College of Agricultural Sciences hosts Mandela Washington Fellow

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Aïssata Abdou Gado, a recipient of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, spent six weeks of professional development at Penn State's University Park campus in August and September. She worked with faculty and staff from across the College of Agricultural Sciences on issues related to food security, livestock and women's empowerment.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative, empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training and network opportunities. The Fellows, who are between the ages of 25 and 35, have established records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive change in their organizations, institutions, communities and countries. These young leaders represent the diversity of Africa, including equal numbers of women and men, individuals with disabilities, and people from both urban and rural areas.

Abdou Gado is part of a larger group of 1,000 Mandela Washington Fellows that were hosted at 38 academic and leadership institutes across the United States earlier in the summer. She was selected to participate in the track of public management. Before coming to Penn State, she spent six weeks with Fellows in the same track at the University of Maine at Orono.

In early August, these exceptional young leaders met in Washington, D.C., for a summit. After the summit, 100 who were selected competitively went on to spend six weeks in professional development training with U.S. nongovernmental organizations, private companies and government agencies.

Abdou Gado, an agricultural economist from Niger specializing in social and economic development, works for the office of the prime minister in the capital city of Niamey. In her role at the Public Policies Analysis and Government Action Assessment division, she assesses governmental policies and leads prospective research in agriculture and livestock production.

Her career experiences include working with funding issues pertaining to Niger's smallholder farming and food-security monitoring. She also has worked on competitive agricultural value chains analysis as national consultant for the World Bank in Niger.

Niger's economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, and in particular livestock production. Forty-one percent of the country's gross domestic product is derived from agriculture and livestock production, and up to 80 percent of its population is involved, in some capacity, with these industries. In August 2017, the U.S. Agency for International Development named Niger one of 12 countries in its Feed the Future program, the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative.

A healthy agricultural system is critical to confronting some of the biggest problems facing Niger, including food insecurity, border safety, and women's ability to participate in the agricultural industries, according to Abdou Gado.

“It is our responsibility as specialists working in agriculture to make sure that the sector fully plays its role as an engine of economic growth in Niger,” she said.

One of her primary efforts at Penn State was a collaboration with Sjoerd Duiker, associate professor of soil management and applied soil physics in the Department of Plant Science, and Janelle Larson, associate professor of agricultural economics in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

Abdou Gado helped Duiker and Larson to adapt a project they pioneered, focusing on livestock feed and women's empowerment in Kenya, to the culture and conditions of Niger. She also observed Duiker as he administered extension services and gave a presentation on her expertise on smallholder farming and assessing food insecurity in West Africa and sub-Saharan countries to a senior seminar class in international agriculture.

In addition to her position at the prime minister's office, Abdou Gado is involved in women's empowerment issues in Niger. She is a volunteer with ANNOURI, a nongovernmental organization that has focused on empowering women in the rural areas of Tessaoua and Mirriah since 2003. ANNOURI provides women with training, materials, startup capital and ongoing support to help them gain income and independence. Once these women begin to earn an income, they become more beneficial to their communities in other ways, Abdou Gado said.

"When we help women, it's actually more profitable, because they become involved in helping the children go to school, for example, buying books and papers," she elaborated. "We really want to make women more independent in the rural areas, although it is difficult because you do have the weight of culture there.

"Growing up, I spent many holidays traveling in rural areas, seeing how people suffer to produce in agriculture, how they suffer to get food, and how women work hard to support their family, and that motivates me to keep improving the women's condition. Being involved with ANNOURI is how I stay engaged with the issue and continue working closely with people."

At Penn State, Abdou Gado worked with Education Program Associate Patricia Neiner, who coordinates the Pennsylvania Women's Agricultural Network. Abdou Gado helped Neiner on a presentation intended to interest girls in agricultural careers, traveled to Pittsburgh to meet with a women's urban agriculture cooperative, visited with the Amish community, and shared her working experiences with many farmers in several locations throughout the state.

"When I came here, we had some goals we wanted to accomplish, but early on we had already done what we had on paper, and we are going even further," Abdou Gado said. "I'm really very satisfied with the commitment of the people I have worked with here. From Patricia, who helped me with a project I was thinking about developing on onion processing in Niger, to Janelle who took me to visit Philadelphia where I learned about the history of the creation of the United States. Everyone here has been kind and helpful, and I am very impressed and thankful for all of them. I hope that I can take these connections and projects and ideas back home with me to implement in Niger."

Penn State will continue to benefit from working with Abdou Gado and the Mandela Washington program. "We're very honored to have been selected as a host for a Mandela Fellow, and especially one with expertise in how agricultural development and gender can grow and shape a country and that country's people," said Deanna Behring, assistant dean and director of international programs for the College of Agricultural Sciences. "We hope having someone as passionate as Aïssata spend time with our equally passionate faculty is the start of longer-term development in these areas."

The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is a U.S. government program that is supported in its implementation by IREX. For more information about the Mandela Washington Fellowship, visit YALI.state.gov/Washington-fellowship.

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Last Updated September 15, 2017