2016 Trip to Ethiopia
After a semester-long preparation, the Coasts and Communities IGERT fellows visited Ethiopia from January 16 to 23, 2016. The trip was part of the course on Environmental Issues in the Horn of Africa. The visit reinforced the commitment of UMass Boston to its partnership with the Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre & Network (HoA-REC&N), Addis Ababa University, and several other institutional collaborators in Ethiopia. The goal of the trip was not only to immerse the fellows in the environmental challenges of the Horn of Africa, but also to present them with opportunities to discuss collaborative project ideas; identify areas, in which UMass Boston students can engage in research; and establish relationships.
For most of the fellows, this was their first visit to the continent, or even to a developing country. The rapid rate of development, infrastructure building, and transformation of a developing country impressed the fellows. During their meetings with specialists and researchers, they learned about the major environmental and economic challenges facing the region.
On Monday, January 18, the executive director of HoA-REC&N, Araya Asfaw, welcomed the group at the HoA-REC&N’s head office in Gulele Botanical Gardens. The office building, which was constructed with organic and recycled materials, is in the process of receiving the Platinum Level of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) award, an international certification system for green buildings. In one of the adobe and timber-built conference rooms, fellows met with environmental and political leaders. Attendees included representatives from the Ethiopian Chamber of Commerce, the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, the Institute of Biodiversity, the U.S. State Department, and the Climate Innovation Center. Throughout the day, fellows heard presentations on Ethiopia’s relationship to climate change, economic growth, biodiversity, sustainability, and food security. After the presentations, fellows met with presenters and attendees in breakout groups designed to connect the fellows with research opportunities in the Horn of Africa.
Later in the week, the fellows spent a day touring Addis Ababa University (AAU) and exploring potential collaborations with representatives from the College of Development Studies, College of Business and Economics, College of Natural Sciences, and various AAU centers: Center for Human Rights, Center for Population Studies, Center for Gender Studies, Center for Environment and Development, Center for Rural and Development, Center for Food Security, and Regional and Local Development Center. Admasu Tsegaye, president of Addis Ababa University, hosted the fellows for a lunch at one of the three 5-star hotels in the capital Addis Ababa.
Moreover, the fellows had the unique opportunity to travel to Lake Ziway in the Central Rift Valley. At Lake Ziway, the fellows engaged with HoA-REC&N's regional office, visited a new commercial compost site, Soil & More, attended a presentation from the Fisheries Research Institute, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, visited Castel Winery, and took a boat trip on the lake. The fellows attended a presentation by Sileshi Degefa and Osamu Saito of the United Nations University - Institute for Advanced Study of Sustainability on their project, “Food security impacts of industrial crop expansion in Sub-Sahara Africa in Ethiopia.”
The trip to Lake Ziway made the experience truly transdisciplinary and transformational – all were exposed to dynamics that are completely counterintuitive. An example is the flower industry. Dutch flower growers, who export to the European Union, have to comply with pesticide standards, which are stricter, compared to the standards followed by small farmers in the area. Soil and More, a composting company takes the green waste from the flowers, composts it, and sells it back to the flower growers as fertilizer. However, they cannot take the waste from the small fruit and vegetable farmers because they apply more pesticides. These examples show that big businesses are not necessarily “bad” when operating within the proper regulatory structure. Some of the fellows also visited iceaddis, a business incubator, started by young Ethiopian entrepreneurs to spark innovative ideas and help along their implementation in the Horn of Africa.
Before traveling to Ethiopia, many fellows felt their research was trivial, not conducive to applications elsewhere, i.e., other geographies or situations, but after conversations at HoA-REC&N and Addis Ababa University, they felt encouraged. Fellows were impressed by the demand-driven, transdisciplinary research. Besides the conversations with researchers, nonprofit representatives, government officials, economists, and specialists, fellows had the opportunity to see and experience firsthand the problems of rural Ethiopia on the trip to Lake Ziway. Traveling to Lake Ziway and meeting with representatives of international NGOs, who are working towards leaving a legacy of collaboration, sustainability, and transformation, exemplified the transdisciplinary nature of research, focused on solving problems in the local communities that have a global impact.
Fellows were excited about establishing relationships and possible collaborations, learning about broader regional perspectives, and learning from one another. They were impressed by the deep sense of commitment and purpose of the people we met with, as well as the demand-driven research, focused on improving Ethiopian society. All came back inspired and ready to further the collaboration. Check out pictures of the trip here.