Gates grant to extend reach of ag journals in Africa

A decade ago, a fledgling program in the basement of Cornell's Albert R. Mann Library shipped a set of agricultural journals to the University of Zimbabwe. It included 172 CDs, weighed 50 pounds and cost about $800 to ship.

That was the opening act for TEEAL, The Essential Electronic Agricultural Library. Now, with some 200 sets in almost 70 countries -- and its materials streamlined to a single 500G hard drive in one small box -- the Mann Library program will further extend its reach, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, with a new three-year, $1.8 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Currently, only 38 institutions of about 365 eligible universities and agricultural colleges in sub-Saharan Africa own TEEAL. The project's goal is to boost that number to about 115 institutions in 14 countries.

By providing access to more than 140 key agricultural journals, library staff members hope that the expansion will strengthen agriculture research and education in sub-Saharan Africa, where Internet service is very limited. That makes it difficult for researchers to connect with the international research community and contribute to scientific innovation. The TEEAL digital library operates offline, however, allowing scholars at African universities to use academic journals via an external hard drive.

"Our goal has always been to get TEEAL to as many developing world researchers as possible, and this grant allows us to scale up our distribution significantly," said Mary Ochs, director of Mann Library.

The grant also will reduce the cost of TEEAL by 50 percent, making the program more affordable not only in Africa, but throughout the developing world. TEEAL's staff will assist with installation; train students, librarians and faculty; act as liaisons with publishers; and promote the program among institutional leaders, librarians and collaborative organizations.

Ochs said TEEAL has become one of the most used electronic resources by African agricultural researchers at institutions where it is available, significantly improving the speed and quality of research. By boosting TEEAL's reach, more researchers will be able to access, localize and disseminate relevant knowledge to farmers within their communities, she added.

"TEEAL is a bridge to learning and teaching," said Anne R. Kenney, the Carl A. Kroch University Librarian. "It's a permanent asset for a library's collection that supports high-quality research in otherwise challenging research environments."

Even though Internet access is rapidly expanding in Africa, the digital divide is "still huge," said Bob Herdt, who was director of agricultural sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation when TEEAL was pioneered.

"It is hard for us who have instant access to the Internet to believe how important TEEAL is in sub-Sahara Africa. There, only 5 percent of people have access to the Internet and of those, only 10 percent have broadband -- the rest only have dial-up," Herdt said. "TEEAL will be a vital resource for researchers there for many years, and the new Gates Foundation grant will make it possible to meet that need."

This grant is part of the foundation's Agricultural Development initiative, which is working with a wide range of partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia to provide millions of small farmers in the developing world with tools and opportunities. The foundation is working to strengthen the agricultural value chain -- from seeds and soil to farm management and market access -- so that progress against hunger and poverty is sustainable over the long term.

Gwen Glazer is a staff writer for Library Communications.

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