Farmers will be put first, assures USP Alafua Campus

The University of the South Pacific's Alafua Campus head of school Dr Siaka Diarra has met twice with farmers, and is formalising relationships with commercial farmers in order to support Samoa's agriculture sector development.

Dr Diarra, who is an Associate Professor of animal sciences, was appointed to the role in February. He said while it's been a challenging start, he is not scared of the tasks ahead.

Instead, he is full speed ahead in making positive changes to the way USP Alafua conducts itself, including downsizing the commercial egg production (education is not a profit-orientated venture, he said), and inserting agriculture students into commercial and smallholder farms for their 20 weeks of work experience, instead of the campus farm.

"I have always said a school of agriculture exists only where there are farmers. An agricultural scientist exists only scientists where there are agriculturalists – farmers," Dr Diarra said.

Having students work on real farms is a win on many levels. For students to experience a variety of farming techniques and environments will more greatly benefit them than the campus farm, Dr Diarra said.

His partnership with Charlie Ah Liki, for example, has seen several students work on the Ah Liki farm and gain experience there. Two of those students now work on that farm full-time.

"Those are things I want to see, because farmers need skilled labour, and we are the providers of skilled labour. But if we don't get close to farmers, that labour will be wasted," Dr Diarra said.

And with teachers working alongside farmers to help them mentor the students, the farmers will have a more direct line to the agriculture school where they can share their successes and challenges. 

This will ultimately lead to more practical of research being undertaken, informed by the real experiences of working farmers in Samoa.

"We want to draw farmers as nearer to us as possible.

"That way, we can make real impact - we can expose our students to real farming conditions, farmers will have skilled labour, and we will come to monitor our students and assist farmers on what needs to be done to improve their farm."

Dr Diarra has also instigated an advisory committee for the first time, where representatives of the agriculture industry will meet with USP regularly to help the school ensure it is teaching what Samoa needs students to be learning.

He has invited the Ministries of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF), Education Sports and Culture, Women, Community and Social Development, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the Samoa Farmers Association, and Women in Business Development Incorporated to begin the committee.

"We want direction, we need direction. And that's why I want to work with people who would direct us, who would guide us.

"Unless we are directed, we cannot achieve much."

Next week, Dr Diarra and his colleagues will sit down with MAF CEO Tilafono David Hunter and his team to nail down ways to collaborate, and enact a years-old memorandum of understanding between the school and the ministry that has never been applied, the professor said.

As a former senior lecturer in the School of Agriculture and Food Technology, and the Acting Head of School from 2006 to 2009, Tilafono is "the right person to help" connect the ministry and the school.

"He knows what we have, and what we can do from Alafua, and he knows better what farmers in Samoa need.

"MAF will give us everything, it is just a matter of us to get ready and get to work," Dr Diarra said.

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