Episcopal Relief & Development and Cornell University Grow Agriculture Learning Partnership in Burundi

Episcopal Relief & Development Web StatementFebruary 5, 2015

Episcopal Relief & Development, in partnership with the Anglican Church of Burundi, is joining with Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to provide field study opportunities for students in the International Agriculture and Rural Development (IARD) program.

With high population density and hilly topography, Burundi faces chronic challenges in maintaining food supply.  Soil erosion, crop disease, limited seed supply and lack of market access contribute to the country’s ranking last out of 78 on the International Food Policy Research Institute’s most recent Global Hunger Index.

Supporting the growth of the Church’s Sustainable Livelihoods Program, which works with farmers to improve agricultural practices, diversify harvests and restore soil quality, this operational research partnership provides field study placements of two to four months for both graduate and undergraduate students.  Two students have completed their placements so far, and funding from the Andy Paul Africa Initiative Fund through the Office of Cornell’s Vice Provost for International Affairs will enable at least four more students to participate in coming years.

“Having been an undergraduate student at Cornell myself, I was well aware of the expertise at the school in international agriculture, and was hoping to find a way to connect that to our program work,” said Episcopal Relief & Development Program Officer Sara Delaney.  “When it became clear that there was a need for more international study opportunities for IARD students, there was excitement on both sides that we had found what could be a win-win situation.”

In Burundi, the partnership enables the Sustainable Livelihoods Program to expand and improve project activities, with the aim of reaching approximately 100,000 households nationwide by 2016.  As part of the project, women in rural areas are taking action to reduce hunger and improve diets for their families by building small “kitchen gardens” in their yards.  The gardens are planted with vegetables such as leafy greens, eggplants, pumpkins, tomatoes and watermelons, and serve as an addition to the small, hilly plots (less than one hectare, approximately two city blocks) that the families farm with corn, beans and potatoes.

The particular focus of each student placement term depends on the individual’s knowledge and interests, but includes topics such as agricultural methods, family nutrition, soil and erosion management, crop disease management and seed access.  Strategic evaluation of program activities through surveys and other means will enable project leaders to assess impact, identify challenges and communicate results.

“We welcome this scientific partnership with Cornell University and are very glad to have hosted two students so far (Ms. Angela Siele and Ms. Emily Ambrose) from the IARD program,” said Léonidas Niyongabo, Provincial Development Officer for the Anglican Church of Burundi.  “Their scientific contributions have expanded and reinforced farming capabilities in the pilot communities, especially for women engaged in the kitchen gardens project.  I am glad that they also had opportunities to learn from us and our Burundian participants!  Their achievements will be used for the improvement of poor communities around the world, and will remain linked in our hearts.”

Episcopal Relief & Development’s partnership with the Church of Burundi aims to provide high-quality support to farmers, enabling them to preserve their land, maximize its productivity and reduce malnutrition, especially for children under age five.  The research partnership with Cornell will provide robust data on program activities and impact, in order to shape future plans for improved outcomes, and valuable cross-cultural experiences for both students and program participants.

Cornell graduate student Angela Siele was the first to participate in the placement program, with support from Cornell’s Richard Bradfield Research Award and Advancing Women in Agriculture through Research and Education initiative, among others).  Siele worked with Church staff to introduce an innovative “keyhole” design for the gardens, which retains water and soil nutrients through a raised bed and central composting area.  During her three-month placement, beginning in March 2014, the team used survey tools such as the Household Hunger Scale, Women’s Dietary Diversity Scale and Crop Diversity Scale to establish a baseline for future research to measure program impact.

Building on Siele’s work, Cornell undergraduate student Emily Ambrose began her three-month placement in October 2014 (with support from the Andy Paul Africa Initiative Fund through Cornell) by conducting follow-up surveys with approximately 60 households that had previously started kitchen gardens.  Sustainability of the kitchen gardens depends on many factors, one of which is the availability of seeds, so Ambrose worked with Church staff to introduce seed saving techniques that would enable farmers to supply their own or sell to neighbors for future planting seasons.

“The program is growing rapidly, since when one woman builds a garden and her neighbor sees, the neighbor wants to build one, too,” Ambrose said.  “We are trying to track both program-initiated and spontaneous gardens, and by the end of my term we were up to 600 [as of February 2015, the number exceeds 1,100].  The amount of seeds to distribute for each planting season is limited, so seed saving is important, not only for our current participants but so the program can grow organically as well.  To farmers, seed not only brings life to foods for sustenance, but also a gratifying hope.”

The partnership between Episcopal Relief & Development and Cornell germinated when Delaney met Hale Ann Tufan, Cornell Research Project Manager, at the World Food Prize Conference in Des Moines in October 2012.  Later, Delaney and Episcopal Relief & Development’s Senior Director of International Programs, Kirsten Laursen Muth, met with Peter Hobbs and Steven Kyle, Cornell professors and advisors for the International Agriculture and Rural Development undergraduate and graduate programs, respectively.

“Since international field experience is a degree requirement for all IARD students, we saw the opportunity for field placement with an Episcopal Relief & Development partner, especially a high-capacity one such as the Church in Burundi, to be mutually beneficial,” Kyle said.  “After hearing about Angela and Emily’s experiences, we are very excited for the future of this partnership.”

Comprehensively, the Sustainable Livelihoods Program of the Anglican Church of Burundi aims to transform livelihoods through support in the areas of agriculture and the environment, water and sanitation, gender-based violence and health.  In 2014, the program reached approximately 22,000 people in eight provinces. 

“It is wonderful to be able to partner with Cornell on a project that provides meaningful opportunities and benefits for everyone involved,” said Abagail Nelson, Episcopal Relief & Development’s Senior Vice President of Programs.  “As we and our partner in Burundi benefit from access to the advanced technical knowledge of Cornell’s students and faculty, we feel proud to be able to offer opportunities for students to be immersed in community-led programming and learn about our holistic, integrated approach to development.  I look forward to seeing this partnership grow!”

Episcopal Relief & Development works with more than 3 million people in nearly 40 countries worldwide to overcome poverty, hunger and disease through multi-sector programs that utilize local resources and expertise. An independent 501(c)(3) organization, Episcopal Relief & Development works closely with Anglican Communion and ecumenical partners to help communities rebuild after disasters and develop long-term strategies to create a thriving future. In 2014-15, the organization joins Episcopalians and friends in celebrating 75 Years of Healing a Hurting World.

Photos by Emily Ambrose. View more on Facebook.