BIOFACH 2021 Alumni Special Project: ‘I benefited greatly’

Many Germany Alumni feel that the opportunity to visit Germany for two weeks to take part in professional training, attend an international trade fair and establish many interesting contacts is the perfect combination. This is also true for Professor Mazi Sanda from Cameroon, Professor Hafizur Rahman from Bangladesh and Laura Sofía Lastra Álvarez from Columbia, who successfully applied for the DAAD’s Alumni Special Project ‘BIOFACH 2021’ in late summer 2020.

However, planning soon had to be changed completely, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic: The world’s leading trade fair for organic food, BIOFACH 2021, was not held at the usual venue in Nuremberg but online. The further education courses held by the universities in Heidelberg and Kassel in the context of the Alumni Special Project were also moved online and held via the Alumniportal Deutschland website.

‘A very good alternative’

Bee keeping expert Mazi Sanda from Ngaoundéré University in Cameroon points out that a virtual seminar is not the same as classroom training: ‘If you can take part in person, there is livelier exchange and learning is more effective. It was still a very good alternative.’

In addition to the teaching content of the training course in ‘Sustainable Nutrition and Public Health’, Sanda found the new digital collaboration tools he was introduced to a great asset. These ranged from Mentimeter through to Speed Networking. ‘The online brainstorming tool Miro is amazing, I will use it in my own teaching from now on,’ he says.

Anna Munz from the Institute for Global Health in Heidelberg explains that the organisers also had to rethink their approach. She organised the virtual training course ‘Sustainable Nutrition and Public Health’: ‘We had to think about how we could adjust the structure to allow for the content to be taught as effectively as possible while also encouraging interaction among the alumni,’ she says. However, she believes that many of the participants seized the opportunity to benefit from the great diversity among participants: ‘Some participants are from the area of research and others have a business background. Everybody can learn a lot from each other in a mixed group like this.’

The DAAD funding programme ‘Alumni Special Projects’ is addressed at researchers and executives from the global south, who completed part of their academic training in Germany. Participants take part in a one-week training course about issues related to development, held at a German higher education institution, before attending an international trade fair or specialist conference together.

From nutrition through to communication technology

The issues addressed are based on the sustainability goals of the United Nations. The spectrum includes nutrition and medicine, as well as water management, renewable energies, climate protection and biodiversity, through to information and communication technologies. More than 2,800 alumni have taken place in the 67 special projects held since 2005. BIOFACH 2021 was the first of these projects to be held as a fully virtual format.

Arngard Leifert, Alumni Project Team Leader at the DAAD, points out that for the participants to obtain new skills, is not the only programme objective: ‘It is also important that new international specialist networks are formed.’ Alumni from related specialist areas meet at the training programmes. During the subsequent trade fairs or conferences they can establish contact with German companies, organisations and higher education institutions. ‘This means that the alumni’s connection to Germany is freshened up as well,’ says Leifert.

Mazi Sanda made various promising contacts through the virtual special project: In cooperation with other participants of the course, he is now considering possible approaches for a joint research project. At the virtual trade fair, he got in touch with organic farming experts from Italy, Morocco and Madagascar, who are working for various NGOs. He has since met them via Zoom, to explore options for a possible collaboration.

Benefited from the training course

The chemistry professor Hafizur Rahman from Independent University in Bangladesh believes that a virtual trade fair cannot replace an on-site event: ‘I attended BIOFACH before, back in 2016, and established a number of very useful contacts then. This did not work quite as well this time.’ After all, it is much easier to identify shared interests in a face to face conversation.

Rahman who specialises in the area of food monitoring, points out that he did benefit from the training course, nevertheless: ‘I found it particularly interesting that the course covered different subjects: public health, economics, agriculture and chemistry. Interdisciplinary research is essential in my field but still quite rare in Bangladesh.’

Germany Alumni from the business sphere

Alongside researchers from around the world, Germany Alumni from the business sphere also take part in the special projects. Laura Sofía Lastra Álvarez works for a fruit export company in Bogotá. She is currently testing innovative packaging for physalis fruit that is made of sugarcane-based paper. ‘Consumer demand for organic produce is increasing not only abroad but in Columbia, too,’ she explains. ‘This is why it is so important to adopt healthier, more environment-friendly farming methods and packaging.’

The young agricultural engineer attended the training course ‘Organic Farming in Developing Countries – Quality Throughout the Value Chain’ held by the University of Kassel as part of the special project. ‘It was really, really interesting and helped me to decide that I’d like to obtain my master's degree in Germany,’ she reports. There were also a number of discussions and live streams of the virtual BIOFACH trade fair that she found very worthwhile.

Networking through an ideas contest

‘However, it is much harder to start a conversation online. I attended some panel discussions where no questions were asked by the audience at all.’ She also missed the tactile experience: ‘It is a shame, of course, if you cannot smell, touch or taste the products!’

To promote networking beyond the end of the project, the DAAD is going to realise a ‘Crowd Innovation Challenge’ among the Germany Alumni. The concept of the campaign that starts in March 2021, is for alumni to develop ideas together that are related to realising the UN sustainability goal ‘Zero Hunger’. ‘We would also like to encourage participants of past Alumni Special Projects to join in,’ says Arngard Leifert.

A jury of alumni and representatives from higher education institutions and the DAAD will select the best idea in the end. Planning provides that start-up centres at the universities shall also be involved to promote further development and the realisation of the idea. Laura Sofía Lastra Álvarez would definitely like to take part: ‘I am looking forward to it!’

  • Prof. Dr. Mazi Sanda Prof. Dr. Mazi Sanda
  • Prof. Dr. Hafizur Rahman Prof. Dr. Hafizur Rahman
  • Laura Lastra Álvarez Laura Lastra Álvarez

The insect researcher Mazi Sanda specialises in bees: The entomologist holds an Associate Professorship at Ngaoundéré University in Cameroon and conducts research on the threatened habitats of bees and the significance of bee keeping to sustainable farming. In 2015, Mazi Sanda obtained his doctorate in the context of a binational programme with the University of Bremen that he closely cooperates with to this day. As a Humboldt scholarship holder, he conducted research at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg in 2019.

Photo: © private

Hafizur Rahman has been considering Germany his second home, since his time as a doctoral candidate at the University of Göttingen between 2004 and 2008. As a guest lecturer, he visited the universities of Cottbus-Senftenberg, Göttingen and Stuttgart-Hohenheim in recent years. The chemist and biotechnologist specialises in the area of ecotoxicology. Since 2012, he has been conducting research and teaching at the private Independent University in Dhaka, Bangladesh (IUB). His current research project is intended to contribute to a reduction of the amount of antibiotics and hormones used in fish farming in Bangladesh.

Photo: © private

Laura Lastra Álvarez has a keen interest in organic farming. Since early 2020, she has been working in the area of quality control for a fruit export company in Bogotá. Prior to this, she completed her bachelor’s degree course in agricultural engineering at the National University of Colombia. From 2018 to 2019,  Laura Lastra Álvarez studied at the Technical University of Munich and completed an internship with the farming machinery manufacturer Fendt in Marktoberdorf.

Photo: © TU Munich/private


Author: Miriam Hoffmeyer

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