iAGRI’s First PhD Graduate – An Advocate for Soil

iAGRI’s First PhD Graduate – An Advocate for Soil

Thirteen years ago when he attained his degree in Agronomy, Boniface H J Massawe had no idea that he would one day become a scholar. He went job-hunting and ended up working in a number of projects that were soon to define his destiny of working in the academic world. Right now, Boniface is done counting the days left to hear his name called, walk down the ‘aisle’, and receive his Doctor of Philosophy diploma. He is now officially a Doctor.

“While receiving the PhD diploma, I was thinking of all the blessings that have brought me here… the scholarship I won, the exposure I had, the new experience I got, the education I gained, and all the new friends that I have made,” he says, adding: If it weren’t for iAGRI’s scholarship, I wouldn’t have got here so easily.”

Boniface is one of 135 Tanzanian students who have been awarded scholarships to pursue graduate studies in agriculture and related fields. 115 of them received scholarships to pursue Master’s degrees and 20 to pursue doctoral degrees. Boniface is among the 20. The scholarships are awarded by the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI), which is a Feed the Future project funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Some of the students receiving a scholarship to pursue Master degrees have already graduated. However, Boniface is the first PhD student under iAGRI to complete his studies and defend his doctoral dissertation. He graduated in August, 2015. His determination and hard work at the Ohio State University (OSU) have made it possible for him to graduate in three years, despite having received a scholarship for four years. Boniface is now back in Tanzania to make good use of his new knowledge. Right now, all he talks about is his love – Soil.

“Without soil there is no life. It is not water that keeps soil, but soil that keeps water. Among the roles soil has is to retain and purify water,” he says passionately. The enthusiastic young man did his PhD in Environment and Natural Resources, with specialization in Soil Sciences, and his research was focused on Digital Soil Mapping and GIS-Based Land Evaluation for Rice Sustainability in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania.

Boniface’s research represents a way to collect soil information that does not require spending much time in the field. It is based on the use of satellite information and its derivatives such as digital elevation models coupled with some field observations. He used Geographical Information System (GIS) tools to assess the suitability of land in the Kilombero Valley for rice production.

“I decided to do this research because so often farmers engage in agricultural activities without trying to find out beforehand if their efforts will be successful, especially in regards to the type of soil that is on their land,” he says. He explains that rice is the second most consumed staple food after maize in Tanzania, thus, it is an important cereal crop both for family consumption and for generating income through sale. He chose the Kilombero Valley because it is a large area that gets flooded during the rainy season, making it an area where you can only grow paddy rice. “Rice grown on the Kilombero Valley has the potential to feed the entire country if appropriate farming practices are followed. Thus, my research has made an important contribution to food security in Tanzania,” he elaborates.

Boniface also received a prestigious Borlaug fellowship to supplement funding from iAGRI for his field research. These fellowships are very prestigious and highly competitive. Through this grant he was able to incorporate the participation of scientists from the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, based in Nairobi, Kenya in his field study.

Luckily for Boniface, his research has yielded information about soils in the Kilombero Valley that were not previously available. Based on it, he produced a map showing levels of suitability in rice production in different areas of the Kilombero Valley. All that remains now is for Tanzanian decision-makers to utilize his findings in their future program planning for the Kilombero Valley.

Boniface is mindful that funding from the American people have enabled him to become a ‘Doctor.’ “Maybe I would have been able to pursue a PhD, but not in the United States, where I had all the necessary equipment and advisors available to me,” he points out, while mentioning his advisors Prof. Brian Slater from OSU, and Dr. Abel Kaaya from the Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA). Boniface will return to SUA as a lecturer. One thing for certain is that soil will always be close to his heart.