A WSU soil scientist whose roots are in West Africa finds success helping farmers in the arid lands of eastern Afghanistan.
PULLMAN — In 2012, Washington State University’s Oumarou Badini reported for work at an agricultural-research center in eastern Afghanistan that has benefited from millions of dollars in international aid.
Yet Badini found acreage set aside for test plots covered in trash, rather than crops. Irrigation ditches, crucial to farming in such an arid climate, were clogged with weeds,
“It was a mess,” Badini recalled in a recent interview on a visit back to Pullman. “Nobody took care of these lands.”
So Badini recruited some Afghan colleagues and devoted 10 days to a massive cleanup.
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This was a downbeat debut for Badini’s aid work in a troubled region where opium poppies are one of the most lucrative crops, and the ranks of insurgents have expanded to include contingents of fighters from the Islamic State group as well as the Taliban, who control large swaths of territory.
Yet four years later, this African-born, Pullman-trained soil scientist is still on the job even as most of the U.S. military troops have withdrawn and many expatriates involved in aid work have left, too.
His mission is fixed on boosting the skills of dozens of Afghan agriculture extension agents and introducing conservation-cropping techniques. Badini, 57, has achieved some success, expanding the outreach in Nangarhar province to two neighboring provinces where Afghan staffers have demonstrated new approaches to more than 7,000 farmers.
The work is part of a $33 million project to improve Afghanistan agriculture undertaken by a consortium of WSU and four other universities that operate in different regions of the nation.
Initially the work was funded through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which honored the universities with the Agriculture secretary’s Global Food Security award. Now, the consortium is backed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the work is scheduled to continue at least through 2017.
The project is a sliver of the more than $110 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars — flowing largely through the Defense Department and USAID — spent to rebuild Afghanistan since the 2001 fall of the Taliban.
The effort has ranged from erecting schools and clinics to training soldiers and introducing new crops to farmers.
Some of the biggest gains have been made in improving health and education. But some U.S. spending has been questioned by audits and other investigations detailing waste, incompetence and corruption.
In congressional testimony in March, John Sopko, special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, reported that his staff reviewed 45 Defense Department-funded construction projects worth $1.1 billon. It found 16 so poorly built that deficiencies “threatened the structural integrity of the buildings and the safety of their occupants.”
“We built too much, too fast, with too little oversight,” Sopko told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Obstacle to efforts
Agriculture programs, although a relatively small slice of the U.S. assistance, also have involved some dubious spending.
USAID bankrolled a $360 million project to provide wheat seed and fertilizer for more than 290,000 farmers. A 2010 agency audit found lists of “nonexistent beneficiaries” as well as other irregularities that suggested a “systemic problem with the distribution effort.”
That agency has headquarters within the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Kabul, with staff that cycle through on a yearly basis. Staff members can only venture out under heavy security, so it can be difficult for them to actually see the projects funded around the nation.
And auditors have noted that turnover among aid officials can sometimes be an obstacle to success. By the third year of one five-year project to persuade farmers to grow alternatives to poppies, they found the USAID staff in Kabul had gone through six agricultural directors while the contractor in charge of the project had wracked up five leadership changes.
“Each change brought a different vision with different priorities and a different operating style,” the auditors wrote.
In Jalalabad, capital of Nangarhar province, Badini cites another problem with the years of spending. When he first arrived, he found the money had created a sense of entitlement among some government agricultural staffers who seem to equate foreign aid with lucrative handouts.
Badini has tried to set a different tone, refusing to pay any state employee who fails to show up for his training sessions.
“We came in and said we’re not bringing money. What we bring is knowledge, and knowledge is power,” Badini said. “For some time, there was some fighting. But now people understand what we’re about, and I think there is change.”
Knowledge has been key to Badini’s own remarkable story. He spent his childhood on a subsistence farm in West Africa’s Burkina Faso, one of the poorest nations in the world with a per capita income close to that of Afghanistan. There, he helped herd his family’s goats and cows, and tended to fields of sorghum, millet and maize amid a deepening drought in the Sahel region.
His parents put a focus on education, and Badini as a teenager left his rural home to attend a French lycee, then a university in Ouagadougou, where he obtained an agricultural-engineering degree.
In 1991, while directing a farming research program in his home country, Badini received a scholarship to study in the Northwest, and by 1997 gained his doctorate in soil sciences at Washington State University.
The university is in the middle of the Palouse, a prime wheat-growing area where farms produce some of the highest yields in the world. Erosion is a key concern there, and Badini got involved as a graduate student in WSU efforts to reduce tillage and soil loss.
The university also, since 1954, has maintained an international focus, drawing nearly $200 million in grants over the years for overseas development work. Those programs enabled Badini to return to his homeland in the late 1990s.
For more than a decade, he shuttled back and forth between Pullman, where he and his wife raised their two children, and West Africa, where he worked to improve farming practices.
Then in 2011, Badini visited Afghanistan to conduct two weeks of training on soil sciences, and was impressed by the warmth of the people in a country that shared his Muslim faith. The next year, he shifted his focus as the university secured a new grant to improve farming in the eastern provinces.
“We got this project, and we were sitting around here at Pullman at the office saying. ‘Now we got to find somebody who wants to work in Jalalabad,’ ” said Chris Pannkuk, a WSU colleague who directs the Office of International Agricultural Research & Development.
“And Oumarou said, ‘I will try it out for a little while.’ ”
Immersed in nation
Now, Badini spends about 11 months of the year in Afghanistan, and divides his month off between West Africa, to visit with relatives, and Pullman, where his wife lives.
While in Jalalabad, Badini dons the traditional shalwar kameez worn by Afghan men that hangs loosely from his tall, thin frame as he check outs the crops in the renovated test plots.
Some of the field trials have demonstrated simple changes in techniques that can yield big results.
One plot, for example, featured corn grown in evenly spaced, raised rows, producing more than twice the yield of another plot that replicated the traditional Afghan practice of casting seeds out into flat fields.
Nearby, pits dug into the earth turn crop residues and weeds into an organic soil at much faster rates than traditional piles.
The Afghan extension agents learn by setting up and monitoring these plots. Then they head out into surrounding districts to share their knowledge with farmers who have dedicated part of their land as “field schools” to replicate the trials.
“The truth is that most of the people never really sat and caressed a plant leaf, looked at it and tried to understand what is going on,” Badini said. “Why is this color like this? Why is this type of insect crowding on those leaves? Why are these weeds here? So you start asking those questions.”
Wheat is a big focus, with Badini sharing conservation techniques that reduce tillage. But even as farmers embrace these techniques they are limited by a lack of small, specialized tractors that can plant the seeds without first plowing the fields.
The outreach also is limited by security concerns, with at least six of 22 districts in Nangarhar province now off-limits due to the Taliban and militants with the Islamic State group. And even in Jalalabad, the situation is more tense, so Badini limits his movements.
In the city, his home is a mansion with entryway pillars and marbled staircases built in the “poppy palace” style of architecture that got its name from drug barons who favor such construction.
With 13 bedrooms, there is plenty of space for other WSU staff members who sometimes come to assist him. His own room is just off the roof, where he maintains a kitchen garden that includes lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, strawberries and a menagerie of birds that offer some company.
But Badini doesn’t like being confined to quarters, no matter how upscale, and thrives on his trips to the fields.
In a telephone interview after his return to Afghanistan in May, Badini talked about a recent visit to an agricultural university where he had helped set up plots so that 75 students could run their own crop trials.
“This was the first time they had such field practice,” Badini said. “I’m very happy about this. These are the future extension workers.”