Changing the brain drain to the brain gain

Stephen Machado is creating a network of African-born scientists to help build capacity in African communities through research, extension, and teaching. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

Stephen Machado was born in Zimbabwe. As an associate professor of agronomy at Oregon State University, he helps Columbia Basin growers find new agricultural success in a land of very little rain.
Machado is one of thousands of African scientists working outside of Africa. Because of civil unrest, political dysfunction, or the economic collapse of their countries, these professionals have had to leave their homes to build their careers as scientists. They have become accomplished scientists, many like Machado, within the land-grant system of American universities. They represent immense intellectual and technical expertise in the U.S., but their exodus has resulted in a brain drain in Africa.

“We want to change that brain drain to a brain gain,” said Machado. “We have been sending money back home; now we want to send our brains and our technology.”

Machado has joined 17 other African-born scientists across the U.S. and Canada in an effort to bring scientific expertise and technology back to Africa. They are not waiting for African governments to organize themselves. Nor are they thinking that North American aid money is all it will take to make a difference in Africa.

Machado and his colleagues have formed the Association of African Agricultural Professionals in the Diaspora to help build capacity in their home countries. Diaspora refers to people who have dispersed beyond their homeland. With help from a $234,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Machado is helping to organize African-born scientists to bring research, education, and extension to their home countries.

“We are the sons and daughters of Africa and we can make a difference,” Machado said. “We want to help African farmers make a living, not just subsist on hand-outs. We want them to mill their flour, press their oil, add value and profit to the things they grow. But they need technology, business skills, access to solar energy and irrigation, lots of things that we know how to teach.

“We realize many groups are doing the same thing,” he said, “but we have roots in Africa. We can involve African people in their communities so they own the projects and will sustain them after we leave.”
Machado and his colleagues returned to Africa last year, recruiting collaborators among scientists throughout the continent. They found little governmental support for agricultural research. Basic food security and rural livelihoods in Africa have deteriorated over the past three decades, according to Machado, despite billions of dollars spent on agricultural programs. Most existing programs have been short-term and uncoordinated, run by outsiders with little understanding of local cultural and political realities.

“We can do better,” Machado said. His group is connecting African scientists in the U.S. and Canada with African scientists in Africa to help reverse the draining of human capital and strengthen professional expertise in African countries. So far they have recruited more than 1,300 scientists in and beyond Africa. Through this network, collaborations of credible, reputable experts can guide much more effective research, extension, and education in Africa. Their main objective is to improve the livelihoods of small-scale landholder farmers, 80 percent of whom are women.

Machado’s work in Oregon is well known and well-respected. At the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Station near Pendleton, he tests alternative crops for growers in this region of dryland agriculture. He has refined the idea of intercropping, where two or more crops share a field, the plants benefiting from each other in terms of natural fertility or weed suppression. And he works closely with the Columbia Basin’s growing number of organic farmers, testing plants with compounds that function as natural herbicides.
Machado sees opportunity in all his work, as well as similarities in the landscapes of his homeland and his adopted home in Oregon. Like the Columbia Basin, Africa is resource-rich. “The farmers of Africa could feed the world,” he said. “It is time to turn history around.”

~ Peg Herring

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