I was on a conference call yesterday sponsored by the NPCA and their new Africa Rural Connect (ARC) “experiment” which is, they write, a  ”global collaboration. We put our collective thoughts together to assemble the best business plan for agricultural development in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

This project — with website — is being paid for with a $400,000 grant from the Gates Foundation, and is managed for the NPCA by Molly Mattessich (Mali 2002–04) who also runs their website, PeaceCorpsConnect.

In on the conference call was RPCV Arlene Mitchell (Niger 1974–76) senior Program Officer in the Agricultural Development Market Access team in the Gates Foundation. She was, more or less, the ‘authority’ on the call.

Additionally, there were several other RPCVs on the one hour call who had real life farming experience in Africa, and are with NGOs that work daily with trying to grow food and find water in Africa.

The problem for me on yesterday’s conference call, and thinking about it today, is trying to figure out why the NPCA is involved with this “experiment in global collaboration” in the first place, given their limited staff and the purpose of our non-profit National Peace Corps Association. Isn’t the NPCA around to help RPCVs with finding work after the Peace Corps, getting funds for graduate school, dealing with health issues, readjusting to life again in America, and supporting the Peace Corps itself by lobbying for its growth, i.e. the recent MorePeaceCorps?

Worthy as this Africa Rural Connect effort might be, when Molly, who is very nice woman, emails me a sentence that reads: “We will be leveraging our Peace Corps contacts to get them and the Diaspora involved in the website.” I ask, what contacts? What leverage?

The vast majority of  RPCVs know very little about farming in Africa. My guess is that less than 10% of the PCVs in Africa worked in agriculture. The majority of them have little to no experience in farming before going to Africa (I speak as someone who grew up on a Midwest farm), and when these Volunteers come home to the U.S. they do not study agriculture or go into farming.

And to prove my point, the nicely designed website AfricaRuralConnect (much better designed, by the way, than PeaceCorpsConnect) has a contest where your good ideas for African farmers can earn you prize money. However, the four judges selected by the NPCA to ’judge’ the good ideas have little to no experience with farming in Africa.

  • Carol Bellamy is from a city in New Jersey and was a PCV in health in Guatemala. She is now president of a college, not a farmer. Before that, Carol lived in Brooklyn! No urban farming there I can assure you.
  • Wilbur James is with a venture capital firm and involved with the African Wildlife Foundation (by the way, AWF is always fighting with farmers in Africa because farmers kill wild animals who attack their livestock and crops). At least Wilbur was a PCV in Kenya.
  • Angelique Kidjo, West African singer/songwriter and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador, is the founder of the Batonga Foundation. Born in Benin, Angelique relocated to  Paris in 1983, and now lives in New York City; her foundation is involved with helping young girls.
  • Bruce McNamer, is the CEO of TechnoServe, a fine NGO whose “programs focus on developing entrepreneurs, building businesses and industries, and improving the business environment” was a Volunteer — in Paraguay.

My point — and I do have one — is that if the organization is going to involve the NPCA with agriculture in Africa, then shouldn’t the first step be to get RPCV judges who had agriculture experience in Africa, both in terms of degrees and experience, and not have a grab-bag of individuals who have only a passing knowledge of what is happening on the farms of rural Africa?

Some of the RPCVs on the conference call yesterday  had more knowledge of agriculture in Africa (and are directly involved with the issues facing the farmers on the continent) than these four judges, nice and good people as they might be.

If the NPCA wants to be taken seriously — and if they can give a good reason why they are involved in this project in the first place since it  has nothing to do with helping RPCVs — then they really should put forth our best ag RPCVs.  I suggest that Molly and the RPCVs running ARC go up to Cornell University on any evening and hang out at the bar just off campus where the RPCVs getting their advanced degrees in agriculture hang out in their informal Camel Marketplace Club and they’ll learn more about the problems in rural Africa and how to solve them in a half hour than they will in any hour long conference call with strangers on the telephone.