In Africa: Sowing Seeds of Sustainability in Senegal
Part 2 of 2: 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.
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.
Taking A Closer Look
Aissit Deme slips off her sandals and sits with the other women escaping the 101-degree heat under the palm-thatched open-air hut, their feet forming concentric circles of henna-dyed artistry. They just came in from harvesting mung beans in the fields, where their dresses looked like a box of crayons exploded onto the green landscape as they quickly plucked the beans from the knee-high plants.
Deme knows that mung beans are easy to grow in the hot Senegalese sun and that her two children aren’t as hungry after eating them. But since mung beans are a relatively new food source, Deme doesn’t know many ways to prepare them.
Which is why Ozzie Abaye has traveled 4,300 miles to be here today.
Armed with a stack of recipes perfected in her Blacksburg home, five years of research dedicated to bringing mung beans to protein-deficient Senegal, and decades of agronomy knowledge and outreach, Abaye unpacks the mangoes and mint that she bought at the local market.
As women mash garlic in a worn wooden pestle, Abaye talks not only about the ease of growing mung beans, but also their nutritional value. They are high in protein and fiber, which helps children feel full longer. They are high in folate and iron, which promotes breast milk production. They don’t need much fertilizer or pesticides, which saves farmers money. The women nod in agreement as they mix the food together while the young children nearby watch the “toubab”—strangers—sharing the afternoon shade.
When the mango-mung bean salad is complete, Deme and the others stuff it into baguettes, a relic of France’s colonialization of Senegal.
“Good, good, good,” one woman says in Palor, one of the many Senegalese languages, as she shares the baguette with her child. Deme nods in agreement.
“The first time I had [mung bean], I didn’t know how to cook it, so there wasn’t a lot of interest. But now that we have mung bean recipes, there is a lot of interest. It is needed for the children, and now we know how to cook it,” says Deme.
“Now I want to go back to the field and plant the rest of them,” she said.
The fiber and protein that Deme’s children need to grow strong and healthy are not the only benefits encased in the legume. The tiny mung bean is also the main character in an extraordinary story. It is a story of the transformational effects of the research, Extension, and education efforts of a global land-grant university. It is a story of partnerships with groups including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and Counterpart International. It is a story of how agriculture can change the world. It is a story that only Virginia Tech can tell.
Planting A Seed Of An Idea
In 2012, Abaye shook a small orb from a seed packet, and dropped it into a Senegalese farmer’s hand.
“Had he ever seen this before?” she asked.
The farmer shook his head. He had never seen a mung bean.
Abaye—or “Dr. Ozzie,” as she is fondly known by her students— knew the answer before she asked the question on that hot African day.
The professor and Extension specialist in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ School of Plant and Environmental Sciences had spent several years assessing crops that could diversify the Senegalese diet. The efforts led to an idea that would combine all the things she cared most about in life—agronomy, food security, children, and empowering women.
And so, Abaye and others embarked on an USAID Economic Resilience Activity (USAID-ERA) project to investigate the potential use of mung bean as a new crop to address malnutrition and food insecurity in Senegal.
Abaye evaluated various warm-season legumes. None were climatically the right fit for Senegal—until she looked into the mung bean, a short duration, warm-season legume that grows especially well in the tropics and neo-tropics.
She asked her counterparts at the Senegalese equivalent of Agricultural Research and Extension Centers if they ever grew mung beans. One showed her a storage room, housing thousands of small brown envelopes filled with seeds. He located a packet of mung beans, noting that the previous year a private company considered planting them but ultimately abandoned the project.
Later that day, Abaye introduced the seeds to a farmer, who had never seen such a thing.
“That was it, we didn’t need to do any more research,” said Abaye, whose voice carries the lilting Ethiopian accent of her childhood. “We found our bean.”
Hands-On Across The World
From 2013-16, Andre Diatta was one of 14 Senegalese graduate students who called Blacksburg their home, which was made possible by the USAID-ERA project.
In between walks around the Duck Pond and soccer games on the Drillfield, Diatta spent his time in a lab and at Kentland Farm, testing more than 550 lines of mung beans to identify which would thrive in Senegal.
Alhough Diatta didn’t grow up in an agricultural family, when he looked around his country where food security was a major problem, he knew what he wanted to do.
“Getting into agriculture was trying to be part of the solution,”Diatta said recently as he walked around the campus of Gaston Burges University in Senegal, where he’s now an assistant professor of agronomy.
Virginia Tech’s Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) ethos combined with the mung bean project was a perfect match, he thought.
“This felt like an opportunity to give back and serve,” he said.
Other students got involved in the project, too.
Mary Michael Lipford was one of three Virginia Tech students engaged in mung bean research and outreach in Senegal. The students were funded by Counterpart International, the college’s Graduate Teaching Scholars Program, and the Pratt Undergraduate Research Program.
Their work opened doors they never thought possible.
When Lipford came to Virginia Tech, she wanted to change the world, which seemed like a daunting task until she took a course with Abaye.
“I heard her talk about her mung bean research and how she helps empower women,” said Lipford, who traveled to a village in Senegal and helped hold a mung bean cooking competition. “I immediately knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
For a society to grow, Lipford said, it needs to have its basic needs met: food, water, health, and education. “If you can’t feed yourself, you can’t go anywhere or do anything,” she said.
The mung bean project involved other departments within CALS and around the university. Kevin Kochersberger and Mary Kasarda from the Department of Mechanical Engineering designed a mung bean splitter. Taylor Vashro, a student researcher in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, examined the effect of the mung bean on women’s and children’s dietary diversity.
According to Vashro, one Senagalese woman reported that “when she eats mung beans, her breasts are full of milk, and she’s saving money. Because if you don’t have milk in your breasts, you have to buy formula for your infant.”
After eight years, the project, a success, was wrapping up. But Abaye felt unsettled, believing there was more work to be done.
Planting Another Mung Bean Project
So, on the day Abaye heard that Counterpart International was seeking a partnership with a land-grant institution to pilot a nutritionally rich crop for their school feeding programs in Senegal, Abaye canceled her classes and dashed home to work on a proposal.
Counterpart International—a nonprofit that partners with organizations to build inclusive, sustainable communities in which people thrive—wanted to explore opportunities for complementing school meals with newly released mung bean seed varieties. The project was funded through the McGovern-Dole-USDA Food for Education Program.
“Virginia Tech’s experience with developing mung beans made for a great partnership to help us further our mission of providing communities the tools they need to thrive and be sustainable,” said Kathryn Lane, chief of party for Counterpart in Senegal. "Mung bean that is produced by local farmers will help schools to sustain their school feeding initiatives long after the project has ended."
Over the next three years, teams from Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and Virginia 4-H visited the West African nation more than a dozen times and collaborated with Counterpart International to pilot a mung bean project at 10 different villages.
From 2019-21, more than 1,000 kilos of mung beans were produced on two hectares of land, which provided school meals to 2,761 school girls and 2,006 boys.
But Mamadoe Thioye doesn’t need the statistics to recognize the success of the mung bean in his village.
Growing Mung Beans, Growing Youth
Ibrahim Thoiye, 12, walked through fields where the rainy season yielded a coat of verdant green over the normally dun-colored land. He passed okra and cassava growing in the sandy soil. Golden birds flitted about the sky as he approached a plot where black pods dangled from ankle-high plants.
Just a few years earlier, Thoiye had never eaten these mung beans, but now he can’t get enough of them.
“I can see the difference with the mung bean already,” his mom, Asyaia Thioye, said. “The children are physically stronger, and it helps with indigestion.”
Thoiye’s village was among the most successful of the 10 pilot projects. The community is hungry for more. Over the past three years, Ibrahim’s father, Mamadoe Thoiye, donated a few acres to expand bean production for use in the local school canteen.
Mamadoe Thoiye, who is president of the local school board, said the mung beans can be harvested many times during the growing season, and villagers are able to plant many successive crops due to the short growing cycle.
But Thoiye is seeing results well beyond the fields. He said absenteeism is down in school because kids aren’t as hungry. And standardized test scores are higher than they’ve ever been—a testament, he said, to the nutrition they are now getting from the mung bean.
But the project isn’t just feeding children’s bellies—it’s also feeding their minds.
Extension And Virginia 4-H Go To Senegal
Erika Bonnett laid out an assortment of circuit boards, water pumps, and balls of yarn, issuing a challenge for the teachers assembled around her: create a lesson for your students using only these materials.
The sound of afternoon prayers drifting in from the nearby mosque mixed with the chatter of excited teachers as they picked up the various electronics and started developing an impromptu lesson.
Over the past three years, as Abaye and others were working in the fields to grow mung beans, Bonnett, a Virginia 4-H education specialist, has been in Senegalese classrooms collaborating with teachers to develop a STEM-based experiential learning curriculum around the mung bean. Before this, most learning modules consisted of theory or teaching from a book. But Bonnett understands the value of the 4-H model of learning by doing.
Bonnett grew up in a small, poor mining town in West Virginia where opportunities were limited. In the third grade, she became involved in 4-H and over time grew her leadership ability by participating in state and national 4-H events. Hooked on the 4-H teaching strategy, Bonnett stuck with those lessons through her Ph.D. studies. Today, she is a leader of educational program development for the more than 200,000 youth involved in Virginia 4-H.
During her time in Senegalese classrooms, Bonnett has worked with teachers to develop STEM education curriculum centered on water quality, pollution, properties, air, plant nutrition, use of technology in the classroom, and more.
Mamoune Niang, headmaster of the school at Thiago where Bonnett was conducting the program, said the lessons have been invaluable.
“In the past, our science was focused on theory,” Niang said. “But with this program, [students] have the chance to practice what they are learning. They have an interest in science because they are having hands-on learning.”
Over the past year, three Extension agents visited Senegal to teach everything from food safety to good nutrition, including Kim Hoffman, who shared information about healthy eating, echoing her efforts in Stafford County, Virginia, where she works with schools to help children make healthy choices.
Hoffman translated a series of posters focused on safe food handling processes into French and shared best practices with cafeteria workers. She explained how colorful vegetables are the keys to a healthy diet and spoke about how the iron-rich mung bean helps blood clot after a cut. The women nodded in appreciation as a gas stove in the corner hissed, cooking up a fresh pot of the beans.
As Bonnett’s and Hoffman’s time with the group wound down, so was the project in Senegal. But Niang said the hands-on problem-solving lessons will continue long after the team returns to Virginia.
“Thank you for your friendship and all that you have done for Senegal,” Niang said as they hugged goodbye. “It is not a small thing that you have done.”
Reaping What Was Sown
Bean by bean, Amadou Saydou Sow measured out his harvest. When one fell to the ground, he carefully picked it up and placed it back into the bag to be measured. He’s worked too hard to let even one bean escape.
Of the villages that Abaye has worked with over the past few years, Sow’s Thiewle has been the most successful. The 140 kilograms of mung beans from a quarter of a hectare that Sow was weighing out was all the proof that was needed.
These beans are the result of some of the new open-pollinated lines being screened by Senegal’s Research Institute and cultivated from 600 lines that are expected to offer the best varieties for Senegal. Sow, head of the local school board, has fed his new-found food to the children of the village and has produced so much he’s able to sell the seeds to other villages, where the work can begin anew.
“Long after Virginia Tech is gone, we will continue this project,” said Sow, from whose undershirt the spires of Burruss Hall peeked out.
Ever the agronomist, Abaye wanted to know everything about Sow’s harvest. How much did he water it? What inputs did he use? What other crops were grown nearby? How many times did he plant it? When Sow wasn’t able to breach the language barrier, he used his fingers to draw a picture in the sand.
For Abaye, this village is more than a test subject. She’s part of it now. The day she learned of her sister's death, the village wrapped its collective arms around her. Abaye built and named the school’s kitchen in her parents’ honor, and children chant her name when she returns after months in the States.
Here, in this remote West African village, all the things to which Abaye has devoted her life—children, education, agronomy, and empowering women—have merged in the form of one little bean. The fruits of this labor will be reaped for years.
“Feeding the children is feeding the community,” Sow says as the two say goodbye. “Only God knows how happy we are.”
Max Esterhuizen contributed to this story. Youssoupha Gueye assisted with translations.
Part 1 of 2
Article ItemIn Africa: Adapting Innovations , 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.