Umaru Sheriff brings agricultural and leadership training to the young Liberians who need it most.

Since more than a century ago in the U.S., 4-H has provided leadership training to nearly 6 million young people in every corner of the country. The H’s represent the movement’s four key development areas—head, heart, hands, and health.

But why stop in the U.S. when you can nurture these essential skills in developing countries, where they are even more sorely needed? Countries like Liberia, where Umaru Sheriff and nine other university students established a branch of 4-H in 2006. Now the national executive director of 4-H Liberia, a nonprofit organization that brings farming expertise and leadership skills to the country’s up-and-coming generation, Sheriff tends to a hearty crop of future farmers intent on moving their region beyond subsistence farming. Sheriff himself is not a farmer, but that doesn’t stop him from spending every day planting the seeds for future agricultural success in Africa.

Good intentions

4-H Liberia got its start almost by accident. “I was about 25 at the time, and I was studying accounting at the University of Liberia. We wanted to start an organization that would teach young people about positive growth development,” says Sheriff. He and his fellow students came across 4-H online and identified with its vision and mission statement. They wrote to the U.S. headquarters asking if they could establish a branch in Liberia and got permission to do so in September 2006.

“4-H Liberia is a totally independent organization, so we operate quite differently to 4-H in America,” says the 37-year-old Sheriff. “The curriculum is similar in some cases, but agriculture in Liberia is very different from agriculture in the U.S. There, they have fancy machinery, different crops, and a totally different climate. So we’ve had to adapt and teach with what we have here.”

The students began by setting up three school clubs—a number that has since expanded to 80 thriving clubs with nearly 4,000 members in 6 of Liberia’s 15 counties. “Our members range from 13 to 25 years old, and 45 percent are female,” says Sheriff. This is an important statistic in Liberia and many other African countries, where women are often overlooked and undermined. In fact, gender education is one of 4-H Liberia’s main objectives; leadership roles should be available to, and attainable by, every member.

Rebranding rural life

While agriculture is just one of the concentrations of 4-H in the U.S., along with science, healthy living, and civic engagement, it takes center-stage in Liberia, where farming plays a much more prominent role. “Agriculture employs more than 80 percent of the people in Liberia, but it’s not on an industrial level,” says Sheriff. “Most farming is small-scale because we don’t have the equipment or the resources to do the bigger work. Some farmers do everything manually, and the produce they get isn’t enough to sustain them. Most farmers in Liberia are very poor.”

That’s why it is so important to develop the skills of the country’s future farmers. “We empower young people to reach their full potential in agricultural sustainability and essential life skills,” says Sheriff. “We teach them to be leaders in agriculture, and in any other field, using hands-on projects that currently focus on enterprise school gardening.”

As the leader of 4-H Liberia, Sheriff spends his days visiting school clubs, coordinating fieldworker training, networking with potential partners, raising vital funds, reading reports, and ensuring that all the information that is given to the students is in line with the organization’s mission. “We teach the children how to look at agriculture as a business,” he says. “In Liberia, people see agriculture as a peasant’s job. We want to erase this stereotype and show them that agriculture is not a poor person’s job. Agriculture is a business. It’s a career.”

Encouraging the youth to embark upon such a career won’t just benefit them as individuals. The country, and the continent as a whole, will reap rewards. While more than 32 percent of Africa’s gross domestic product already stems from agriculture, farming in Liberia still holds a great deal of potential for growth. With access to improved knowledge, tools, techniques, markets, and funding, who knows what could be achieved?

Organizations dedicated to boosting agricultural education—and the people who run them—play a vital role in Africa, where more than 60 percent of the population live in rural areas. Independent branches of 4-H have already sprung up in 15 countries across the continent, and that figure is growing every year.

This is especially important now, as Africa’s young people head to cities in ever-growing numbers. “The present decline in the number of young people in agriculture should be a matter of serious concern for the future of agriculture in Africa,” says Edward B. Perry, the director of agriculture extension services at Liberia’s Ministry of Agriculture. “Africa’s youth, who once were the backbone of many rural farming communities, no longer see agriculture as a viable source of livelihood.”

Assessing the impact

Most Liberian farmers don’t yet have access to the knowledge—let alone the resources—they need to improve their yields and change their lives. 4-H aims to address that by teaching the farmers’ children to do things differently. “You can’t do things the same way and expect a different result,” says Sheriff. “We teach the youth to think outside the box, and we encourage them to start focusing on agriculture as a viable business. For example, if you’re planning to plant eggplant, you need to consider whether it will be marketable within your community. In short, we teach our members how to start a small garden and then use business skills to grow it over a period of time.”

And it’s working—not just for the members but also for their families back home. “Students are taking the agricultural knowledge they have gained to their parents, where it’s doubling their yield,” says Sheriff. “Some of the kids who started with us are now in college, pursuing agricultural careers, medical careers, and other positions of leadership.”

Laying the groundwork for growth

While every child’s success is a personal triumph for Sheriff, his greatest hope is for Liberia to become agriculturally self-sufficient. “Most of the food we eat comes from other countries, and this needs to change,” he says. “We want to train young people in Liberia to demonstrate leadership and become leaders in all walks of life.”

While every child’s success is a personal triumph for Sheriff, his greatest hope is for Liberia to become agriculturally self-sufficient.

Sheriff also plans to establish the 4-H Mano River Network, a program that will expand and coordinate the organization’s future efforts not just in Liberia but in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast too. “4-H still needs to be established in the other three countries,” says Sheriff, “but this looks like it’s starting to happen. Each organization will ultimately work independently, but we will meet regularly to share business practices and challenges and to discuss how we can solve them. I’m hoping to set this up within the next three or four years.”

Sheriff is well-equipped to do so, having participated in the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2017, which accepted just 1,000 people out of more than 50,000 applicants. He spent over a month at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, where he gained useful skills that he’s now using to serve as a better leader at home. “Good leadership is identifying a problem and then working to solve it peacefully,” says Sheriff. “I have always been inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., who identified a problem in America—racial segregation—and used peaceful means to solve it.

“I believe that violence cannot solve a problem,” he adds. “Liberia is what we have, and young people need to find peaceful means to solve its problems. We have our strength in agriculture, and we can use that strength to find effective solutions that will allow our crops—and our country—to grow.”