How a Journey to Africa Shaped One Man’s View of Modern Agriculture
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Scott Coldagelli, a member of Bayer’s Commercial Excellence Leadership Program (CELP), was fresh out of college when he moved to West Africa for a three-year stint in the Peace Corps. It’s a journey that changed his life and led him to his wife and career in agriculture.
As he shares how agriculture inspired him and how he believes it can change the world, I also can’t help but be inspired too.
“A lot of millennials, like me, have an interest in meaningful work, trying to do something that they can get behind from a mission standpoint.”
Scott’s Journey Begins
Scott Coldagelli was born and raised in Dekalb, Illinois, in the heart of an agricultural area that might have prepared him well for dolling out farming advice in Africa, but his only brush with agriculture was a corn field that was planted adjacent to his back yard.
The Gambia is the smallest country on mainland Africa. It is surrounded on three sides by the country of Senegal, with a short strip of its coast along the Atlantic Ocean.
Scott attended college at Illinois State University and studied Construction Management and Business. He planned to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and one day open his own homebuilding company; however, when he graduated in 2008, the home market was not in the best shape. When an opening came up with the Peace Corps in Africa, he decided to take it. His destination was a small village in The Gambia, where he began six weeks of intensive Peace Corps training. Once the six weeks of training were completed, Scott was taken to the village of Perai (pronounced Pur-eye), which had a population of approximately 250 people. Given his business background, he was classified as an “ag business volunteer.” He was stationed alone in a small village in West Africa, where the next closest Peace Corps volunteer was 40 miles away.
Innovations in Beekeeping
Using his college background in business, he decided to implement a business cycle that would be sustainable. “If we can set up projects that generate revenue, then when I leave, it’s not going to be like the rug was pulled out. So anything I did there, I tried to make it into a business so it would be able to sustain itself.”
One area that he worked to make into a sustainable business was beekeeping. Scott had learned the basics of beekeeping from his training at the start of his assignment, but beekeeping was very challenging in Africa. Hives were made out of grass or wood, both of which were susceptible to termite damage and bush fires. As a solution to this issue, Scott and the local beekeepers decided to innovate and make hives out the readily available concrete. The solution was not without its issues, the hives were heavy and the bees we not attracted to the smell. They finally found that a slurry made of cow manure and rubbed on the hives worked the best.
“So now we had these concrete hives; they were fire-resistant, and they were termite-resistant. You’d get them colonized, and you could hold the hive there for multiple years, and harvest honey two or three times during the year.”
Jalamang Touray, Scott, and Ebrima Kinteh proudly show their bee hive made out of concrete. "The process we went through (to create the bee hive innovation) was really empowering and spurred some critical thinking," Scott says.
Scott’s hope is that these beekeeping improvements have resulted in more sustainable businesses for the villagers. “You’re only there for two years, and that’s really a short amount of time when you’re trying to change behaviors and trying to see impacts,” he says. “The cool thing about the beekeeping businesses was that we came up with this new technology and were able to realize revenue and profits within 18 months.”
Farming Without Technology
Scott learned some important techniques for successful farming during his Peace Corps training, but implementing them in his village was difficult. He had to earn the respect and acquire acres of his own.
On his two-plus acre farm, Scott cultivated the land with a donkey and a simple follow-plow. He planted seeds by hand and harvested with a pocket knife. “We didn’t have any herbicides so you weeded the field by hand,” he says. “You had a little hoe, maybe six or eight inches, and you’d bend at the waist and go through and uproot and pull the weeds out. You had to do that two to three times during the season before the crop would get established. I was determined to have my field clean, because I wanted to save face, so I was out there from six in the morning until six at night for the better part of a month while the crop was getting established.”
He gained enough “credit” to get some farmers to begin listening to him. So he passed along some techniques like field rotation, intercropping to control weeds, and utilizing livestock manure as fertilizer. He was able to get four farmers interested in trying some of these methods by making a game out of it. Scott told them that “whoever comes in last has to buy a goat, and we’ll cook this awesome meal and we’ll celebrate.”
Women from a neighboring village use tools to break the ground, preparing for the first rains so they can plant.
The difficulty of farming in West Africa was very eye opening for Scott. “I didn’t fully realize it until I went through that season and weeded my field twice by hand,” he says. “I thought, I know they do it differently in the U.S., because you don’t see people out weeding the fields by hand. The gap in efficiencies was quite wide from Northern Illinois corn and soybean farming, which you could argue is some of the most efficient farming done in the world.”
Agriculture Can Change the World
Once his two-year commitment to the Peace Corps was fulfilled, Scott Coldagelli signed up for an additional year, teaming up with an NGO (non-governmental organization) on a project to keep some of the value in the cashew value chain within the sub-region of West Africa.
He explains that “these cashew farmers didn’t have vehicles, so the buyer would basically have somebody bring a truck and move up the countryside. He would lowball the growers, and the growers didn’t really have any other option because they didn’t have a vehicle to transport it.” Scott and his group worked with the growers to “educate them on the market prices and try to create a line of communication among these growers and have them stick to what the prices were.”
Scott and a colleague check a Gmelina tree for pests. The location is a nursery for a wood lot. Unfortunately, insects destroyed the nursery three days before they planned to transplant the trees.
Improving communication among growers in one area of West Africa, and some of the other projects of his three-year voyage, may not seem overly significant, but Scott believes that empowering people to live better lives can change the world.
Scott’s Future Plans
Scott began to date his wife Liz 5 months into the Peace Corps assignment, and together they decided extended their stay for another year. Once that was completed, they returned to the United States in February 2012, and were married just one month later.
Scott Coldagelli with his wife Liz and daughters Isla (left), one year old, and Norah (right), two years old.
The experience inspired his career choice in agriculture, and he hopes others will be inspired by hearing his story. “A lot of millennials, like me, have an interest in meaningful work, trying to do something that they can get behind from a mission standpoint,” he says.
“I think agriculture can be a really empowering avenue of work, and it’s a global marketplace. When I work for Bayer, I don’t think of my 10-year career horizon of just moving up in this building. I think of the horizontal moves I can make to different countries, to different parts of the world. That’s a pretty neat thing. The market’s always changing, with changes in commodity prices and the weather; it’s dynamic.”
“Also, I think we’re just on the cusp of what technology can do to revolutionize ag from a global perspective,” he continues. “You think about growers in places like Africa now having cell phones with Internet where they can track global commodity prices, and how empowering that is, versus before when they were kept in the dark and kind of at the mercy of that guy showing up with a truck. So I think the opportunity and the upside is pretty vast.”
As for the future, Scott and his wife hope one day to return to Africa to show their children the beautiful region, people and culture that they came to know. Scott would like to return to The Gambia or Senegal to set up operations on behalf of Bayer and help those places to become more efficient in agricultural production.