Cultivating a Homegrown University

After struggling as a youth to plow straight furrows on his grandfather’s farm, Mekael Teshome now works across eight time zones to bring a new agricultural university to his home country of Ethiopia.

PITTSBURGH – “Train a farmer - feed a nation.” These six simple words serve as inspiration for Mekael Teshome, an economist who is helping to create a university to assist farmers halfway around the world in his native Ethiopia.

Since 2011, Teshome has researched and forecasted the U.S. economy for PNC. Since 2012, he has been a member of the North American Board for the Bethel Environmental and Agricultural University and Training Center (BEAUTC) in Ethiopia. The board’s goal is to open the facility by 2016 on 32 acres in Waliso, a central Ethiopian town, to educate farmers to practice sustainable farming and protect their crops.

“Over time, I learned how much agriculture requires a lot of hard work and love of what you’re doing. It’s an industry that benefits all people in the most essential way—we all need to eat.”

Neighboring farmers in Ethiopia are active in lobbying for land permits and will be involved in
the university's "participatory research" in 2016

Childhood Inspiration

Besides the board’s six-word motto, Teshome’s motivation for this project dates back to his childhood. Teshome grew up with his parents and three brothers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. As a cornerstone of the Ethiopian economy, agriculture blurred the line between rural and urban culture. Farming accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product and makes up 80 percent of the labor force.

Growing up, Teshome experienced this mix firsthand spending time on his grandfather’s small-scale farm where he grew vegetables and kept cows, goats, sheep and chickens. He also grew “teff” a cereal used in traditional Ethiopian bread called “injera” and a recently popular gluten-free “super food” in the United States.

“As much as I wanted to help, I turned out to be more of a productivity killer. I lacked powers of persuasion with oxen, meaning I couldn’t plow in a straight line if my life depended on it, and those rebellious sheep just wouldn’t go where I wanted. Everything on the farm was done as it was centuries ago—by human and animal power,” he said.

His grandfather provided enough food for the family and a little extra to sell and earned income in other ways, a practice typical of Ethiopian farmers. He also was a deacon at the local Orthodox Church and held local government roles.

The university is to be located on 32 acres of land in Waliso, Ethiopia

Education is Key

Teshome moved with his father to Columbus, Ohio in high school to focus on his education. In college he majored in political science at Taylor University in Upland, Ind., but his curiosity steered his master’s degree in a more “economical” direction.

“I studied political science in college, but I was fascinated by why some countries are rich and others are poor. This fueled my interest in economics, so I pursued my graduate degree at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and it ultimately influenced my decision to be on this board,” Teshome said.

Despite the predominantly rural society, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, ranked 14th in worldwide population. Combined with deforestation, climate change and water scarcity, crops and food security are threatened. Grocery stores cannot provide staple foods like grains, fruits and vegetables.

There is a need for robust sustainable agricultural systems as global population increases. Next time you take a bite out of that French fry, give a mental ‘thank you’ to the farmer who planted the potato seed and nurtured the bud to maturity.

Harvesting Passion

Farmers in his native country are not well-educated on how their services are affected by Ethiopia’s diverse eco-system. As a result, a group of agricultural scientists banded together to start a full-fledged university to provide agricultural research, education and services to local Ethiopian and other African farmers.

In late 2011, a college friend introduced Teshome to Dr. Warren Dick, an Ohio State agricultural scientist doing work in Ethiopia who was seeking help with the university. The BEAUTC board officially formed in 2012.

“We believe education is key for these Ethiopian farmers to understand and practice,” Teshome said. “Farmers are among the most passionate about their work and that love is infectious. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable and at peace outside in nature. Even my favorite color is green.”

Teshome is the youngest member and only economist on the North American board, comprised of ag scientists. Fluent in English and Amharic, he also is a liaison to the Ethiopian board, serves as their back-up treasurer and writes information for the website and social media.

How Do You Start a University?

The first step is to find the right location. BEAUTC’s board identified land outside Waliso, a town about two hours west of the capital city. It took about three years to secure land permits, and now the board is waiting for the rights to the property.

The next step will be to establish a training center staffed with a farm manager stationed in Waliso and a project manager based in the capital. A top priority is soil testing. As an experimental project, a dedicated testing center will be built so farmers’ personal crops will not be ruined.

“A big problem now is the farmers don’t know what’s in the soil,” Teshome said. “Testing will provide farmers with information, and the university can supply them with what they need.”

Local farmers are supportive and active in the process by lobbying for approvals and permits. In 2016 they will be part of “participatory research” with the scientists to create solutions for local problems.

Mekael Teshome (center) and Dr. Warren Dick (2nd from right) pictured with members of the
North American and Ethiopian boards

Back to His Home Roots

Teshome returned in 2012 and 2013 to Ethiopia to work on this project and see his parents and one brother who still live there.

He attends monthly video conference meetings of the board, but someone is always on site in Ethiopia. Teshome finds the hardest challenges are bureaucracy and cross-continental communication.

“Communication can be difficult. We’re working across eight time zones with people working full-time. Electricity and phone service is intermittent, and internet access is limited,” Teshome said.

Although a slow process, Teshome and the university board hope to start recruiting staff members by the end of 2015. Long-term, the board members want to be an international player in the agricultural industry.

I once heard a farmer tell me there is a solution to every problem. As people create their own problems, they can create solutions. This really struck a chord with me and has been an influence and inspiration to why I’m helping to create this university. 

Mekael Teshome is the only economist on
the BEAUTC board

Civilizations rise and fall on their ability to feed themselves. A strong, efficient agricultural system enables us to be healthy and productive.