University of Saskatchewan

September 21, 2014   

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Sheala Konecsni (middle, front) and fellow Term Abroad students and friends pose for a photograph at Ethiopia's Blue Nile Falls
September 11, 2006

Agricultural development project sparks trip to Ethiopia
Monday, September 11, 2006
(>Fifth in a Series)
By David Hutton
For The StarPhoenix

Touring the vast, rolling valleys of Ethiopia to study the soil and learn from local professors, selfproclaimed "soil nerd" Sheala Konecsni found herself enthralled by the beauty of the country.

"Soil in Saskatchewan is around 10,000 years old, but soil in Ethiopia is ancient and was formed by volcanoes, so it's mostly bright red with an ash layer," says Konecsni, an undergraduate student in environmental and soil sciences at the University of Saskatchewan. "It's beautiful and fascinating." Konecsni travelled to Ethiopia this summer with seven other agriculture and bioresource students as part of a month-long Term Abroad project on agricultural development in Third Word tropical countries, for which students received course credit.

"When most people think of Ethiopia, they think of the few news stories they've seen about droughts and starvation," she says. "This leads to a pretty skewed picture of the country. But it's very tropical with a rich history and culture." The tour consisted of a visit to Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa, an up-close look at the country's non-governmental organizations (NGOs), class sessions with top African professors and a research tour of Ethiopia's Rift Valley with master of science students from the Awassa college of agriculture.

"I like travelling and seeing different places, so this was a perfect opportunity to combine my love for travelling with my love for soil," says Konecsni.

This year's class consisted of six undergraduate soil science students and one soil microbiology graduate student, Morgan Jaster, who spent part of his time in Ethiopia collecting samples of soil enzymes to analyze the agricultural capabilities of the country's soil.

Their trip was part of a five-year Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)-funded project aimed at strengthening the Awassa college by introducing a graduate research program and helping Ethiopia establish more sustainable food production.

Deforestation, erosion and population density have caused major damage to Ethiopian soil, leaving the prospects for agriculture and better food production bleak.

The hope is that training more graduate students to do hands-on research on the soil and extending this knowledge to the farmers will help Ethiopia establish more sustainable food production.

The project is led by soil science Prof. Mike Grevers, who made his sixth visit to the country this summer and builds on previous work done by the U of S soil science department focused on dryland agriculture in the Great Rift Valley.

In only its second year, the program is already starting to make inroads. This summer, the Awassa college graduated its first four master's of science students. The end goal is for U of S professors to train and graduate 25 Awassa students by 2009.

"The funds to do research in Ethiopia are very minimal, so this money is really opening up doors for their agricultural program," says Grevers.

"We're really making a difference there. In Ethiopia, there's a chronic shortage of people who can teach at the university level. This has led them to have to recruit and import professors from India and other places. The more training we can provide, the better off the program will be." For Konescni, the highlight was visiting and learning about Ethiopia's NGOs.

"I want to work in international development," says Konecsni. "So visiting the NGOs and seeing how they work in a developing country was very interesting. Are they doing anything helpful? Are they doing what they set out to do?" Grevers hopes the experience the undergraduate students gained in Ethiopia will push some of them to pursue career opportunities at an international level through graduate research. Already, several students from the first class trip in 2004 have gone on to do graduate research with the program.

This year's students are responsible for written and oral reports on their experience in Ethiopia.

They will also present talks about their experiences on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. in the college of agriculture, Room 2E25. The presentation is open to the public.

"The biggest thing," says Grevers, "is to widen the horizons of students from both countries."

(This article is part of a partnership initiative between The StarPhoenix and University of Saskatchewan Research Communications Office to highlight the work of student researchers and showcase the efforts of student writers and photographers.)

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