Pursuing a Dream

She’s quick to laugh at herself for “not having the math,” but it’s a very serious, and heartfelt, desire that propelled Erika Bachmann down her unusual academic path.

In 2005, the B.C. native took time away from her undergrad studies to volunteer at an orphanage in a small village in Zambia. It would break her heart and ignite a passion that would eventually land her at U of S as a Masters candidate in agricultural economics.

“It was for kids orphaned by HIV/AIDS and most of them had HIV/AIDS,” says Bachmann. “My job was to live with them and care for them like a mother would – reading them stories, helping them with school work, and that sort of stuff.

“You saw a lot of the worst cases. Mothers from the villages bringing their babies to the orphanage and asking us to care for them because the babies are starving. It got pretty overwhelming, but what scared me is that I started getting numb to it. I needed to come home to feel again.”

She also wanted an explanation for what she had seen.

“In Zambia, you see so much poverty, but you also see this incredibly lush country – there are mangos the size of grapefruits and trees laden with avocados,” says Bachmann. “You look at that richness and then the poverty, and it just doesn’t make any sense. I wanted to make sense of that. Economics allows you to do that.”

After returning to UBC to complete her history degree, Bachmann managed to find enough “artsy” courses that didn’t require calculus or statistics to get a minor in economics.

“I became very interested in food-security issues and it all started to coalesce,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, I want to work in food security and I’d like to have hard, practical skills – what I need is a graduate degree in agricultural economics.’ But given my lack of math, it seemed like an impossible dream.”

Of course these days, pursuit of the impossible starts with a Google search, and when Bachmann typed ‘Masters of agricultural economics,’ up popped U of S. That prompted an email to then graduate chair James Nolan.

“I asked if it was even possible for someone with my background, and he said it was – if I took the pre-requisites.”

After spending a year taking calculus and statistics courses, Bachmann successfully applied and began her graduate studies in the fall of 2012. Her dream was to do food security research overseas but that, too, seemed unlikely. Then she met David Natcher, who in addition to being a professor in the department is also a cultural anthropologist and director of the Indigenous Land Management Institute, which works with aboriginal peoples in Canada’s north.

“I was looking for a supervisor and he emailed back and said he would love to meet and chat about his research,” says Bachmann. “Then he asked if I would be interested in doing research on a soil science project in west Africa.”

Naturally, she said yes in a heartbeat. And so this summer, she spent three months in a tiny village in northern Benin, examining the economic, cultural and socialaspects of a project involving fertilizer ‘micro-dosing.’ These small (and hence affordable) amounts of fertilizer could end up providing food security for millions – even in the parched regions of west Africa, where climate change is pushing the sub-Saharan ever southwards.

“Unlike Zambia, northern Benin is not lush and rich,” says Bachmann. “It’s much more arid and when it doesn’t rain for a few weeks, the ground is almost like a desert. It’s a real struggle to grow things. And the solutions – such as how to get more organic matter in the soil – are also very complex and challenging.”

Still, Bachmann describes her summer stay in Benin as the “best three months of my life.” Although war and insurgency grip large portions of west Africa, she discovered a land whose people are welcoming, religiously tolerant, and “speak in proverbs.”

“I’m hopeful because the people are so amazing,” she says. “The farmers are incredibly hardworking and resourceful. If anyone can take small improvements and make a go of it, they can.”

Giving people opportunity is a powerful thing, says Bachmann, quickly adding how much she appreciates the one she’s been given. “I didn’t expect to get into the program because I didn’t have the background and didn’t have the math. But I’m so grateful I got in. This is a dream come true for me.” 

Share this story