Extension meets 4-H’ers mastering the science, safety, business of food
“Fin!!” In red, the word closed a list of ingredients and instructions for making nectar from mangoes. Written in French across a pad of flip chart paper, the notes advised to add 100 grams of sugar per liter of pureed mango and variable values for citric acid. Steps of a sequence went down the side: “pesage” (weighing) à “triage” (sorting) à “lavage” (washing) à “épluchage” (peeling) à “dénoyautage” (coring) à “broyage” (mashing). Roanoke Extension agent Kim Butterfield scanned the pad and looked around the room as she left, following the 4-H’ers giving the tour.
At an agricultural technology high school in the Ziguinchor region of Senegal, two groups of sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders have formed 4-H clubs around agriculture and food preservation. In their school’s teaching kitchen, they’ve assembled a food processing operation that includes large equipment like a dryer and stove, detailed hygienic precautions to follow (visitors, including Butterfield, are required to put on white coats and facility shoes to take the tour), and a shelf-lined room for the finished product: pressure-canned vegetables and fruit juices and jams. In these rooms, the 4-H’ers learn about food science, safety, preservation, and entrepreneurship.
“These kids were just incredible,” said Butterfield. “Absolutely incredible. They were the most enterprising children I have ever met. And they received great leadership from their teachers.”
The tour was part of the late June travels of Butterfield and fellow Extension agent Susan Prillaman. Both agents are based in Southwest Virginia with specialties in family and consumer sciences, and they teach Roanoke and Bedford County communities about the same food-centric subjects around which the teaching kitchen revolves. The two visited Ziguinchor and Dakar to learn from local people about the food and farming context, and how communities work within it and against its challenges.
In conversations with educators, 4-H youth, and entrepreneurs at community organizations and schools, Butterfield and Prillaman shared their own ideas and lessons, informed by their local Extension work in food education.
Trips like Butterfield and Prillaman’s are a regular feature of Feed the Future Senegal Jeunesse en Agriculture (Youth in Agriculture), and they’re designed to be a genuine exchange of knowledge, with back-and-forth, probing questions, and chasing of additional resources for fuller answers. The five-year project, launched in 2018 by the Center for International Research, Education, and Development and funded by USAID, aims to foster learning around agriculture and food and empower local youth that may one day make a living in those systems.
Youth in Agriculture builds on the efforts of its eight-year predecessor, Education and Research in Agriculture, which worked to strengthen human and institutional capacity in Senegal through culturally sensitive engagement with farmers and food entrepreneurs. Youth in Agriculture narrows the focus to youth, aiming to increase youth engagement in Senegal’s economic growth as the country takes on issues like job and food insecurity and malnutrition. Applying the land-grant higher education model of knowledge-sharing, as practiced by Virginia Tech, the program works closely with agents and specialists from Virginia Cooperative Extension and 4-H.
“In both Senegal and the United States, we have cultural diversity around food and the need to tailor curricula to the lived realities of the young people in front of us,” said Thomas Archibald, an associate professor in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and principal investigator and director of the project. “As Extension agents, Kim and Susan work hard to look at lived realities and question their assumptions. The care they take in being culturally sensitive is a strong point.”
Youth in Agriculture uses “train the trainer” methodology to equip Senegalese primary school teachers, college professors, and other community educators – many already highly-skilled at grassroots work with youth – with a framework for organizing their efforts. 4-H provides that framework, as a positive youth development organization that places the focus of its curricula on experiential learning. Education and Research in Agriculture laid the groundwork for 4-H programming in Senegal by starting a national program within the university system in 2015.
“4-H youth may be learning better techniques for canning vegetables or making bread, but in doing that, they’ll also be learning STEM, and most importantly, life skills,” said Archibald. “We’re trying to represent and translate that into the Senegalese context.”
In Ziguinchor, Butterfield and Prillaman met 4-H youth in three phases of their education: fourth and fifth-graders at a primary school, secondary school students, and university students. The agents engaged the youngest students in hands-on food science activities using materials they bought at local stores or found in the school, to demo concepts like the chemistry behind rising bread and how emulsifiers work.
Though the baking of bread isn’t common within the home in Ziguinchor — ovens are hard to come by — bread in the form of French baguettes is a staple among local bakeries. To show the kids the science behind its making, Butterfield and Prillaman instructed students to fill a bottle with sugar, yeast, water, and wheat, and fill another with all but the wheat. They wrapped a balloon around the mouth of each bottle and watched them grow with gas. The agents, who have used the activity in their Virginia communities, encouraged guesses as to what was happening and confirmed them, explaining why one balloon grew bigger than the other (the yeast was able to feed on sugar and wheat in one bottle, and only on sugar in the other).
Bineta Guisse, Youth in Agriculture’s national director, accompanied the agents and helped with translation of French and Wolof, the local dialect. Watching the kids take in lessons like that of the bottles and balloons with many a “wow” firmed up her belief in experiential learning, she said, after growing up in a Senegalese education system that emphasized theory over practice.
“In a very quick time, the agents came up with such a great idea, a great way of teaching things,” said Guisse. “A very participatory, practical, and visible way. It’s not a lesson where you memorize and say things you don’t understand. They showed things I myself spent years in our schooling system to understand, and hardly. It was visible, and that was very amazing for me.”
Guisse received the same reaction from the primary school’s director as they watched students peer at the filling balloons and guess what was happening, then pull them off the bottles and play with them. “He came to me and said, ‘Bineta, this is the way to teach,'” she said. “‘You come to us. You find us here. The way these people were teaching the kids, you see how they were involved. Less than two hours, the kids learn for a lifetime.’ I thought, wow, that is gorgeous.”
Butterfield found that when she and Prillaman moved on to visit 4-H clubs at the agricultural technology high school, their roles were reversed. They listened more than they spoke. The 4-H’ers presented on recent projects, including the crops they grew in fields surrounding the school and their process for packaging and selling carrots, onions, papaya, mango, and other fruits and vegetables they processed and donating them, or selling them to family and friends.
“What was amazing about these kids was that nobody pushed them to do it,” said Butterfield when she saw the scale of the students’ operation. “They thought about how they could generate money for their club — one member’s grandmother keeps the lockbox with their money. They were super organized, and very serious about using their skills for their future.”
Guisse looks forward to more 4-H clubs like those in the Ziguinchor region of Senegal and more exchanges like Butterfield and Prillaman’s to expand their potential.
“There is a lot of hope behind the program,” said Guisse. “It’s not hope in terms of expecting money from a project. It’s expecting to bring the best to these kids, whether they are in primary school, in college, or they are the ones in villages who have not gone to school, but still want to do something in their lives. We bring them that. People enrolled in the 4-H clubs have literally changed their lives, in a short amount of time. That’s where we are. We are full of hope.”