Training Soil Experts in Africa

A woman pulls rice seedlings for transplanting in northern Tanzania.

May 30, 2013

In most African countries 70 to 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas and make their living through agriculture. Thus, the majority of African people are soil practitioners. In collaboration with Columbia University’s Earth Institute and UM’s College of Agriculture and Natural Science, soil science professor Dr. Ray Weil is training a new generation of soil scientists across East Africa, including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, Zambia, and Kenya.

Dr. Weil has been fighting poverty in Africa for many years. In 2009 he teamed up with The Earth Institute to work on the Millennium Villages Project, which is aimed at sustainable solutions to end extreme poverty. For Dr. Weil, the project provided the opportunity to use what he knows about soil science and sustainability to find better ways for communities to lead their own development. The program works at 14 sites in 10 African countries and aims at enhancing farm productivity, health, education, and business development. “I am like the dirt doctor” Dr. Weil says, but instead of showing up with a doctor’s leather bag, he carries his toolbox filled with equipment used to test, monitor and sample soil and plants.

In addition to his ongoing work with Millennium Villages, Dr. Weil seeks to develop and upgrade the capacities of African universities to teach soil science and agronomy at the graduate. Through a contract with Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, antiquated and outdated soil programs are receiving a modern and integrated facelift, to address the sharp decline in enrollment that soil programs were enduring throughout the past two decades. 

Challenges that need to be addressed include recruiting high-quality faculty and staff, in addition to attracting qualified Ph.D. and Masters candidates that can make this effort succeed. In 2011, Dr. Weil spent six months working at the Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania where he helped upgrade the Ph.D. programs and mentor some 20 new graduate students. His biggest challenge was to help ensure that the dissertation research of these students was both scientifically rigorous and relevant to the needs of furthering agriculture development in Africa.