Diaspora voices • Africa
November 21, 2022
Ayalew Kassahun on sharing his academic expertise in agri-business with Wollo University, Ethiopia

In September, we successfully completed the first phase of our DP4D action in Ethiopia, having learnt a lot about adapting to the changing realities of our beneficiary. Today, lead diaspora professional Ayalew Kassahun reflects on his journey in skills transfer schemes and how his contribution to the current action evolved in light of complex crises affecting the country.

The partnership action with the Wollo University in Ethiopia sees five Ethiopian diaspora professionals develop its first digital curriculum on agri-food business and innovation technology. The global Covid-19 pandemic and national crisis have tested the capacities of the university and put many initiatives on hold. In the face of all this, our team of diaspora professionals remain fully committed to offering post-crisis support and to tailoring said support to the current needs.

In the initial phase, the diaspora professionals helped the university to review its existing courses and to draft the content of the new curriculum. Reaching this milestone, we spoke to Ayalew Kassahun, who led the conceptualisation process. Ayalew is based in Netherlands. In this interview, he talks about his knowledge-transfer experience with the university and reflects on the Ethiopian diaspora’s potential to innovate the agri-food business sector through education.

Ayalew, you were born and raised in Dessie, where Wollo University (WU) is based. As a diaspora professional, with many years abroad, you have developed close ties with the WU, through previous projects and personal initiatives. What is your current relationship with the university and the city?

Ayalew: Currently, besides the action with EUDiF, I am a board member of the Wollo University Diaspora Advisory Group (WU-DAG), a non-profit registered in Arizona, USA. I travel to Dessie regularly to visit extended family and because Dessie and its surrounding area are pleasant places to visit. Dessie is a hilly, picturesque and cultural city, and with its 2,500m elevation, it has a pleasantly cool temperature of around 20°C during the day and is ideal for hiking. Every time I travel to Dessie, I enjoy hiking on its eastern hills where I can see Dessie in the valley to the west and Kombolcha to the southeast. Kombolcha is an industrial town where Kombolcha Institute of Technology (KIoT), part of Wollo University, is located. The main campus is located in Dessie. Both Dessie and Kombolcha were severely damaged during the recent conflict. I organised fellow diaspora compatriots to collect material and financial donations to help the resettlement and reconstruction effort.

Wollo University seems to be one of the most ambitious in the country in testing learning solutions around agriculture. You have been supporting these efforts for some time, starting with your first engagement in 2019 with the IOM initiative Connecting Diaspora for Development project. What was your role and what did you learn from that process?

My role in January 2019 was to share my academic expertise in the agriculture and food – the agri-food-sectors by developing curricula for short-term trainings in modern agricultural technologies, delivering a training in big data analytics, and organising a workshop on connectivity of rural areas. The CD4D program was comparable to the EUDiF program in terms of its objectives but the duration of the assignment was very brief, only two weeks. I realised that the request from KIoT was too ambitious and not necessarily in line, as I see it, with the needs of the agri-food businesses in the country. I made two major public presentations to the academic staff at both campuses of the university and highlighted the need for interdisciplinary and jobs-oriented curricula. I adapted my assignment in consultation with IOM and worked on a curriculum for job-oriented and IT-driven agri-food business development. To drive home that message, I sought the support of my Dutch connections to take some of the academic staff on a tour of three of the most modern Dutch agri-food businesses in Ethiopia. My two weeks assignment was too brief, but I learned a lot about the real needs of Wollo University.

You continued to be engaged with the university after the CD4D project, helping it to articulate the request for EUDiF support in 2021 resulting with our joint action. Why you engaged for this new assignment? What it is different from your previous experience?  

The CD4D project was an eye opener and clarified to me what impact I can make with the limited time I can make available for such an engagement. The following were some of the lessons I learned from my CD4D engagement. First, any such an assignment should be a result of a deliberation between the host institute and the diaspora expert in order to identify an intervention strategy that is effective and achievable. Second, curriculum development requires a long-term project. It requires not only developing the curriculum but also training the trainers and giving them enough time to internalize it. Finally, diaspora engagement benefits most when the diaspora experts work as a team. During my CD4D engagement I realized that I am just one of the many diaspora individuals who are trying to support Wollo University. A fellow diaspora expert from my university was part of the CD4D project and I met three other diaspora compatriots who were engaged with Wollo University. Our expertise was partly overlapping and partly complementary. Above all, our vision for Wollo University aligned well and we were able to present our common view to members of Wollo University.

When the first EUDiF call for requests for support from diaspora professionals was published, I felt that I was personally listened to. The call contained all the right elements, including digitalisation and distance learning, creation of curriculum, and entrepreneurship. These were elements that my fellow diaspora experts and I have considered essential for Wollo University. The lessons I learned from CD4D engagement, and the new and timely opportunity made it easy for me to develop a proposal together with fellow diaspora experts and members of Wollo University and submit it to EUDiF.

Shortly after our action started, in October 2021, the conflict in northern Ethiopia reached Dessie and the university was severely damaged. This put the implementation process on hold. How did you adapt to the situation?

The university was severely damaged, and it seemed that our project would not proceed. However, the academic staff of Wollo University, particularly our interlocutors, stayed resilient and kept in contact with us and expressed their commitment to the project. ICMPD explored various scenarios and proposed a creative solution to us of executing the project in two phases: to perform the activities that can be done remotely and online in a first phase, and to postpone on-site deployments to a second phase. A new plan was developed that made both phases self-contained with feasible and useful deliverables. This arrangement offered a solution to the problem that was created by the conflict, and at the same time gave us an opportunity to promote the results of the first phase beyond Wollo University. The first phase consisted of reviewing the existing agribusiness curriculum, developing three interrelated courses, and developing a roadmap for the sustainability of the project beyond the project’s lifetime. The first phase has now been successfully completed and three of us presented the results to Wollo and Bahir Dar University. I also had the opportunity to give a guest lecture to the academic staff of diverse African universities in an event organised by the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences in Germany. We are planning to start the second phase before the end of 2022.

The main objective of this action is to co-create an online learning system at the university. What comes next and how do you intend to make the results effective and sustainable?

Our next step is the execution of the second phase of the project. The second phase consists of three sets of activities: deploying a modern online learning management system at Wollo University and training the ICT and the academic staff on its use; delivering the courses to the academic staff of the University (training the trainers) and graduate students; and holding an evaluation and roadmap workshop.

Deploying any online learning management system at a university is a major undertaking; it requires deploying and configuring the system, creating suitable digital learning materials for online delivery, demonstrating its use to the academic staff and encouraging them to adopt it, as well as managing the users of the system. In order to make the system effective, we will deploy the system in collaboration with the ICT staff of the university and use it to support the delivery of the courses we prepared in the first phase. We will thus be the first users of the system to deliver courses to our trainees, who will largely be members of the academic staff of Wollo University. As such, the academic staff will have a first-hand experience on how their students will experience the utility of an online learning management system.

Thank you, Ayalew, for sharing your experience so far. We look forward to hearing how the second phase goes.

For full details of the Wollo University action that Ayalew is a part of, see our DP4D action infosheet:

Dr. ir. Ayalew Kassahun is an assistant professor at the Information Technology Group (INF) of Wageningen University. He did his PhD on Knowledge Systems, primarily focusing on the alignment of business processes and IT in agri-food supply chains. His research topics are related to information systems for sustainable and inclusive agri-food supply chains. He teaches data, IT, and supply-chain-related courses and has supervised several students on various agri-food research topics, including management information systems, e-commerce, business processes, circular economy, sustainable and equitable value chains, and machine learning. He has published several scientific articles on diverse research topics.

Connect with Ayalew on LinkedIn, and read his insights on the rise of Africa’s human capital driven by the diaspora here.

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