Return to Liberia

Years of civil war have left Liberia destitute and its infrastructure a shambles, but a URI alumnus has a plan to help his African country get back to health. And a number of his allies at URI are exploring ways to see his dream come true.

Neigon B. K. Togoan attended URI in the early 1980s, earned a B.S. in resource development with a major in animal science and technology. He went on to get his masters in clinical laboratory science at the University of Massachusetts and then landed an associate’s degree in marine carpentry from a community college.

Togoan was doing well with his education and training in the U.S. working for a couple of commercial laboratories. But then, in 2004, he decided his native country needed his help, and he hoped that his education and experience could make a difference.

A year earlier, things had started turning around in Liberia when U.N. troops helped bring peace to the country that was founded in 1847 in large part by the settlement of freed American slaves. Thousands of deaths and the wholesale destruction of the country’s infrastructure had taken place during years of civil war and military coups. When Togoan returned, not much was left of the country whose location and climate offer so much potential.

Togoan had returned to Liberia with URI’s blessing. Richard C. Rhodes III, who had Togoan in class and who is now associate dean of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, wrote: “In returning to Liberia, Mr. Togoan is committing a profound act of selflessness, an act that promotes ethical principles that are at the heart of humanity.”

In a letter of recommendation, Rhodes predicted that Togoan “would probably have greatest impact in the area of development of affordable food sources.” He was right. Togoan today is on the faculty in the College of Agriculture and Forestry at the University of Liberia.

But the university is a shambles. Togoan’s office (photo at right) looks like a cramped jail cell; the only furnishings are a small table and one chair. There is only one computer for the whole college—everyone has to share it and use passwords.

“We don’t have anything,” says Togoan. He went on to describe how the war resulted in wholesale looting. All the furnishings, all the laboratory equipment—anything of worth—were looted. Everywhere there is desolation—the railroads were destroyed, and there is no operating land-line telephone system.

Nevertheless, Togoan says “I am glad to be home to help with education in this war-torn country. I owe URI a thank you.”

Now Togoan has a plan. Despite the devastation, Liberia has valuable agricultural land and an abundance of highly prolific crops. “Avocadoes cost 10 cents here,” says Togoan.

One of the biggest potential staples for the diet there are Liberian indigenous chickens, which are valued for their meat and eggs. The problem, says Togoan, is that “our local farmers cannot afford to buy the expensive formulated commercial poultry feed from abroad.”

His idea is to use abundant local crops to create affordable poultry feeds. Among the local resources that could be used are sweet potatoes, peanuts, palm nuts, oranges, okra, watermelons, swamp corn, cassava vine, termites, worms, oysters, fish, rice dust, and even feathers—his list has some 65 items.

So the country has the raw materials available to make local feeds, but before that can be done, all of those 65 items on the list must be subjected to what is called “proximate analysis.” Proximate analysis is a series of tests that can determine the levels of moisture, crude protein, lipids (fats), and ash in a given sample. Once those results are obtained they can be combined with other data (vitamin and mineral content) to devise a feed mix. It doesn’t sound too difficult, and it isn’t—but the University of Liberia has no such test equipment.

So earlier this year, Togoan sent a letter to David Bengtson, chair of the URI Department of Fisheries, Animal & Veterinary Science. In the letter Togoan asked whether URI would offer the use of its proximate analysis equipment if he came over to do the testing himself. Because the situation involved a URI alumnus, Bengtson contacted the URI Alumni office and the ball started to roll in Kingston.

Before long, Associate Dean Rhodes was involved, and he remembered his former student well. “He was one of my first students and what he went though and what he told us says a lot about his character,” says Rhodes. “He was an amazing kid. I don’t forget students.”

Rhodes is now in a position of authority, and looking at Togoan’s shopping list, he says there is much URI can do to help him. “Getting the analysis done is no problem,” says Rhodes. “We can provide the space, access to equipment, training on the equipment, and consultation on the results.”

The next step—how to use the results to formulate the desired poultry feed— will be the most important phase, adds Rhodes. Bengtson agrees. There are computer programs available that will help them come up with a feed mix at the least possible cost—an important factor for Liberian farmers.

Bengtson looks at the Togoan request as a unique opportunity for URI.

“URI alumni would probably be amazed if they knew how many people around the world have received some training or degrees at URI. While many in the engineering and pharmacy graduate programs stay here to pursue lucrative careers, most of the fisheries and marine affairs people go back to their countries and have a real impact,” says Bengtson

Togoan says he would need about $50,000 to come to the U.S. to do the initial analysis of various crops and materials if the testing were done in a commercial lab. But with URI agreeing to let him do the testing free, his budget can be reduced by more than half. Other cost items such as housing and transportation while Togoan is at URI doing the testing, probably can be resolved too, says Rhodes.

Once the analyses are done at URI—perhaps this summer if Togoan can package the URI offers with agreements from his university and the Liberian government—Togoan and his colleagues will have a formal plan to bring the project to a conclusion.

To complete the whole project will cost perhaps 10 times more than the budget for the proximate analyses, and so they are looking for international aid and funds from the strapped Liberian government.

In February, President Bush visited Liberia and promised more aid. “President Bush promised us one million textbooks and chairs for 10,000 students. I was looking forward to laboratory equipment and staff development such as scholarships for further study for instructors and professors,” says Togoan.

“However we are thankful to God for what we got. Every bit counts.”

–By Rudi Hempe ’62