There is a lot of pressure on the Afghan students who are studying for one year at Van Hall Larenstein. Here they try to adjust the image of their country - robes and beards; in their own country they will be key figures in building the agricultural education.
After thirty years of war and conflict, Afghanistan is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. The Afghan economy is largely dependent on the agricultural sector, in which eighty percent of the employed labour force is active. But the knowledge of agriculture is very outdated. New knowledge is difficult to spread because over ninety percent of the rural population is illiterate. Studies show that the agriculture and livestock sectors produce just enough to feed half of the Afghan people.
'Food prices are rising day by day because the demand is higher than the supply', explains Asadullah. Investments will be needed to raise the quality, quantity and processing of food. Now Afghan fruits are processed into jam in Pakistan and then re-imported. Surpluses of apples and onions are bought by Pakistani companies, kept in cold storage in Pakistan and sold off season in Afghanistan.
Asadullah also sees opportunities for export. 'Agricultural products like potatoes, onions, apples, melons, apricots, grapes, almonds, pistachio and raisins are produced for domestic consumption and export. We could enter the world market if our products met international quality standards.'
A major crop in Afghanistan is still poppies, the raw material for opium, morphine and heroin. An estimated one third of the gross domestic product comes from poppies. 'Farmers are the poorest people in Afghanistan and the government does nothing for them. The farmers are tired of empty promises. Worldwide there is much demand for opium and the poppy is an easy crop', says Asadullah.
'In safer areas there are pilot projects with the cultivation of saffron, which yields almost as much as opium. But in the southern provinces and along the Pakistan border anti-government elements depend entirely on the income from poppy cultivation.'
According to the students, the solution lies in stability, stimulating local entrepreneurship and investments in the production chain. If farmers are also supported by practical training, fertilizer and seeds, they can produce and earn more.
Along with seven other Afghans, Asadullah is taking a one-year professional Master's at Van Hall Larenstein. The students all have relevant work experience. Asadullah (27 years) obtained an MSc in agricultural economics in Pakistan and was employed by the Afghan Ministry of Rural Reconstruction and Development as a rural business development specialist. Tooryalay Nasery (28) obtained a Bachelor's in Kabul and worked at the Ministry of Agriculture. In Wageningen both are now on the professional Master's programme in International Agriculture.
'Our classmates were expecting us to be Taliban', says Nasery. Asadullah adds: 'One teacher even said: you are from Afghanistan, where are the bombs and guns? I answered him: pens and books are my weapons. Not all Afghans are Taliban. That image is very damaging to Afghanistan. We try to correct it and to represent Afghanistan as well as possible.'
The presence of the students in Wageningen results from a project that Van Hall Larenstein is executing to rebuild agricultural education in Afghanistan (see below). About twenty more Afghan students will come to VHL in September. The new batch will probably include some women. 'We really need female teachers,' says Nasery. He was himself involved in a project that established chicken farms for widows, but it was difficult to get it going. 'It is impossible for men to provide training to women, because in large parts of Afghanistan contact between women and men who are not related is not allowed.'
The possible departure of the Netherlands armed forces from Uruzgan has little impact on the project. Except perhaps for the first training centre for small livestock, scheduled to be set up in the southern province of Uruzgan, where herds of sheep and goats are traditionally kept. The training centre will be located in a safer area. A good thing, thinks Nasery. 'That increases the likelihood that the pilot is successful. Security remains one of the biggest challenges in Afghanistan.'
The students believe that stability, responsiveness to the needs of the local population and good coordination between local, regional and national authorities determine the success rate of projects. 'Hopefully the practical applied education will deliver an essential contribution to increasing knowledge, skills and educational levels in Afghanistan,' says Asadullah.
The Afghan students are enthusiastic about the education at Van Hall Larenstein. 'The knowledge we gain is applicable, so we will benefit a lot from that back in Afghanistan', says Mohammad Shoaib. Shoaib (24) earned a Bachelor's in horticulture in Afghanistan and worked as an assistant facilitator with an NGO. He calls the effectiveness of education in Afghanistan very low. 'I would like to help develop decent education that delivers graduates who will have a big say on agricultural matters.'
A real eye-opener was the visit to a Dutch dairy farm in the Noordoostpolder. 'In Afghanistan, a peasant is someone who labors the fields. Here a farmer is a businessman with a company. In Afghanistan people will not believe that a family of four people keeps 240 cows on 180 hectares of land and also grows vegetables. And that both sons have even studied at Wageningen University,' outlines Asadullah. Coincidentally the cows were being artificially inseminated that day. A special experience for the students. 'We do have theoretical knowledge about artificial insemination, but we had never seen it put into practice.'
In December 2009, the Dutch Ministries of Agriculture and Development launched a project to re-establish agricultural education in Afghanistan together with the Afghan Ministry of Education. The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture has donated 2.7 million euros and foreign donors are contributing too.
A national agricultural institute will be established in the Afghan capital Kabul, with a centre for applied research and documentation and a vocational agricultural teacher training programme. The ultimate aim is to establish regional institutions in the seven main regions, and agricultural training centres in all 34 provinces.
Van Hall Larenstein is implementing the project because the university of applied sciences has considerable experience in supporting the establishment of secondary and higher vocational education in developing countries.
Over the next two years thirty Afghan students will be educated at Van Hall Larenstein to take up posts as staff at the national institute. Another seventy students will be trained in another donor country, possibly India or Canada.