Deep Roots: Iowa State’s Mpirigiti Rural Training Center Opens in Uganda

The 25-foot-tall tree was destined for the axe.

The tree was impeding construction of a new facility for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods (CSRL) in the Kamuli District of Uganda. It was growing too close to the spot where student housing would be built.

Local staff of the Iowa State University -Uganda Program, who work every day to carry out the center’s programs in the Kamuli District, lobbied to save the tree. Known in the local Lusoga language as “mpirigiti,” the native tree is highly prized for its healing and medicinal properties.

Guided by faculty and staff, a small but mighty group of service-learning students from Iowa State and Makerere University of Uganda and local staff dug out the tree. Together they lifted and carried it to a safer location on site where it was replanted.

Would the stressful transplant take? Odds for survival were unfavorable. But hopeful signs emerged: new shoots and leaves began to grow. The decision was made to name the new facility after the tree—Mpirigiti Rural Training Center.

“By naming the training center for this beloved tree, we show respect for the local culture and language and our local staff,” says David Acker, associate dean for academic and global programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who oversaw the training center’s planning and development.

“The story of the transplanted tree is a parable about respecting life, giving people a second chance and applying science to solve complex problems,” says Acker. “When Ugandans see and hear the name of the training center, it will convey the concepts of health and well-being—both high priorities for the work of the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods.”

The training center is the latest milestone in CSRL’s 14-year-old history. The center has impacted thousands of lives through programs made possible by private philanthropy—programs that help rural Ugandans gain skills in better farming practices, proper nutrition and sanitation and income-generating and entrepreneurial opportunities. It is a model for international university agricultural education programs and for inspiring students to address global hunger and poverty.

Last March, the Mpirigiti Rural Training Center opened with a ceremony featuring William Wilberforce Gabula Nadiope IV, the king of Busoga, a region that includes Kamuli. In July, the facility was officially dedicated with leaders and students from Iowa State and Makerere University and several donors.

“The Mpirigiti Rural Training Center epitomizes what can happen when donor support and Iowa State’s land-grant mission unite through a passionate, compassionate vision for change and progress,” said Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen at the dedication.

Nearly 100 donors made the $2.7 million facility possible, as well as support from Iowa State’s Senior Vice President and Provost’s Office. The center serves as an educational and training focal point for farmers, teachers, community leaders and students. It is helping the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods expand food and agricultural programs that serve local families, and provide more service-learning opportunities for Iowa State and African students.

The 22,000-square-foot training center sits on 13 acres that includes a main headquarters for the 20 Iowa State University-Uganda Program field staff. There also is a library, meeting spaces and a kitchen and dining area. There is a 48-bed student dormitory, rooms for visiting faculty and guests and demonstration areas for livestock and crop production, gardens and orchards, grain handling and agroforestry. A soccer field is a popular place open to community members and a basketball court is now under construction.

“The center is an important resource to our programs, Kamuli, the Busoga region and Uganda,” says Moureen Mbeiza, agronomy and land-use officer with the Iowa State University-Uganda Program. “This is the first place of its kind that will serve as a training area for our staff, students, community farmers and district and ministry officials. With this beautiful center, together we can achieve great things.”

Since 2006, more than 250 Iowa State and Makerere students have participated in service-learning at Kamuli. Over the years, students lived separately and in 11 scattered locations.

“Our dream to have all service-learners living together in one location is now a reality,” says Gail Nonnecke, associate director for education programs for the Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods. “This is a place for our students to learn, grow and develop. We have immense pride in our world-class programs in which students prepare to be future leaders and responsible citizens of the global community.”

Cody West (’18 biology), a service learner last summer says, “We have seen our impact to change mindsets and alter thinking. We have used this opportunity as service learners to empower young pupils to realize their potential and the opportunities that will be afforded to them through continued education and agriculture. We have shown them the value of investing in themselves.”

At the dedication, Gideon Nadiope, the national director of the Iowa State University-Uganda Program, led a round of applause for the mpirigiti tree and its many uses that make it special to Ugandans—medicine, forage, dyes, firewood, protein-rich leaves for livestock, environmental benefits and much more.

“We pray that we make our projects as useful as this tree,” said Nadiope.

The transplanted tree now has company. A young mpirigiti was planted near the main building to honor Acker’s tireless efforts and dedication in bringing the training center to completion.