We’re three months into the new academic year and many students are just getting into the swing of things here in Wageningen. But three student have already impulsively set their studies aside and left for Uganda to do the real thing: working in a development project.
photo’s Thomas Heger, Ard Schakel en Tom Smits
Thomas Heger (23) started his MSc degree in Plant Science back in September this year. Through an old friend, he got involved with KHAP, a sustainable agriculture project based in Kumi, Uganda, which was started by a Dutch foundation four years ago. In a group project, Heger got to know Ard Schakel, an MSc student of International Land & Water Management, and Tom Smits, who studies Biobased and Circular Economy. He told them about the project and a bold plan started to emerge. The three now live and work together in Uganda.
Why did you decide to take time out from studying and go to Kumi?
Heger: ‘For my Bachelor’s thesis on Plant Science, I went to a Caribbean island that was invaded by a weed species. That was supposed to be for just three months, but I ended up staying a year. It was great to see the difference you can make in the real world. I really enjoyed that and I wanted to do something similar here in Kumi.’
Simts: ‘I’ve pretty much just arrived at Wageningen and I did debate whether it was the right time to take on such a project. But I thought, if I went to Uganda, I could see things here for myself and I could learn from Thomas and Ard. Compared to the problems that people have here, taking a break in your studies is nothing to worry about.’
Schakel: ‘For me it just made sense to come here, because I also want to see my knowledge make a contribution in the real world. When I told my study adviser about this project, she actually said: Why don’t you go as well?’
How did you fit this project around your studies?
Smits: ‘The arrangements with WUR went quite smoothly as we were not involving WUR in this project at this time. I still spoke to my study advisor and explained what the project was about and how I could see it benefitting my learning. She was enthusiastic about what we were going to do and understood that this was a great opportunity.’
Heger: ‘We’re looking into getting credits for our projects via Capita Selecta, where we would be supervised and examined by a university department. It’s okay for us if that doesn’t work out; it would mean a little bit of delay in our studies but only by a month or two.’
What challenges do you see for the people living in Kumi?
Heger: ‘The farm we’re working on has been running since the 1960s. However, during the civil war in the 1980s, the farm and pretty much the whole area was destroyed. There’s a lot of land here but it’s not usually used in ways that benefit people. Also, drought is a problem here for around four months a year, so as well as land use, there is also a water management issue. The project here is about improving dairy production as well as the lives of local people. We need multi-disciplinary solutions for complex problems, which is what we’re trying to do here.’
What have you been doing for this project so far?
Smits: ‘There are some problems that never crossed my mind until I came here. For example, kids here walk seven kilometres to school, and by lunch time they would walk home for lunch because school doesn’t offer it. We are looking into sustainable crop rotations which could supply porridge for children in schools.’
Schakel: ‘I’m looking at how to connect water harvesting and crop production. Also, I’m using GIS to identify where more fodder trees need to be planted for the dairy cows, so they can get shade and protein from these trees.’
Heger: ‘I’m thinking about what crops are best here for dairy productivity, and also which crops could best benefit people living here. We go out and talk to people a lot on farms, at the church, at markets and so on, because building relationships is a big part of the project. It’s important to us that the people and businesses here are self-sufficient without foreign influence, otherwise it creates dependency. We want to have a sustainable strategy, not for one or two years but for the next ten to twenty years.’
What do you think is the missing link for the community’s development?
Smits: ‘To me the missing link here is a long-term vision. For example, a farmer could potentially sell a cow and invest in a simple irrigation system that would benefit in the long term. But people here farm for food security and understandably, they are more focused on short term profits instead – which is where I think our work fits in.’
What’s next for you guys back in Wageningen?
Schakel: ‘The three of us operate under the name Passiflora, and we want this organisation to also become a platform where students can connect with multidisciplinary projects and put their agricultural knowledge to use in developing areas.’
Smits: ‘It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it – I feel that there’s a gap at WUR for a link between entrepreneurship and agriculture. I want to encourage people to do something that could make an impact going forward, even if it’ll be uncomfortable at first.’
Heger: ‘There’s a lot of skills and knowledge in Wageningen, but I feel that few people are doing stuff with that knowledge to improve parts of the world where it’s most needed. Most people go to work for a big company after they graduate, but I believe that there is another way.’