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Sowing the Seeds for Sustainability

Eight USC Dornsife undergraduates have traveled to Ghana for five weeks of research aimed at helping rural farmers. Follow their research and read their impressions posted on their blog.

During a previous trip to Ghana, USC Dornsife alumna Elizabeth Barreras who founded Blue Kitabu mentors a student in Asebu. Photo by Alexander J. Rivest.
During a previous trip to Ghana, USC Dornsife alumna Elizabeth Barreras who founded Blue Kitabu mentors a student in Asebu. Photo by Alexander J. Rivest.

After earning her bachelor’s in international relations from USC Dornsife in 2007, Elizabeth Barreras kept in touch with her adviser and professor Steven Lamy.

Barreras went on to earn her master’s at the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of the University of London. While conducting her pre-medical studies at Harvard University, she co-founded Blue Kitabu, a nonprofit organization supporting education worldwide.

Kitabu means book in Swahili and the name, Blue Book, represents the blank notebooks with blue covers that college students use to answer examination questions.

When Lamy, vice dean for academic programs in USC Dornsife, learned of Blue Kitabu, a unique collaboration between professor and former student began. Lamy and Barreras have launched USC Dornsife’s inaugural Summer Research Fellowship to Ghana.

Under the auspices of USC Dornsife’s Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF), eight research fellows traveled to the central region of Ghana June 1. In West Africa, they are spending five weeks investigating the trip’s theme “Agriculture, Education and Sustainable Development” and conducting research primarily on sustainable fish farming in rural areas. The students are majoring in wide-ranging subjects, including comparative literature, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience, economics, environmental studies, and international relations.

“We seized on this opportunity to link our students with a very successful program that was started by one of our graduates,” Lamy said. “There’s so much negativity in this world and there are many fragile states in Africa, but the good news is that health care is improving and education options are increasing in places like Ghana. Our students have an opportunity to be part of the positive and really make a difference.”

Readers can follow the students’ research and activities in Ghana on their blog.

“Blue Kitabu believes that by providing schools and communities [in Third World countries] with viable business models, we can reduce or eliminate aid dependence,” said Barreras, who is accompanying students on the trip.

The research fellows and staff have brought to Ghana hundreds of agricultural-related books to the Asuansi Farm Institute, where they will help refurbish the institute’s dilapidated library. Many of Asuansi’s current books are out-of-date and unusable. Students and staff are donating books on topics such as beekeeping, livestock raising and organic farming alternatives.

The Asuansi Farm Institute, a lush residential school located on one square mile of farmland, is hosting the students. Established in 1959 as a joint project between the United States Agency for International Development and the Ghanaian government, Asuansi has more than 60 years experience providing comprehensive agricultural education to post-secondary school students. Asuansi will be the base in which USC Dornsife students experience rural Ghanaian life and conduct their research.

In their research, the undergraduates are conducting a needs assessment that will help determine how local farmers can build a demonstration farm. They are researching how monocultures — the agricultural practice of growing one single crop over a wide area — affect farmers in Ghana for better or worse.

Before departing from Los Angeles, each fellow with the help of a Blue Kitabu mentor developed a research topic relevant to agricultural, educational and/or sustainability development in Ghana. In Ghana, the students are continuing research in fields, libraries and classrooms, and are taking the initiative to seek out resources elsewhere to support their projects.

“Fellows are getting an intimate look at Africa's oldest independent country,” said Barreras, who often travels to Ghana, where Blue Kitabu is building a school among other projects. “They’re learning about its many cultures, meeting its people and exploring innovative solutions to the challenges they face.”