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U of M, Morocco renewing connections forged in Minnesota Project

sadiki in office
Courtesy of Mohammed Sadiki
Mohammed Sadiki, secretary general of Morocco’s
Ministry of Agriculture and Maritime Fishing

RABAT, Morocco — The University of Minnesota produced pioneering agronomist Norman Borlaug, Medtronic founder Earl Bakken, journalist David Carr, astronaut Deke Slayton – and Mohammed Sadiki, secretary general of Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture and Maritime Fishing.

Sadiki is one of hundreds of students trained under a 20-year partnership between university agronomists and Morocco in the 1970s through 1990s. Now plans are in the works to revive the program and plant a new generation of U of M-trained farming experts in this North African country.

Sadiki credits the University of Minnesota for much of his success as a scientist, professor and now second-in-command at the ministry. Many other high-profile Moroccan agronomists can claim the same. Nearly all of the professors at the Hassan II Agronomy and Veterinary Institute (IAV) – Morocco’s agricultural university – were educated through the partnership with the U of M, which grew out of early cooperation with a Belgian agronomist working at IAV who spent a sabbatical studying soil science in Minnesota. The program brought young, bright Moroccans to the United States to study agriculture and then return to their home country to apply their knowledge.

“My experience in Minnesota, it’s every day in my memory, every day present,” Sadiki says from his spacious office in Rabat’s administrative district.

Sought rural-development solutions

Known as the Minnesota Project, the program granted 132 doctorates and 250 master’s degrees to Moroccan students who studied at the University of Minnesota or at one of 29 other universities throughout the United States. The idea was to train Moroccan agronomists to solve rural development issues using scientific research.

For Sadiki, this meant experimenting with fava beans – a staple crop in Morocco. “The research was about using legumes in rotation with cereals to enrich the soil,” he says.

Funding came from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). By the time Sadiki arrived in the Twin Cities in 1986, USAID had committed $28.5 million to the project and renewed the five-year contract several times. 

In the end, more than 350 Moroccans went through the program. Chosen in part for their intellectual curiosity and commitment to solving Morocco’s agricultural problems, they went on to be leaders in research, enterprise, government and education.

Kent Crookston, a former professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, spent two years in Rabat coordinating the program in the 1980s. He noted the potential for U of M agronomists to use lessons learned in Morocco in the United States.

'Almost like another California'

Agriculturally, Morocco and parts of the U.S. have many similarities. “(Morocco) is almost like another California,” says Crookston. “It just happens to be on the Sahara instead of the rest of the United States. With so much agricultural potential and bright researchers in Morocco, he says it made sense to develop a partnership between the two institutions.

His first advisee, Said Ouattar, became a researcher at the International Foundation for Sciences in Sweden and later a deputy chief for a USAID water management project in Morocco.

Currently a professor at the Hassan II Agronomy and Veterinary Institute, Ouattar says the Minnesota Project did more than develop technical and professional skills. It also increased cross-cultural understanding.

“Making U.S. friends and sharing human experiences helps both sides keep an open mind and avoid stereotypes,” he says. It is his belief that such an exchange “promotes tolerance and advances cooperation, international peace and human development.”

Home stays helped

During his time here, Ouattar lived in Minneapolis with Louis Robards, who had hosted other Minnesota Project students as well. Home stays helped participants learn about American culture and practice their English.

man by sign
Courtesy of Mohammed Sadiki
Sadiki at the U

“It’s exactly what the world needs, an opportunity for people of different cultures to live together and realize that we’re all just human beings,” says Louis Robards, a lawyer, who got involved in the program when he read a newspaper article about homestay opportunities at the U of M. Two years ago, Robards and his son visited Morocco and met with Ouattar and other Minnesota Project graduates.

Sadiki, 54, who grew up helping his father tend orange trees in northern Morocco, says maneuvering Minnesota’s icy sidewalks was an unexpected challenge. “I’ll never forget that,” he adds, tapping the front tooth he broke in a fall during his first winter in Minnesota.

His home stay parents were the late Robert and Florence Carr of Roseville. At the time, he struggled with English. When he met Florence, Sadiki recalls, she asked him whether he was married.

“I heard, ‘Are you worried?’ and I said ‘sometimes.’ ” They quickly sorted out the miscommunication, however, and became very good friends. The Carrs, too, visited Morocco and spent time with Sadiki.

Revival of exchanges

Now, 20 years since the last Minnesota Project students completed their studies, work has begun to revive the cultural and academic exchange between the University of Minnesota and Morocco’s Hassan II Agronomy and Veterinary Institute. A memorandum of understanding between the two institutions was signed in 2010, and a study-abroad program for University of Minnesota and IAV students is slated to launch in 2014.

“We owe it to each other to develop a partnership that is truly based on peers working together,” says Pedro Bidegaray, Director of International Programs at the University of Minnesota’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources.

men in field photo
Courtesy of Mohammed Sadiki
The alfalfa research team Sadiki worked with as a PhD student from 1986-1990.

The University of Minnesota also plans to train Moroccan extension-service officers to help farmers – many of whom remain subsistence farmers – use lessons learned from scientific research to improve their agricultural practices.

The latest evidence of the renewed Minnesota-Moroccan connection occurred just last April when Richard Senese, senior associate dean of extension at the U of M, traveled to Rabat to attend Morocco’s International Agriculture Show and discuss the frameworks of the extension project – a partnership between the Ministry of Agriculture and U of M Extension.

“I think this trip really represents trying to develop institutional relationships that build up the personal and collegial relationships that have been going on for decades,” Senese says.

Learning goes both ways

While U of M Extension will help Morocco more effectively apply lessons learned in the lab to the fields, Minnesotans can benefit from Morocco’s agricultural expertise as well, including the use of greenhouses to extend the growing season of fruits and vegetables.

“I see a lot of opportunities to learn from each other, and a lot of opportunities to see how culture plays a role in how we do our work in Minnesota and how they do their work in Morocco,” Senese says.

He credits Sadiki’s commitment to rural development and agriculture in Morocco to this ongoing partnership.

“It can’t be understated Dr. Sadiki’s role and persistence .. .that he has continued to nurture this relationship up to this point,” he says. “I see this as something that will continue long into the future.” Senese says.

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that is training the next generation of global journalists while producing important, untold stories via top-tier media outlets around the world. 

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