Purdue professor Kevin McNam​ara (second from left) discusses the value of new wheat varieties with several Afghan farmers. McNamara, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan in the 1970s, has spent the last decade leading Purdue's efforts to support the rebuilding of Afghan agriculture.
​​​A Hand Up​

Humanitarian Work Abroad Hits Home​

By Keith Robinson​

For Bill Gates, the bag he lifted up before the audience as he began his presentation was both a prop and a symbol of the hope that his philanthropic foundation and Purdue Agriculture research are giving to people in poverty half a world away.

Speaking in June in Washington, D.C., during a convocation of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, Gates held the bag to his side while he explained its significance. The three-layered, polyethylene-and-polypropylene bag, he noted, costs less than $2 but is increasing income of farmers in Central and West Africa by 25 percent.
Philanthropist Bill Gates tells an international audience that a Purdue-develped storage bag used by African farmers helps lift people out of poverty.
AP photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
Philanthropist Bill Gates tells an international audience that a Purdue-develpe​d storage bag used by African farmers helps lift people out of poverty.

"This bag is actually helping lift 10 million people out of poverty," he told his audience, which was commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act of 1862, the law that allowed for creation of all land-grant universities such as Purdue.

The front of the bag read "PICS," an acronym for Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage. The PICS project, started in 2007 and funded by $12 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one of many initiatives under Purdue's International Programs in Agriculture.

The hermetic PICS bag is enabling farmers in Africa to protect the protein-rich, staple cowpea-in America, it's called the black-eyed pea-from a destructive weevil that infests the crop and otherwise damages much of it in post-harvest storage.

PICS Improves Economy

Before PICS came along, most sub-Saharan farmers had to sell all of their unprotected crop immediately after harvest, when the price is lowest, or treat it with sometimes dangerous insecticides for storage and sale later. But with the cowpeas now safely stored in the bags for long periods, farmers can sell their crop at various times of the year when market conditions are better for them and, in so doing, provide a nutritious source of food for millions of people year-round.

Not only are the PICS bags helping farmers in Africa to grow economically, the science behind them helps in the education of Purdue Agriculture students. Researchers originally thought the weevils die in the bags from suffocation. But research by Larry Murdock, a Purdue professor of insect physiology who developed the technology that led to the project, found that the insects instead die of thirst because of their metabolic processes.

"The PICS project has led to a new understanding of science that helps our students better understand insects," Murdock says.

The project also serves Purdue's and Indiana's humanitarian objectives and is an investment in the United States' long-term economic interests.

"People from Indiana are helpful and generous," Murdock says. "We have the pleasure of knowing we're helping others. And Africa is an emerging market, much like China was 20 years ago. We're out there on the frontier. By making friends there, we will be in a better position to be trading partners. In helping others, we help ourselves."

With the PICS technology proving successful in protecting cowpea, Purdue researchers are now trying to determine if it will work with other African crops such as maize (corn) and pigeon pea, a legume. The PICS team also is entering a new phase of raising awareness of the bags in African countries where they are available and of developing a supply chain for their distribution.

A member of the Nsongwe Women Association Farm near Livingstone, Zambia, measures soil moisture to determine if irrigation is needed.

Plants Help AIDS Patients

Horticulture professor Steve Weller embraces Purdue Agriculture's commitment to humanitarian work. He is part of a team that includes faculty from the Departments of Agricultural Economics, Entomology and Food Science helping farmers in western Kenya-an AIDS hotspot-grow native, leafy vegetables high in nutritional value, such as those with vitamins A and C. One plant, amaranth, is known stateside as pigweed and is a nuisance to U.S. farmers, who want to get rid of it. But in Kenya, it and other "weeds" such as nightshade and spider plant are being grown as desirable, healthy leafy vegetables through Purdue's help.

The program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and includes research partners at Rutgers University and three educational and research institutions in Kenya. Originally a one-year program, USAID has expanded it for three years to cover "seed to consumption" research focused on building on the capacity of farmers in Kenya and two other nearby countries-Tanzania and Zambia-to provide healthy food for their people and a secure income for themselves.

"It's a big world out there," Weller says. "We can learn a lot from others, and they can learn a lot from us. People are pretty much the same all around the world. They want a better life, not only for themselves but also for their children."

The project was started by the Indiana University School of Medicine, which found that many of the AIDS and HIV patients in Kenya were not responding well to medicines. IU also found that many were farmers, so it enlisted the help of Purdue Agriculture.

Global Partnerships Good for Indiana

"They wanted Purdue involved to help farmers produce crops that will provide income security and a healthy diet," Weller says. "So not only are we providing good crops for their nutrition, but we are helping these farmers to be sustainable for the long haul."

International Programs in Agriculture's collaborations with educational institutions, government agencies and other organizations are designed to help improve agriculture, natural resources and food systems in Indiana, regionally and around the world. Partnerships with China Agriculture University and Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in China, for example, enable Purdue researchers to collaborate with researchers there in areas important to Indiana agriculture such as corn, soybeans, pigs and ducks. And because China has some agricultural problems similar to Indiana-drought, high temperatures, toxins in grain storage-a research partnership benefits Indiana, says Kashchandra Raghothama, associate director of IPIA.

"We have common areas of interest, so it makes perfect sense for us to work with them," he says.

The Farmer to Farmer program allows Purdue Extension educators to travel abroad not only to share their knowledge with farmers who need help but also to return home with perspective-changing knowledge they can use in their home communities. The program, funded by the USAID, has connected Purdue Extension educators with farmers in Costa Rica to help improve production, processing and marketing of agricultural products.

"The gain for Indiana is professional development," says Jess Lowenberg-DeBoer, director of IPIA and associate dean Purdue Agriculture. "They come back with new perspective and understanding. It helps them to be better Extension educators. The trips also lead to some business opportunities with the countries visited."

Ag Key to Stability in Afghanistan

One of IPIA's most visible programs involves its work in helping war-torn Afghanistan build a strong agricultural economy. Efforts supported by $39 million in grants from USAID since 2006 have focused on redeveloping the country's agricultural colleges in Kabul, Balkh, Herat and Nangarhar, strengthening Afghans' ability to teach agriculture to their students.Purdue's work in Afghanistan is now shifting from that country's Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Agriculture, the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Purdue is helping staff to strengthen managerial and technical skills they need to work in leadership roles in the Ministry of Agriculture so they can continue building their country's economy. Purdue has USDA support to work in three critical areas-improving the capability to provide Extension services; food, animal and plant health and safety; and agricultural statistics. These programs will continue through 2014."For there to be stability in Afghanistan, there needs to be more economic growth and opportunity," says Kevin McNamara, an agricultural economist who heads Purdue Agriculture's work there. "We can teach technologies to Afghans so they can better understand agricultural science and apply it to their needs. We are giving them the technical skills they need to teach their farmers."  

Ramesh Vemulapalli of Purdue's College of Veterinary Medicine (far right) leads training on lab techniques.

Part of that effort will involve introducing PICS technology to enable Afghan farmers to store their crops in hermetic bags. Farmers now store their grain using more traditional methods, which includes burying it in holes, sometimes under the wooden floors of their houses, and covering it with mud to provide a dry surface that protects the crop against insects. But the system is cumbersome and inefficient.

Lowenberg-DeBoer notes that the future of Indiana and the nation itself depends on Americans living, working and trading with the rest of the world in what has become a global economy. Purdue Agriculture recognizes and embraces that understanding through IPIA.

"Purdue Agriculture contributes to preparation for that future by helping students understand and experience other countries and cultures," he says. "We develop research collaborations for mutual benefit and strengthen the capacity of Extension to link Indiana to the world."​​

International Photo Gallery​

Joint Course with Colombian Universities Lays Groundwork for New Collaborations

By Beth Forbes

Colombia Landscape

International partnerships often are considered efforts that build resources overseas. However, international collaborations also enrich Purdue University programs.

Purdue is exploring opportunities with universities in Colombia that would be of mutual benefit. Colombia, probably best known for coffee production, has some of the largest untapped agricultural land resources available. Despite its mountainous Andean terrain, agriculture is one of the country’s most important industries, and the nation is investing in the sector. Possible ventures include joint research projects in areas such as organic production, insect and disease control, and biotechnology.

“The researchers and facilities there are very good, and the students are exceptionally well prepared,” says Jeff Stuart, Purdue entomology professor. Stuart was part of a Purdue delegation that traveled to Colombia last fall to investigate potential collaborations. They found many possibilities, including some that would strengthen existing Purdue programs.

One association that will provide immediate value is a course offered this summer. Purdue’s Adriela Fernandez, assistant director in International Programs in Agriculture and Latin America coordinator, will teach a joint course with instructors at the Technological University of Pereira and the University of Caldas.

The class is designed to help students get over the fear of learning in another language. “Employers tell us that they want to hire students who not only have technical and subject-based knowledge, but also multicultural competence and foreign language skills,” Fernandez says.

Purdue and Colombian students taking the same ag economics class in food security and sustainable development will learn in Spanish from Fernandez and in English from the Colombian professors. Students at all three institutions will collaborate over the Internet but also have the opportunity to interact in person, traveling one week each in both countries.

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