Organisation - August 31, 2017

Agricultural mission in Afghanistan

Alexandra Branderhorst

Wageningen University & Research has been helping develop agricultural vocational training in Afghanistan since 2009. Resource visited the project in Kabul. ‘Some topics, like illegal felling or equality between men and women, are too sensitive to be raised in class.’

Students at a practical lesson in one of the greenhouses on the campus.

Text and photos: Alexandra Branderhorst

Hans van Otterloo is driven to work through the busy morning rush hour in Kabul in an armoured Toyota. On a dirt road winding uphill, the car halts in front of a steel gate. First, a guard runs a mirror on a stick under the Toyota to check whether there is a bomb underneath it. Then the car is allowed past the walls and barbed wire surrounding the campus of the National Agricultural Educational College (NAEC).

The risk of attacks in Kabul makes such security necessary. ‘As an education project, we are not targeted by the Taliban and those kinds of groups, but it is just a violent country,’ explains development economist and project leader Hans van Otterloo. Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (CDI), part of WUR, engaged him in 2011 to get the plans for agricultural education in Afghanistan off the ground. In 2009, the Netherlands had taken on the task of establishing and developing agricultural vocational education in this war-torn country. WUR – and more specifically the CDI – has been responsible for the implementation from the start.

Project leader Hans van Otterloo in his office.
Project leader Hans van Otterloo in his office.

Weighing up the risks

‘The security situation has worsened in the six and a half years that I’ve been working here. A lot of donors and aid organizations have withdrawn,’ says Van Otterloo. But for the residents of Kabul, life goes on. ‘When you live here, the day-to-day situation is not as threatening as it seems from a distance. But you can be at the wrong place at the wrong time. You are constantly weighing up the risks.’ Since a serious bomb attack on the German embassy in May, Van Otterloo has been working a lot from Dubai. He minimizes the risks by spending as little time as possible in Afghanistan. ‘When I’m there, I talk to as many people as possible. I write up the reports after I’ve left again.’

Even internet

NAEC, which offers a two-year agricultural teacher training, opened its doors early in 2012. The Afghan management and several teachers received training in the Netherlands. The new building has plenty of space for the nearly 500 students currently attending the college, and a modern library which even has internet. Many of the students make their first acquaintance with computers here.

The women students (roughly 15 percent) come mainly from Kabul, while most of the male students come from the provinces and stay in the student flats at the college. There is also a college farm on the campus, with sloping fields of rose bushes, grapevines, apricot, apple and almond trees, as well as plastic-covered greenhouses, a fishpond, a chicken run and a cattle shed. In these facilities, the students learn the practical skills that they can pass on to their students when they go on to teach at one of the 180 Agricultural High Schools – comparable with vocational secondary schools in the Netherlands – throughout Afghanistan.

The building of National Agricultural Educational College (NAEC) in Kabul.
The building of National Agricultural Educational College (NAEC) in Kabul.

Fertilizing the soil

To date, 653 people have graduated from NAEC (see graph), among them Rahimuldin Amini. With his NAEC diploma in the bag, he started teaching botany, farm management and zoology at Dakoo Agricultural High School in his home province of Jawzjan in 2014. ‘The teachers here saw me using new teaching methods and became enthusiastic. They taught traditionally, focusing on passing on theoretical knowledge. The students were not allowed to ask any questions,’ says Amini. He taught his colleagues ways of actively involving students in the lessons, and how to prune and graft plants and fruit trees. ‘Now we teach these skills in practical lessons. We also use pictures and videos from the NAEC. The students are very involved now.’

Amini applies this knowledge on his own farm too. His crops include aubergines, tomatoes and okra. ‘It is customary in my district to burn animal manure, but at the NAEC I learned to mix it with compost. Since I’ve been fertilizing the soil with this mix, my land has become much more productive.’ He shared the technique with his brothers and neighbours. ‘Now all the farmers in the surrounding area are using this method.’

Too sensitive

For the past four years, Matilda Rizopulos of the CDI has been helping the NAEC and the Afghan ministry of Vocational Education to develop practical teaching material for the Agricultural High Schools. The teachers were still using text books from before the Russian invasion in 1979. ‘By pooling our knowledge, experience and ideas, we came up with something new. It was genuine learning by doing,’ says Rizopulos.

Reality did not always match expectations. Some practical exercises, for example, took more time than planned for. And certain topics were too sensitive to be raised in class. ‘Like illegal felling or conflicts of interest around land use between nomadic herders and settled farmers. Or equality between men and women. And we also had to find alternatives for photos in the textbooks with women in them.’

The material that was developed was first tested in 10 Agricultural High Schools, and is now being introduced throughout Afghanistan. From this year on, the teachers at all the High Schools are attending training courses at the NAEC on how to use the interactive, practically oriented material. Rizopulos has visited the NAEC, and is impressed. ‘It is great to realize that this project is bringing about a big change in agricultural vocational education.’

About 15 percent of the students at NAEC are women.
About 15 percent of the students at NAEC are women.

Uncertain future

Independent evaluations have shown that the new teaching material and methods are catching on in Afghanistan. The Afghan government acknowledges the importance of the project too. ‘The NAEC and the team around it are doing fantastic work,’ declares the Afghan State Secretary for Vocational Education Rahil Mohammed Formuly. ‘We are an agricultural country. Better agricultural education helps us develop our economy and society. Up-to-date knowledge of simple techniques can changes farmers’ lives because they lead to greater productivity.’

The Dutch ministries of Foreign Affairs and Economic Affairs have spent a total of 17 million euros on the education project between 2011 and 2016. It was announced this spring that the Netherlands is making another 6.6 million euros available for the period up to 2021. And that in spite of Afghanistan’s uncertain future. Project leader Van Otterloo: ‘The knowledge will not get lost. If you have managed to give thousands of people a good agricultural education, you can call it a successful project. Even if the country collapses at some point, that knowledge will go on being applied and passed on for many years.’


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  • Irène

    Mooi artikel weer, Alexandra.
    Deze zin snap ik niet: 'Verder moesten we alternatieven zoeken voor foto’s in de tekstboeken waar vrouwen op stonden.’