AG ON CAMPUS 2016
A monthly supplement to The Delmarva Farmer
UM program director discusses trip to Afghanistan
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — At the University of Maryland, agriculture can take you far beyond the rolling fields of western and central Maryland and the flatlands of the Eastern Shore.
Try, for instance, the valleys and mountains of Afghanistan.
The College of Agriculture & Natural Resources’ Women in Agriculture program has been working in the volatile Middle Eastern nation through a federal grant program to train Afghan women in household farming techniques.
The Delmarva Farmer spoke with Taryn Devereux, program coordinator, about the college’s work there and how it deals with the safety and cultural challenges of operating in such an embattled country.
The Delmarva Farmer: Tell me how the program started.
Taryn Devereux: The Women in Agriculture program is housed in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics in the College of Agriculture here. It began with a USDA-managed Extension project in Afghanistan called the Afghanistan Agricultural Extension Project. That was originally created in 2011 using U.S. Agency for International Development funds, and then the project was picked up for a second phase in 2014. So we just started year three of phase two. The Women in Agriculture Program started because Maryland manages women’s programming for the AAEP project. It’s a consortium of universities that’s led by UC-Davis, including Texas A&M, Washington State, Perdue University with Maryland managing the women’s programming component across Afghanistan. We also have a Maryland faculty member who is based in Afghanistan, and then we have various team members, administrators and contractors who help support the activities through Maryland.”
What are the college’s goals there?
It’s been funded for three years and it will end toward the end of 2017, and the objective of the AAEP project is to create capacity among the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock by improving Extension services throughout the country. The women’s program component focuses specifically on the unique needs of women, including household food security and also increasing livelihood opportunities. Women are typically the ones who make decisions about diet, meals, nutrition within the household, and so by creating opportunities for them to develop a kitchen garden, to go to Extension training, to learn more about nutrition, more about health, we can improve household food security within households across the country. We also do livelihood opportunities such as how to cultivate saffron, which is relatively feasible for them with the amount of property that they have access to. They can potentially earn a small income and then have decision making over how that income is used.
What obstacles do you face in achieving those goals?
There are many obstacles. In the Ministry of Agriculture, there are about 1,000-some-odd Extension agents across the country. Nineteen of them are women Extension agents. If you’re trying to reach a female clientele, you’re really limited (due to cultural constraints placed upon women) as to who can go out to their household, who can give them training, and getting new female Extension agents on board is also a challenge given limited education opportunities, limited job opportunities. So we work directly with those 19 female Extension agents to improve their skills and their teaching ability so they can reach more women across the country. We’ve also developed programs like an internship program for recent female graduates from agricultural colleges who can then get hands-on experience that will improve their resumes, open up doors for them professionally and thereby increase the amount of people who are coming into the Extension community.
What struck you most about working in Afghanistan the first time you visited?
“’ve traveled there three times. It’s different than other professional experiences I’ve had. I’ve worked previously in Latin America and eastern Africa, so I suppose the first thing that struck me was the differences in climate. It’s a very arid condition to work in. The challenges for the women’s program are obviously unique given the cultural situation.”
How is it different for college employees working or visiting over there?
Mobility is definitely a limitation for all expats who are working over there. Our project — AAEP-II — adheres to USAID security protocol recommendations, so our guesthouses, our vehicles, they’re all vetted according to state department standards. We have a contracted security team in place that helps monitor people, keeps track of where they’re going, and makes sure the areas that they’re traveling to have been deemed safe at least for their travel dates. Every house has a security team. They’re gated communities.
We’re doing all of the security precautions, but the people involved understand the risk that’s involved. There have been concerns, but our project fortunately hasn’t had any serious incidents take place.
What have you accomplished so far?
We’re now working in 19 provinces across the country. We have trained a total of about 1,600 women who have been beneficiaries of various workshops and Extension efforts, and we’ve also had a pretty successful run with our internship program that began last year and is set to run through February. For Afghan women who do attend college who are interested in agriculture, often times the curriculum they’re exposed to is largely theoretical, so we wanted to create a hands-on training program for them to get practical experience that they could then transfer to professional opportunities.
When you say theoretical, you mean they don’t have access to fields?
Yes. It depends, obviously, on the institution, but often times the coursework is done almost exclusively within a classroom. That’s probably a challenge here in the U.S. as well.
What’s the profile of women who have benefitted from the program?
It’s pretty diverse. We work in Kabul and we work in some more rural provinces.
I think the majority of the women probably work within peri-urban communities. For the most part, they’re not doing commercial farming on large plots of land and selling in a market. They’re almost exclusively working in kitchen gardens or demonstration farms that we have set up.
What do you see in the program’s future?
We are set to run through the end of September 2017. We’re waiting to hear from our sponsor at USAID as to whether this project will be picked up for a third phase. I think everyone involved is very much hoping that is the case. We know the Ministry of Agriculture of Afghanistan has already expressed to the U.S. government that they want us to continue. They’re very happy with the results we’ve shown so far. My hope for the future is that this project has a future.
What opportunity is there for students to get involved?
As far as travel, we were told pretty clearly at the offset that we were not going to be able to send any students over to Afghanistan. I should mention here, too, that the Women in Agriculture program also has a small project in Ethiopia where we have a partnership with three universities. We’ve had a student undergraduate intern every semester for the last three semesters, and the current intern has been charged with student outreach. So we’re really trying to spread the word about our program, about the importance of women in agriculture. We’re planning a panel discussion for the end of this semester in December to bring together some academics and other resources from the campus who can speak on the subject.
Anything you want to add I haven’t asked you about?
I guess one success story is when we started in Kabul, we created a farm at Darulaman [a ruined palace just outside the capital city] and we operated a demonstration farm there for some time. There were various challenges related to security, access to water and safety for the women working there, but it’s really become an amazing place, and I visit there every time I go. It’s always growing, and the women have the opportunity to experiment and play and try out new things.
We eventually turned over the farm to the Afghan women we had been working with. They’ve kept it going. They’ve made it something special using the limited resources they have and their wits. Maryland is continuing to support a security person for them just to ensure the women’s safety, but other than that, the women are growing products and are able to sell them. They have limited channels through which they can access markets.
They can’t go to the main market as women and have a stall, but they can sell, for instance, to projects like ours. One of our goals has been sustainability. We understand we’re not going to be in Afghanistan forever, so if we can create a capacity for women that they can take over at least some components of what we’ve created and be successful at it, that’s something we can be really proud of.
One important oversight on my part: What do they grow over there?
A pretty wide variety of things. Tomatoes. Things that they can preserve. We do a lot of preservation and storage workshops. Pickling. There is some goat and poultry production as well. The women’s program doesn’t deal with large cereals or other crops like that. It’s mostly household horticulture that they can incorporate into their diet. Or things they can sell like rose hips or saffron.