May 22, 2017
Congratulations to Joel Ransom, North Dakota State University Extension Service cereal crops agronomist. He has been awarded the national President’s Volunteer Service Award.
Ransom has contributed more than 100 hours of service on international assignments for Winrock International’s U.S. Agency for International Development-funded Farmer-to-Farmer Program in Senegal. Ransom provided instruction to groups of women on best practices for the use of millet and corn in making couscous, an important pasta-based food in much of North Africa and the Middle East.
“It was particularly gratifying to be able to use some of the skills I have developed while in the NDSU Extension Service to train and develop educational materials for women’s groups that were striving to improve their incomes by producing and marketing couscous.”
The award is issued by the President’s Council on Service and Civic Participation, a group created by former President George W. Bush to recognize the valuable contributions volunteers are making to the U.S. The council is comprised of leaders in government, media, entertainment, business, education, nonprofits and volunteer service organizations.
Ransom answered our questions about the award and his work in Senegal:
Why were you initially interested in the project?
I spent 20 years professionally, prior to joining NDSU, working internationally with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. During that period, I helped research programs in eastern Africa for 14 years and later in Nepal to improve their national corn research programs. Because of the knowledge and skills that I gained during this period, I have felt strongly that I should stay connected with international agricultural development. Therefore, I have jumped at opportunities to become reconnected with agriculture in Africa.
What were the main messages about millet and corn use that you tried to get across to the women?
This assignment turned out to be a bit unusual for me. As you know, I am an agronomist, so my strength lies in recommending agronomic interventions that will improve productivity, sustainability and profitability. I think they were looking for someone with Extension experience, so they invited me to help these groups of women document some best practices for processing corn and millet for use in making couscous. So I spent time with several groups, trying to understand the bottlenecks to couscous production so that I might make some suggestions that would improve the process. It turns out that making couscous is very labor-intensive, and drying the product is a regular bottleneck, particularly during the rainy season, as it is all sun/air dried. So I recommended some different machines that are locally manufactured that might help them in the process, and put together a nice manual that documents what I considered best practices, so that at least all the groups could be at the same level.
What kind of difference did the training make in their lives?
I think some outside training helped to open their eyes to new opportunities and the importance of learning from others. I tried to facilitate some informational exchanges between these small groups of women and some larger manufacturing groups so that the smaller groups could get a sense of what mechanization might be available and ways that they might be able to scale up.
What’s one of the most memorable experiences you had being in Senegal?
I stayed in the town of St. Louis, which was on the ocean. It has some old colonial buildings in the center of town, so it is very interesting historically and architecturally speaking. Furthermore, in the early days of aviation, St. Louis was an important stopping point between Europe and South America. Senegal is physically the closest land in Africa to the Americas. They must have been brave souls to venture out across the Atlantic in those days with those early planes. The hotel I stayed in celebrated these early aviators and may have been used by them.
I enjoyed getting up in the mornings and jogging along the beach. The fishing boats were painted in bright colors, and there were hundreds of them within the bay surrounded by the town. The youth loved soccer, and there was always a game in process regardless of the time of day. The beach was full of soccer games! In the night and early morning there were large flocks of fruit bats that roosted in local palm trees during the day. They were about the size of crows, and their numbers would nearly fill the sky in early evening.
In my last meeting with the women in the groups I worked with, I presented my recommendations. I used lots of pictures of the women while they were making couscous. They loved seeing themselves on the “screen.” I think they looked forward to the printed document that I pulled together. It had to be translated prior to its use, however.
One of the main tourist sites in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, is Gore Island. There are regular boat trips out to the island, and it is extremely popular with the local population — a nice place for a stroll, lunch or to have a picnic and swim. The most famous building on the island is called The Slave House. It was a building used to hold newly captured slaves prior to their shipment to the Americas. The most poignant part of a visit there is to see the door of no return, which is the exit of the house that was used to take the slaves to the large boat. It causes one to imagine the horrors of being taken from your home and family and the finality of leaving Africa and never seeing home and loved ones again.
Would you recommend others get involved in similar farmer-to-farmer projects if they have the opportunity? Why?
Absolutely, I would recommend others to get involved. It is very satisfying to teach someone something that might help them improve their life. Getting to know other cultures and places is fascinating and increases one’s awareness of the great diversity and beauty of this earth on which we live.
For more information about the President’s Volunteer Service Award and to find out how to volunteer, visit presidentialserviceawards.gov.
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