In Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, olive trees used to line the streets in droves as symbols of peace and promise. But the impacts of war, limited water sources, and plant disease have wiped many of those trees away.

Two recent biological systems engineering graduates, Kayleigh Heather and Daniel Marks, have designed an off-grid, solar-powered orchard that could help bring some of those trees back to life.

Currently, Afghanistan relies on importing budwood — a section of tree with vegetative buds used to propagate more trees — from other countries. The materials, however, are often low quality and disease-ridden. With water canals damaged and pumps requiring electricity, which is inconsistent in the country, communities are also in need of stable methods for pumping water.

With the help of advisor John Ignosh, extension specialist for Virginia Cooperative Extension and biological systems engineering, Heather and Marks designed a 2.5-acre orchard equipped with composting and irrigation that runs off solar energy. Solar-powered irrigation is becoming more common in developing countries such as Afghanistan due to increased demand for clean, low-cost water security. Composting is also an increasingly popular, cost-effective, and environmentally friendly way to boost soil health.

The design is intended for growing healthy tree cuttings to sell directly to farmers. This helps farmers avoid importing trees, which risks high costs, shipment problems, and the introduction of invasive species. Implementation of the design would also bring economic opportunity to local people.   

To assess Afghanistan’s agricultural needs, Heather and Marks were advised by Virginia Tech’s Catalyzing Afghan Agricultural Innovation, which is housed at the Center for International Research, Education, and Development. The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, cultivates Afghan-led agricultural innovation by developing capacity in the country’s agricultural education and training system and developing relationships with in-country experts.

“Helping provide context for this design is an incredibly productive way to reimagine some of the priorities of our program with a fresh perspective,” said Iqbal Mohammad, a CAAI collaborator and advisor to the design. “Orchards in Afghanistan were heavily damaged over the last 40 years of war. Not only does this include physical damage of fruit- and nut-bearing trees, but also of the canals that would typically provide water. Helping to support this design encourages us as a program to think critically about the unique needs of farmers in Afghanistan and imagine a more resilient, sustainable agricultural system that can stand the test of time.”

CIRED, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs, has been working to help foster and build agricultural development within Afghanistan for several years. In addition to CAAI, the center also manages Advancing Higher Education for Afghanistan’s Development, a program focused on improving agricultural capacity in Afghanistan, especially for women.

Heather said the project design was a major undertaking that required frequent adjustments and problem-solving.

“We started with what parts of the farm were important to make it self-sustaining,” she said. “But we ended up splitting the farm into a couple areas: compost, irrigation, solar power, propagation, the trees, and an office. We tried to find things that have already been designed so we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. For example, there is a company that ships solar-powered well pumps internationally. After we split the pieces up, we went through and found cost-effective and efficient designs.”

The design of the orchard, which could support at least 350 olive trees, was shared with a technical school in Afghanistan.

“Even if the design wasn’t implemented as is,” Heather said, “it provides a road map for other groups to get started about how to make a design like this actually come to life.”

Ignosh said collaborative global opportunities such as this are a win-win for Virginia Tech and communities abroad.

“It’s valuable for Virginia Tech students not only to be challenged with a unique design assignment, but also to adapt each part to local needs,” he said. “Through this collaboration, some specific possibilities for agricultural growth and sustainability have been explored with in-country partners, but Virginia Tech students are equipped with skills for other applications that will be useful in whatever professional opportunities they pursue.”

Heather and Marks designed the orchard as a senior design assignment led by Cully Hession and Robert Grisso, both professors in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering.

Written by Sara Hendery 

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