About five times each year, James Simon, PhD, a professor of plant biology at Rutgers University, travels from New Jersey to Africa to implement projects that improve the lives of rural villagers through fruit, vegetable, and medicinal plant production. Since 1999, he has made more than 40 trips to Africa and taken about 30 additional flights to and from locations within the continent. His work training educators and scientists, non-governmental organizations, community growers, and associations of women farmers has helped to create hundreds of jobs and enabled communities to make higher profits on the plants they cultivate and process.
In September 2012, Dr. Simon — an American Botanical Council Advisory Board member — was honored for his work with the Award for Scientific Excellence in a US Agency for International Development (USAID) Collaborative Research Support Program (CRSP) from the Board for International Food and Agricultural Development (BIFAD).1 An advisory group appointed by the President of the United States, BIFAD councils USAID, which President John F. Kennedy established in 1961 to provide foreign assistance that encourages economic prosperity, democracy, human rights, and other goals.2
Dr. Simon’s excitement for the award — which he currently has hanging on his office wall — is balanced with a humility about his work; he credited the contributions of other individuals and groups, as well as the larger medicinal plant community.
“When you work in horticulture with aromatic and medicinal plants, versus the millions of acres in corn and soybeans, you just never anticipate getting any kind of national recognition along that line,” said Dr. Simon, who is the director of Rutgers’ Center for New Use Agriculture and Natural Plant Products (oral communication, November 26, 2012). “I was just so pleased that they considered me for this, and also because it reflects the reality that horticultural crops and aromatic and medicinal plants can truly lead to income generating activities, empower those involved, and such systems can be both scaled-up and replicated. I was very proud because it recognized my work, yet also realized that my work is dependent on all those people with whom I work, that I view it as an award for all those involved.”
According to BIFAD, the awards committee chose Dr. Simon due to “his significant contributions to improving horticultural crops across the value-chain in several African countries,” particularly for “his work [that] had an important impact upon thousands of small-holder farmers by connecting these farmers to higher-return markets, which led to over $25 million in trade to growers and processors during the five years of the project.”1
Just one day after speaking with ABC about the BIFAD award and his career, Dr. Simon caught a plane to Zambia, where he held training sessions with small-sized community farmer associations on vegetable cultivation, production technologies and strategies, harvesting, post-harvest handling, and processing. He also met with partnering organization AgriBusiness and Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP), which he co-founded to focus on using a country’s indigenous plants to economically develop impoverished villages.3
Dr. Simon currently is leading or involved in four projects in Africa. One, in Ghana, has focused on higher-value forest commodities, spices, and medicinal and aromatic plants. In Zambia, Dr. Simon and partners have been introducing the production of fresh vegetables, often working with potential high-end buyers like hotels, as well as training disabled heads-of-household, such as blind farmers. Another project, in Zambia, engages communities to become involved in affordable post-harvest cooling systems, which consist of creative ways to preserve produce from spoiling, such as growing near markets, ensuring shade is used from the moment the product is harvested to where it is sold, using the natural cooling temperature of the earth in old-fashioned root cellars (where land and water tables permit), and — in concert with the Horticulture CRSP leadership — introducing low-cost coolers. The fourth project, which is led by Rutgers and Purdue University, focuses on indigenous African vegetables, including amaranth (Amaranthus spp., Amaranthaceae), nightshade (Solanum spp., Solanaceae), and spiderplants (Chlorophytum comosum, Asparagaceae), as well as hibiscus leaves and calyces (Hibiscus spp., Malvaceae) and moringa leaves (Moringa oleifera, Moringaceae).
All of these projects, Dr. Simon said, aim to help African farmers obtain improved production strategies, like reducing pests and drying herbs to increase shelf life, as well as providing access to higher-return markets, such as larger neighboring villages or supermarkets in sizeable towns, so that they can increase profits and thus create successful horticulture businesses. Most growers typically sell the same fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants year-round and also sell their products to markets and small shops within their villages. Thus they often sell to customers who have as little money as they do, said Dr. Simon.
“We’re trying to introduce concepts and approaches to have them view horticulture as a business and not just something they do to keep them busy,” he said. “We use a market-first, science-driven model in our work and these models have taken years to develop and remain dynamic even today. Many farmers in Africa can’t invest because they’re just trying to survive. We’re trying to work with them to develop their business skills and investment skills to get them out of that cycle of ‘let’s just plant more, even if we’re not planning better.’ The goal is at the end of the year, they made more money than last year, and they can send their children to school and increase their family earnings so they become both food secure, economically secure, and healthier through increased consumption of high-quality nutritious vegetables.”
Dr. Simon first traveled to Africa when he was a faculty member at Purdue. During that time, he was awarded a Master Research License with the National Cancer Institute and began working on a cross-institutional project — which also included the Missouri Botanic Garden, and Professor Harry Fong, PhD, and the late Professor Norman Farnsworth, PhD, both of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago — to develop sustainable collection practices for Ancistrocladus korupensis (Ancistrocladaceae), a plant from the southwestern region of Cameroon that exhibited promising activity against the AIDS virus.
“It brought me to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time, and I fell in love with Cameroon and this type of project,” he said.
Dr. Simon has been working on these projects in Africa since the early 1990s and has encountered many challenges along the way. These include identifying the right communities, organizations, and partners who are interested in working together on projects, as well as balancing different expectations and rewards, and developing strong working relationships.
“Ensuring and building trust and confidence between international partners and collaborators is always a massive challenge,” said Dr. Simon. “It takes a long time to develop strong, true, productive working relationships.”
And although he cited long-term resource support as an additional challenge, Dr. Simon has been commended on his ability to secure funding over these decades. “[Dr. Simon] works with stakeholders from farmers to university professors to help develop the industry of natural plant products for income generation for the benefit of Africans,” said Roldolfo Juliani, PhD, a research associate in Rutgers plant biology department who has known and worked with Dr. Simon for over 10 years, adding that his colleague “is very talented at obtaining grants that can be used to achieve development goals” (oral communication, November 28, 2012).
“Jim is a real dynamo,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “He is one of the most active and prolific people dealing with medicinal and aromatic plants I have ever known in the academic community, and is a valuable member of the ABC Advisory Board. He is truly deserving of this prestigious award.”
—Lindsay Stafford Mader
1. 2012 BIFAD Award for Scientific Excellence in a USAID Collaborative Research Support Program [press release]. BIFAD; September 28, 2012. Available at: http://crsps.net/site/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Press_Release_BIFAD_CRSP_Award_2012-Ver-3.pdf. Accessed December 6, 2012.
2. Who we are. USAID website. Available at: www.usaid.gov/who-we-are. Accessed December 6, 2012.
3. Rutgers plant biologist Jim Simon wins prize for scientific excellence for African agricultural research funded by USAID [press release]. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University; October 22, 2012. Available at: http://news.rutgers.edu/medrel/news-releases/2012/10/rutgers-plant-biolog-20121022. Accessed December 4, 2012.