for guiding smart development.”

Since the academy’s inception, more than 300 students have graduated, with more than half of them women and the majority younger than 25. Given the academy’s demand in Malawi, the program is expanding across the continent.

Giving Youth A Second Look

“Youth are the future,” said Bineta Guisse, a coordinator of CIRED’s Youth in Agriculture program.

Since 2018, the program has helped build the skills, knowledge, and confidence of Senegalese youth to contribute to the country’s economic growth.

“If we invest in youth—and catalyze their many strengths and interests—it could be an incredible base for enriching, sustainable development,” Guisse said.

The guiding principle of Youth in Agriculture is simple: Young people should be viewed among a country’s greatest resources.

Senegal experiences higher rates of youth unemployment than many other West African countries. Roughly 60 percent of all unemployed people in the country are under the age of 26.

Modeled after the 4-H program of the Cooperative Extension Service and land-grant university system in the U.S., the program helps establish 4-H clubs throughout Senegal, developing the next generation of agriculturalists.

Cap Skiring, for example, is a 4-H club for Senegalese youth living with disabilities. Despite reduced mobility, the group leads activities together on fruit and vegetable processing.

Tom Archibald, associate professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and head of the program, said that while there are many differences between the West and Africa, the principles that underlie positive youth development are universal.

“Youth across diverse cultural contexts all similarly value life skills, caring adult relationships, and experiential, hands-on learning,” he said. “But at the core of 4-H is gaining confidence in something that interests you.”

One adaptation of 4-H programs in Senegal is a greater emphasis on the use of information and communication technologies popular with local youth, such as the message-sharing platform WhatsApp.

With rural unemployment rates high, many young Senegalese are fleeing to other cities in search of work. Sparking interest in agriculture for young people—including agricultural entrepreneurship—begins with such activities as learning how to grow a seed into a tree, and building the confidence to do so.

In just a few years, the program has established 125 youth clubs in Senegal, enrolled nearly 2,000 youth, and trained more than 500 adult 4-H leaders.

young woman with a girl
GREEN THUMB: During a field visit to the town of Ziguinchor in Senegal, Virginia Cooperative Extension personnel help 4-H club members master basic gardening skills.
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    Drone Academy - ADDA curriculum has been tailored to the needs of young entrepreneurs operating in the global south and consists of modules on drone basics, planning, analytics, among other topics. Photo by Kevin Kochersberger
    From Local to Global , article

    Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission has guided the university’s efforts to expand educational opportunities while addressing the world's most complex problems. That mission encourages us to look outward— to serve and engage with the communities around us.

Zooming In For More Information

In Kenya, CIRED is deploying blockchain technology to strengthen the relationship between farmers and buyers and help consumers find safe, high-quality produce.

African indigenous vegetables—such as amaranth or cowpea— are considered valuable sources of micronutrients, but their consumption and marketing is low.

To diminish barriers to consumption and sale of these nutritious vegetables, CIRED works with Egerton University in Kenya and the Australian startup AgUnity to adapt their smartphone app.

“This super app had been used for coffee and cocoa, which are considered cash crops that farmers sell as their main source of income,” said CIRED’s Jessica Agnew, who is co-leading the project. “We wanted to see if we could also use it to help market nutritious crops. To do this, we knew we would need to work closely with AgUnity and Kenyans to understand how the technology can help them market a new product.”

Consumers want information about how these vegetables are grown, transported to market, and processed, but those details rarely make it to the final buyer. The app tracks the indigenous vegetables from the field to the market, using blockchain to make the information more accessible.

Farmers, traders, and retailers can use the app to confirm prices and quantities of vegetables, obtain quality assurance on whether chemical pesticides have been applied, and track movement of the vegetables between transactions. The app also ensures all transactions are permanently and securely recorded on an unchangeable block-chain ledger, guaranteeing producers can collect promised prices and keep track of buyers who might have purchased on credit.

Recently, the project began collaborating with the supermarket chain Quick Mart, which is enabling the Kenyan community-based organization New Vision to sell its vegetables on store shelves. QR codes on the produce will link to a website with photos of the farmers who produced the vegetables and information about production.

“Virginia Tech brings decades of international research and project management experience to this collaboration,” said Ralph Hall, associate director of the School of Public and International Affairs, “which is complemented by the extensive in-country expertise of our colleagues at Egerton University and AgUnity’s innovative blockchain platform.”

Looking Back, Looking Ahead For Answers

The parthenium weed invades valuable farmland throughout Africa and causes human and animal health issues.

Director Muniappan and IPM Innovation Lab team members did their research. In Australia and India, the combined release of a beetle and weevil that eat and breed only on parthenium leaves showed promise in curbing growth. In collaboration with Virginia State University, as well as farmers, local officials, and Extension agents, the IPM Innovation Lab constructed a breeding facility— the first of its kind in Ethiopia—to produce the insects for release.

“This program is a quintessential example of how already developed research can be adapted to local contexts,” Muniappan said. “We accounted for weather, climate change, and geography unique to Ethiopia to ensure all the ways it could work there, too.”

The two natural enemies have now “established” in Ethiopia, replenishing farmland for crop production or livestock grazing.

Since 1993, the IPM Innovation Lab has addressed crop threats in more than 30 countries, safeguarding communities from the spread of destructive pests and reducing reliance on chemical pesticides. The program has brought at least $2 billion in economic benefits to emerging economies, trained 600 graduate students, and collaborated with hundreds of institutions.

In collaboration with the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, for example, the IPM Innovation Lab developed an original pest modeling system that will even safeguard U.S. agriculture.

men in field  scout for the fall armyworm
FEED THE FUTURE: Muni Muniappan scouts for the fall armyworm, a destructive crop pest, in Niger.

Tracking the invasive tomato pest Tuta absoluta, the teams sounded the alert of its entry to Nigeria, then tracked the spread of the pest from South America to Costa Rica and Haiti. If left unmitigated, the pest will likely enter the U.S.

“Pests know no boundaries,” Muniappan said. “It’s important to remember that developing monitoring systems for one country benefits the entire world.”

In collaboration with Women and Gender in International Development, the IPM Innovation Lab also promotes gender sensitivity. In the case of parthenium, for example, the teams found that the spread of the weed disproportionately impacts women.

“The insight that we gain by working in Africa,” said Maria Elisa Christie, who directs the program, “develops a more complete vision of the opportunities our students and faculty have to contribute to the world. It is a key component of the university’s philosophy, Ut Prosim.”

After nearly 30 years, the IPM Innovation Lab will close this year, leaving behind amazing successes. As CIRED’s flagship program, its legacy will be the hundreds of thousands of people trained by the program—like farmers in Kenya, whose income increased after implementing the Push-Pull Technique, or in Niger, where one of Muniappan’s mentees now works as one of the nation’s few entomologists.

Gaining Perspective

Across Africa, Virginia Tech is making a difference—looking closely, deeply, and sometimes even up, as researchers, thinkers, and drones remain on the cutting edge of global innovation adapted for community needs. Brought back is a greater ability to think critically and a more complex understanding of the people and places outside of university walls and state lines.

Brady Deaton, CIRED interim director, said that the process of catalyzing the most informed solutions for ever-evolving global problems demands both technical expertise and human closeness.

“We recognize that the approach to improving global communities needs the support of all dimensions of higher education— the scientific, the technical, the arts,” he said. “It should be noted that no society in the world has ever survived in the absence of human interrelationships.”

Part 2 of 2

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    In Africa: Sowing Seeds of Sustainability in Senegal , article

    Hokies from all walks of life and research disciplines are working to help solve some of Africa's most complex problems-- providing food sources, education, technology access, agricultural expertise, and hope. These stories highlight a few of the many ways that Virginia Tech’s influence travels far and wide to transform communities for the good.

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