Making a difference in Africa

05-28-2010

We learned with disappointment this week that U2 canceled the first part of its world tour, which would have brought the Irish rockers to Spartan Stadium June 30.

The concert would have coincided with an African health, hunger, and food summit we’d planned here to follow up the June G8 and G20 conferences on Africa being held in Canada. We’d also planned activities with student volunteers from the ONE Campaign, a grassroots Africa relief advocacy organization cofounded by U2 front man Bono. Those events, unfortunately, are postponed as well.

Bono’s recovery from emergency back surgery, of course, makes canceling the concert a prudent measure, so we wish him a speedy and complete recovery and hope to see the band here next year. I’m holding on to my ticket. Postponing our summit also makes sense due to schedule conflicts for several key attendees and the certainty now that Bono will not be able to make an appearance.

But the postponements certainly do not reflect any slackening in our own continuous focus on Africa. Perhaps no other region better reflects MSU’s application of its land-grant heritage of knowledge generation and service to modern needs in a flattening world––what I call the World Grant Ideal. Our Africa programs are global engagement in action.

Michigan State has been involved in Africa for generations, annually sending hundreds of faculty and students there for research, study, and outreach. Our partnerships strengthen institutions there through cultural studies, crop and wildlife research, and service in the areas of medicine, water resources, and food supply development, to name a few areas of activity.

We also have long been a place where African women and men come to complete their educations, to teach, or to pursue academic and scientific careers. During spring term we enrolled 141 students from sub-Saharan Africa. Our African Studies Center is a national—even global—resource, coordinating the offering of 30 African languages and 240 courses in African history, economics, culture, politics, and society.

Our involvement in Africa has made a real difference, and I’ll cite just one recent example. An article in a recent Harvard Business Review authored by Babson College management professor Daniel J. Isenberg pointed out that Rwanda has rocketed from 143rd to 67th on the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking. One subindex ranks Rwanda 11th for ease of opening a business, and per capita gross domestic product there has quadrupled since 1995.

Bear in mind that Rwanda was ripped apart by war and ethnic genocide not long ago, with 800,000 people slaughtered and two million made refugees in 1994. But allow me to quote Isenberg:

Promoting entrepreneurship has been a key plank of President Paul Kagame’s agenda for the nation. In 2001 he launched the Rwanda National Innovation and Competitiveness initiative, which, among other efforts, developed a “national coffee strategy” . . . A partnership among agricultural institutes in Rwanda, Michigan State University, and Texas A&M worked to connect local growers to U.S. and European specialty coffee buyers.

Two notable events happened in 2006: Starbucks gave Rwanda’s Blue Bourbon brand of coffee beans its Black Apron award and introduced it in its stores, and on a visit to the U.S. Kagame met with Costco’s CEO, Jim Sinegal, to promote Rwandan coffee. Costco would later become one of the two biggest buyers of Rwandan coffee, purchasing an estimated 25 percent of the country’s premium crop.

Dan Clay, director of MSU’s Institute of International Agriculture, founded our Partnerships to Enhance Agriculture in Rwanda through Linkages (PEARL) program in 2001. He gives due credit to President Kagame for his bold leadership of that country’s entrepreneurial drive. But as lead institution for the PEARL program and its work reviving Rwanda’s coffee industry, MSU can take satisfaction that Spartans truly have had a remarkable impact in that part of the world.

That’s the Spartan formula: can-do entrepreneurial spirit, cutting-edge knowledge, and boots on the ground––cocreating solutions to some of the world’s most daunting problems.

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