MGS Alumni Start Nonprofit to Train Youth Farmers in Ethiopia

McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies | January 23, 2013
MGS alumnus Sisay Zemedkun poses with Ethiopian youth farmers-in-training.

MGS alumnus Sisay Zemedkun poses with Ethiopian youth farmers-in-training.

Ethiopia is home to one of Africa’s largest youth populations. However, more than three quarters of Ethiopian youth have never been to school.  Therefore, many lack the skills to find promising work to create a secure financial future for themselves and their families.

Sisay Zemedkun, an Ethiopian native and UMass Boston alumnus who completed the master’s degree in international relations, knows this bleak reality in his homeland and wanted to find a way to help. According to Zemedkun, his research and graduate-level studies illustrated the extent to which illiteracy and poverty are among the great forces that limit the progress of humanity. “I learned from a policy and conceptual perspective what I knew from my own personal experience, that education is the key to science, innovation and sustainable development which, in turn, is necessary for both individual progress and community advancement.” He reached out to two McCormack Graduate School friends for assistance.

First, he looked to his classmate Tim Glynn-Burke, a research associate at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation whose work explores opportunities for innovation in transforming how communities address their toughest public problems. Glynn-Burke’s self-described “obsession with gardening” multiplied his enthusiasm for the project after Zemedkun—through many consultations with local officials in Addis Ababa—identified urban agriculture as a promising career track for youth.

Zemedkun and Glynn-Burke then turned to former McCormack Graduate School Assistant Dean Sandra Blanchette who had a reputation as “a friend to all McCormack Grad School students” – something she came to naturally as an alumna of the graduate program in public affairs from the policy school.  Blanchette, who went on to earn an EdD at UMass Boston as well, encouraged her future partners to think more deeply about the curriculum for the Ethiopian youth. Eventually, they combined their professional vocations and personal avocations in launching an urban training farm for disconnected youth.

Over the past three years, the three have joined a handful of others to form the nonprofit, Progress Educational Services International (PESI).  Zemedkun has made three separate trips to Addis Ababa to establish the organization. The group has begun fundraising, developed training materials and a curriculum on urban agriculture, and found local experts to teach urban agricultural techniques to the youth.

Although the fundraising remains a challenge, PESI is proud that the program got off the ground in fall 2012.  They successfully rented a compound in Addis Ababa which included classroom space and an open-air courtyard where the first cohort of 15 students could apply the lessons in a hands-on practice farm. Trainers from the local office of agriculture extension conducted weekend classes for the youth: sharing techniques on growing beans, cabbage, carrots, corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.

According to Glynn-Burke, “There are three tracks to our curriculum. We hope to teach unemployed 16-24 year olds basic skills in horticulture, mushroom cultivation, and raising poultry. In addition to the technical training, we plan to offer basic workplace skills—how to act professionally, how to find employment, etc. Third, we will teach lessons in entrepreneurship. We see the training as a foundation for a career in farming for some, and for others as a stepping stone to sustainable employment in any field.”

Through a campaign on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo, the nonprofit aims to raise $4,325 by the end of January to fund the next round of training programs. Funds will be used for rent and maintenance of the facility, instructors, classroom materials, and materials for practical training including a new chicken coop. At the writing of this article, they were almost 40% to their target. 

According to Dean Ira A. Jackson, “I’m so excited to learn about this international development project spearheaded by three MGS graduates. UMass Boston has a commitment to community engagement that reaches from the neighborhoods in Boston to communities in need across the world. At McCormack Graduate School, we try to build better policies and programs for the disadvantaged and this project promoting self-sufficiency and financial independence is a superb example of how our alumni are making a difference. I urge everyone in our community to take a look at their video, offer a word of encouragement or praise on their Facebook page, or make a contribution to Progress Educational Services International.”


Learn more about McCormack Grad School’s connection to Addis Ababa in this news story about a new university partnership for collaborative research and faculty and student exchange programs: "MGS Center for Governance and Sustainability Hosts Ethiopian Delegation"


Tags: addis ababa , alumni , ethiopia , international relations , progress educational services international , public affairs

Comment on this story

Comments (0)