Summary: Lilian Mpinga is an iAGRI-sponsored scholar who completed her master’s degree in horticulture sciences from the University of Florida in 2013. Lilian earned her bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Sokoine University of Agriculture in 2004 before being accepted to be one of six initial iAGRI cohorts in 2011. Lilian’s research involved tomato grafting, specifically investigating how well root stocks selected for their resistance to bacterial and fusarium wilt fared in Tanzania during the rainy season when such diseases are common. Lilian’s results were that grafted tomato varieties that were disease resistant increased yields during Tanzania’s rainy season.
Sponsor: iAGRI is funded by USAID within its Feed the Future initiative and implemented by the Ohio State University Consortium (Ohio State University – lead institution, Iowa State University, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University, University of Florida, and Virginia Tech). Primary institutional stakeholders in Tanzania are Sokoine University of Agriculture and the Tanzanian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security, and Cooperatives.
Reengineered: Grafting Tanzania’s Tomato of Tomorrow
In 2010, Lilian Mpinga, an Agricultural Officer employed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives in Dar es Salaam was finally in a position that suited her. She spent her days in fields advising farmers all over Tanzania, or in the office putting together reports and plans as well as providing agricultural advice to anybody that happened to stop by. Having just spent the previous four years working as a sales representative for a major telecommunications firm, where she felt underutilized and her agricultural knowledge diminishing by the day, the former horticultural sciences graduate from Sokoine University of Agriculture should have been very happy with her position.
Instead, whatever happiness she’d derived from finally getting a job in her field had worn off. Lilian found herself unsatisfied and unprepared for her duties, as if the four years in the private sector had robbed her of all the agricultural knowledge and expertise that she’d gained throughout her youth and college education.
“I felt like I was lagging behind,” claims Lilian. “I wanted to recover what I felt I lost during those years. That’s why I wanted to go back to school, in order to have more knowledge of agriculture and so that, in the future, I could be well equipped to handle all agricultural issues.”
For Lilian, the opportunity to advance her education and career came via an advertisement for iAGRI scholarships posted at the Ministry. Her decision to apply ultimately changed her life, sending Lilian to study at a leading research university in the United States and enabling her to implement research that might ultimately change the way Tanzania produces tomatoes.
Lilian was raised in the semi-arid central region of Tanzania, in the small village of Ndago in the Singida district. Like many other iAGRI scholars, her exposure to agriculture came early in life and remained a constant all the way through her undergraduate degree.
“The whole family used to farm together,” recalls Lilian, one of eight siblings born to a father who worked as a primary school teacher and a mother who worked as a housewife. “We grew maize, ground nuts, sunflowers and some cotton, all for family use.”
Lilian remembers that her father was largely absent due to his occupation but that her family remained close-knit and supportive of one another, thanks in large part to her mother.
“My father was away a lot,” says Lilian. In those days in Tanzania a primary school teacher had to transfer to another school each year, so we stayed with our mother. It was not difficult because I’m close to my mother and my brothers and sisters, I never felt alone.”
Agriculture and farming became a serious academic interest through secondary school, where by chance she happened to attend an agricultural school because it was the closest one to where she grew up.
“When I went to secondary school, it was an agricultural school,” recalls Lilian. “There we studied subjects that were purely agricultural. You don’t choose to go to a particular school, but the schools that you happen to live close to are devoted to particular subjects. Sometimes, you might be forced to do something, but as time goes by, you can develop an interest in it, like me. That’s why when I finished my secondary school, I went into horticulture for my first degree.”
Lilian earned that degree in 2004 from Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro and immediately began looking for a job in agriculture.
“My first job was a customer service representative at Vodacom Tanzania Limited, which is not related at all to agriculture,” says Lilian with a slightly embarrassed laugh. “I tried to find a job in an agricultural field, and I really needed a job but they were not employing much. I was having difficulties with my family, so I thought that I just needed a job and then eventually I would try to find one in my field.”
Lilian would spend four years working for Vodacom before eventually catching a break and finding employment within the agricultural sector. Lilian doesn’t regret the years as a customer service agent because it made her realize the extent to which her intelligence, knowledge and abilities were under-utilized, and it inspired a drive from within that would motivate her to return to agriculture and to seek further education.
“As I worked for Vodacom,” recalls Lilian, “I felt that there was something that I need to be doing apart from what I’m doing now because I’m underutilizing my knowledge. I decided I would find a way to get back to agriculture. Thank God that at that time, they (the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives) were hiring again.”
In 2009 Lilian took her position within the Ministry as an Agricultural Officer. For the next two years she carried out her duties traveling around the country to consult with farmers and teaching them how to better-prepare their crops or how to utilize fertilizers and pesticides.
Despite her growing experience, Lilian still wanted to regain the knowledge she felt she’d lost. So in 2011 she applied and was accepted to be part of the very first group of iAGRI-sponsored students.
One of the benefits of the iAGRI scholarship is that many of the accepted are given the opportunity to study at a leading research university in the United States or elsewhere abroad. Upon learning of her acceptance, Lilian, who was a widow at that point and was raising her 14-year-old, had to face the prospect of leaving him for two years, one in the U.S. plus one at Sokoine in Morogoro. It was a personal sacrifice but one that she made with the understanding that the decision was as much for him as it was for her.
“I told him that I was awarded this scholarship, that I would be away for a year but to know that I’m doing this for me and for him. He was happy for me,” says Lilian, recalling the conversation she had with her son.
For Lilian, her expertise and background happened to align with the horticulture program at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. Having only been abroad once before on a brief trip to India, Lilian was apprehensive about studying for a year in the United States.
“I knew that I was going to meet new people in a new culture,” says Lilian. “I knew I would be introduced to advanced technology. It was those things that made me feel a bit nervous.”
Lilian particularly remembers having at least one instance of culture shock shortly upon arrival.
“When we arrived at the place we would be living in Gainesville, we were staying with some American students at the same apartment,” recalls Lilian. “Here in Tanzania, when we meet someone, you must greet them, you absolutely must. In America, the students didn’t greet us when they saw us. It is very simple matter, but for us this is a very big custom. You would see your roommate in the morning and say ‘hello’ and you wouldn’t always get a response. We thought that maybe this was American culture and that we’d have to get used to this.”
It wasn’t long though before Lilian became better-accustomed to the language and cultural differences, and she was succeeding in the horticulture program, specifically in the science of tomato grafting, under the academic advisement of University of Florida Professor Carlene Chase.
“Carlene mentored me, molded me into who I am now,” claims Lilian. “She was able to make me feel like I would achieve my goals. She was there when I was having difficulty in other subjects. She was always there to make sure that I found a way to do well. I was able to graduate from Florida as an excellent student and researcher, and that was due to her academic advisement.”
In 2012, Lilian’s stint in Florida and the first half of her master’s degree were completed. It was time to conduct her tomato grafting research back in Tanzania in the hope that it would ultimately allow tomato farmers to consistently produce greater yields of disease- and pest-resistant tomato varieties.
“Grafting is a new technology,” says Lilian regarding the research she conducted back at Sokoine University. It is something that is not done much here in Tanzania, so I thought something new would be good. There are many potential benefits to the practice. Most farmers in Tanzania are small scale farmers, and they need a lot of inputs, especially pesticides, because we have a lot of instances of disease. Grafting with resistant varieties can allow you to overcome some of those diseases. So for me, it was something very interesting to bring to Tanzania so that I could help small scale farmers.”
The results of Lilian’s tomato grafting trials surprised her.
“I conducted the tests for two seasons, the dry season and the rainy season,” explains Lilian. “For the dry season, the results were unexpected. The non-grafted tomatoes actually did well in terms of quality and yield. During the rainy season the grafted tomatoes performed very well with increased yields and quality, which was expected. When you graft tomatoes, you have to select which root stock you want to use depending on your objectives. I chose those that were resistant to bacterial and fusarium wilt, which are diseases that affect the tomato during the rainy season. Farmers typically complain about those diseases during the rainy season and since I got good results at that time, I could recommend grafting during that season.”
With results in hand, Lilian still needed to publish and defend. Her local supervisor at Sokoine, Dr. Theodosy Msogoya, played a vital role in guiding and her preparations. “During discussion and academic writing, he helped a lot,” recalls Lilian. “The most important thing I gained from him was the experience of how to write a scholarly report.”
A year removed from completing her master’s degree at the University of Florida, Lilian is back in her office at the Ministry’s Horticulture Development Office which occupies a single-story building sandwiched between the two four-story 1960’s style structures that dominate the Ministry’s campus within a bustling industrial neighborhood of Dar es Salaam. It’s a tight space, with a clear glass divider that extends almost all the way to the ceiling and splits the room down the middle, and there are at least three desks crammed tightly in each side. Pushed up against the walls are bookcases containing four-inch thick binders, their spines displaying titles such as “Horticulture Investment 2005,” and “Horticulture Project Proposals 2003/2004.”
Although her title is unchanged, the knowledge and expertise Lilian gained while completing her degree have enabled her to pursue greater responsibilities and feel confident in the work she is doing.
“I still feel like I have to go further, maybe even pursue a PhD,” says Lilian. “What I have now, I know is still not enough. iAGRI has allowed me to realize my potential. Before the scholarship, I wasn’t aware that I could do anything in research. Through iAGRI, and what I’ve done with tomato grafting, I realize now that I can.”
If you would like additional information on Lilian Mpinga’s research or the opportunity to sponsor her research further, please contact us.
Select images and story by iAGRI photographer and writer Tyler Jones.