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Feature

Harouna Maiga

Harouna Maiga on the Crookston campus.

Home is where the farm is

U professor returns to teach his fellow Malians in the summer

By Pauline Oo

From M, spring 2008

Harouna Maiga was raised on a small farm in the West African nation of Mali. In 2006, he received the Distinguished Faculty Award from the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC). Luck, he says, played a big part in helping him make this journey of nearly 6,000 miles.

"Some young people in Mali have the money to come to the United States and study, but I didn't have money to do that," says Maiga, an associate professor of animal science. His fortune changed when his first employer out of college, the Mali Ministry of Livestock and Natural Resources, selected him for a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) scholarship.

If he had the choice, Maiga would have picked France or Canada because he didn't speak a lick of English (French is the official language of Mali). Instead, he was flown to Buffalo, New York, for one semester of English lessons before starting the graduate program in animal sciences at the University of Maine. "[Learning English] was really hard," recalls Maiga. "But I learned it, got my masters, and then went back home."

Every other year, for a month, he teaches students in Mali the skills for making a farm profitable.

Four years later, he was back in the States. This time to pursue a Ph.D. with his own hard-earned money.

Most of Maiga's trips home these days happen in the summer. Every other year, for a month, he teaches students in Mali the skills for making a farm profitable. The University of Bamako--the capital of Mali--sponsors the teaching trips with its Transfer of Knowledge through Expatriate Nationals (TOKTEN) program. Malians across the globe are invited to return short term to fill holes in teaching and research positions at various universities.

During a course, Maiga takes a group of college juniors and seniors to a farm, where they participate in its operations and get hands-on experience. "We look at cows, the finances, labor issues, and general management," he says. "And sometimes I include [lessons in] artificial insemination or animal breeding."

His undergraduate students in Mali tend to be older (late 20s-30s) and have work experience, along with a two-year associate degree. "So, the classes are highly interactive," says Maiga. "The Malian students really ask a lot of questions."

The program is a chance for Maiga, who's entering his eighth year at UMC, "to help the university of my home country." It is also an opportunity, he says, to take a trip down memory lane. The school he has been assigned to teach at is the Rural Polytechnic Institute for Training and Applied Research--his alma mater. Maiga received his bachelor of science in animal science there in 1979.

"I enjoy agriculture; it's a good area to be in," says Maiga. "When I finished my Ph.D., I was going to go back home and farm, but I didn't have the money to do it. So I decided to stay in the U.S. and work. I've always liked farm animals. I grew up with cows, and I fed baby calves--you get to like them because of this. Farming is just like that. ...I don't know how to explain it."

Farming is the backbone of Mali's economy. "We've got 80 percent farmers, people living in rural areas, and the main exports are cotton and livestock," says Maiga. By contrast, only two percent of the U.S. population are farmers.

"Farms in Mali are very small--average two to five acres--and there are very few large commercial farms of about 1,000 acres," explains Maiga. "In the U.S., small farms may vary from a few acres to 300 acres, and there are many mega farms--5,000 acres and larger.

"Many Malian farmers do not have a formal education or they did not go to school, so they farm the old ways. Many times they rely on rainfalls because they don't have the money or the capital to invest in an irrigation system. [Farmers] are really informed [in the United States]. They go to meetings, and many of them went to school; many even have Ph.D.s."

The majority of farmers in Mali, adds Maiga, are in the business to feed their families. U.S. farmers, on the other hand, are more market oriented. "They make sure they have the market first before they produce. Back home, many times the market is not there," he says. "Malians want to make money, too, but most farmers produce just for home consumption."

So, will Maiga ever realize his dream of owning and running a farm?

"I doubt it," he says. "I do not have and probably will not have the capital necessary to invest in farming. But I will be involved with farming the rest of my life... I really want to be more involved with international development. [Helping a country grow] is a very good and noble thing to do."