students outside talking with farmers

In January, a team of student recipients of UNH’s International Changemaker Grant traveled to Senegal to embark on a journey of high-impact learning in partnership with non-profit, Full Bucket Foundation. The team was advised by Dr. Iago Hale, Associate Professor and Program Coordinator, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, and Seth Wilner, a UNH Extension Agricultural Business Management Field Specialist. Wilner also joined the students on the trip – which proved to embody UNH’s living laboratory culture.

The impact for students, Wilner and Full Bucket Foundation was life changing. We caught up with Wilner to hear his perspective on the experience mentoring the group. Read the students' reflection blog here.

UNH Extension brings researched-based information and advice to those who need it in the state and beyond. Tell us about your role at Extension.
The major portion of my work in Extension in NH is in whole farm and succession planning. I help NH farmers improve their businesses, address profitability concerns, improve their management systems, and create business plans to help their farms evolve or pass to a new generation. 

Wilner talking with people on a Senegalese farm

Can you tell us about the experience of advising UNH students in this project?
My role was to help the students create a practical plan to assist a farm in Senegal to increase its profitability through scaling up its production, adding improved efficiencies, and examining its business performance. All of this was to work towards improving the lives of the kids who live and study on the associated religious school. As with most of these schools in Senegal, lack of sufficient finances requires these kids seek alms by begging in the streets. I was invited to assist in this project by the UNH students’ coach and mentor, Dr. Iago Hale. It’s hugely important to mention the support Dr. Hale played in helping this project form and take shape. He set the stage for the success of this project from a conceptual basis to its practical implementation. He set the tone for me as an advisor, and I used his guidance in my role as advisor throughout the project. 

The students were nothing short of a delight to work with. All of us, including members of the partnering non-profit, Full Bucket Foundation, formed a wonderful team. We co-learned, and co-lead and worked together seamlessly. It was so extraordinary that we likely will remain lifelong friends. The learning was deep and wide. We learned about Senegalese culture, a culture where people are so kind, generous, and seeking betterment for each other. We saw a lifestyle very different in many ways from our country, which always serves to open one’s mind. These differences had both positive and negative tones. We also experienced, “Senegal time” which is well, looser than U.S. time! 

people standing outside with goods on the ground

What were some of the key learnings from the project?
Our project involved technical assistance and networking. We provided technical assistance for the business and production aspects of two stores and the farm. I am not sure how much, if any, will be implemented, but our team deeply examined and explored and provided choices to the school, store and farm managers. We further helped by providing assets to the farm and school to improve the lives of the kids and increase the efficiency of chores on the farms. That part was very fulfilling. Working as a team we all learned about assessing a farm/business as we would here in the U.S. and assessing it within a very different culture and marketplace.

One of the major successes we had was networking the farm and school with local and regional resources. We had meetings with assistants to the Mayor and with federal government officials. Further, we connected the farm with the regional Extension Service. These networks and relationships we fostered will have a lasting impact. This was another key learning – the need to connect up the chain to optimize resources. Land tenure for example, is a key obstacle to sustaining a farm. Proof of land ownership is quite challenging and is a national issue people grapple with. To gain deeds, one has to go through several layers involving local and regional governmental entities. We helped connect the farm and school to several of these entities. It is a long process, which we helped get started.  

What do you see as the benefits of an international service trip like this?
The international setting served as the backdrop to catalyze these interactions. It simply would not have been the same if we went to some state in our country. Traveling abroad requires one to dig deep, be it patience for a very different system of timeliness, be it heat, be it attempting to prevent sickness from water or food, be it overcoming sicknesses. Tolerating and adapting to the significant differences builds self-confidence and skills in overcoming challenges that are unpredictable and that occur almost daily. 

The UNH students, Becaye, Djia, and Jesus, seemed to be as equally impacted. All three students live abroad, so they know of differences in cultures. Yet two of the students were able to see African/Senegalese culture, which expanded their horizons. All three also experienced working on a team of people who had varied skills, language abilities, personalities, and expertise. Yet the way we all worked together and complimented and accommodated and supported each other simply can’t be described in words, it was profound.

wilner talking with a student on the farm

What were some of your personal take-aways?
A key lesson I/we learned is shaping recommendations in a way that is appropriate to the different mindsets/egos/life perspectives of people in a very different culture/country. It’s one thing to notice ways to improve and a whole other thing to communicate this so it can be understood, accepted and implemented.

There is no question that international service experience is a life altering event. I changed my career path when I studied abroad to Kenya in my sophomore year. Thirty-five years later our whole group stays in touch, and we have reunions every five years where we come together in person. It is that powerful of an experience, it lives within one for their lives. 

I compliment the International Changemaker Grant program for selecting this project and the students who were awarded the grant. I also compliment UNH as their support was amazing. I cannot tell you how smooth and easy this whole thing was from start to finish in terms of the administration. I also can’t speak highly enough about the three students, their skills, attitudes, personalities and how all supported each other. I am nothing but grateful for this life experience. I do believe I will stay in touch with these students as they go on to do wonderful things in their lives and careers. 

Photo credit and thanks to bnstudios.