A conversation with…
Russell Knight, assistant agricultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal
OCJ: You are originally from Casstown, Ohio. What is your Ohio farm background and how did you end up in Senegal?
Russell: I showed cattle and hogs as 4-H projects in Miami County and I was involved in my high school FFA program and eventually received my American FFA Degree. Most importantly, since 1994, my family has been raising and showing Shorthorn club calves and I participated in several Shorthorn Junior National shows during my years of competition. Even from Africa, I still try to maintain some connection with the activities that pertain to our Shorthorns. But I’ve been involved in the agricultural community ever since I could swing a hammer working for my dad’s business, Knight Fence Company. I went to Ohio State and was in the Alpha Gamma Sigma Fraternity.
OCJ: What are your duties as the assistant agricultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Senegal?
Russell: Well, our Dakar office is a regional post that covers, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, and Mali, in addition to Senegal. As I am still in transition, I am looking forward to supervising our capacity building programs, like FAS’s Cochran and Borlaug programs, in addition to running some of the basic administrative and budgetary issues of the office. My near term goal is to investigate and report on the hotel, restaurant, and retail sectors in Dakar to lay the groundwork for promoting U.S. imports of beef, poultry, and fruits.
In addition, I also plan in the near future to scout the potential agricultural marketing opportunities in Cote d’Ivoire.
OCJ: What other positions have you held that have prepared you for this interesting position?
Russell: During my time at OSU, I participated in the College of Agriculture’s study abroad program in China, then I interned for Settlemyre Seed Company, and followed that up with an internship in the international trade programs area in the Markets Division of the Ohio Department of Agriculture.
During and following my Ag Econ graduate program at Virginia Tech, I participated in the summer internship program with FAS. FAS’s summer internship program is one of the best program in DC because it pays the interns and provides housing; that’s a tough thing to come across in DC. After my internships with FAS, I took a job at the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) in Washington, DC as an agricultural statistician publishing chemical and fertilizer usage data on field crops. After some time at NASS, I had the opportunity to come back to FAS through the Career Intern Program. Sometimes you have to take a couple of unexpected turns before the right opportunity presents itself.
We need more young people with agricultural backgrounds at the USDA, but it takes effort and persistence to get here, but that shouldn’t discourage any talented young people from pursuing careers in DC.
OCJ: Why was Senegal identified as someplace the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service thought you should be?
Russell: Well, as mentioned earlier, Senegal is not our particular focal point but there is certainly growing interest in Africa. In particular, through the Administration’s Feed the Future Initiative, we will assist Focus Countries in developing Country Investment Plans for increasing agricultural-led growth and enhancing food security and in attracting financial and technical support to implement these plans. Senegal and Mali have been identified as potential focus countries.
OCJ: Could you tell us a little about the agricultural industry in Senegal?
Russell: Senegal and the West Africa region rely heavily on imports to meet their food needs. France remains a major source for food imports but the market now includes South America, Asia, and Africa. There is market potential for U.S. food exports particularly with a regional approach and strategic marketing. The outlook for imported consumer-oriented foods is promising given Senegal’s high rate of urbanization, sizeable expatriate community and reliance on food imports.
OCJ: Is there potential for increased U.S. trading with Senegal? What are the challenges with this?
Russell: We definitely think there is an opportunity for increased trade with Senegal and the region as a whole. The Senegalese are generally well disposed towards Americans and actively seek U.S. trade and investment. As mentioned earlier, my near term goal is to investigate and report on the hotel, restaurant, and retail sectors in Dakar to lay the groundwork for promoting U.S. imports of beef, poultry, and fruits.
Unfortunately there is a strong French influence and the transaction costs (freight and import duties) add to the difficulties with doing business here. One of the biggest challenges that we face in the region is that this is a fairly new post for the USDA. FAS has been in country since 2006 and before that we covered the region from Cote d’Ivoire but there was a gap in our presence in Francophone West Africa, since then.
OCJ: What other benefits for U.S. agriculture are created by you being there?
Russell: I think having a presence here in West Africa to create and nurture agricultural markets in West Africa is added benefit for U.S. agriculture. I think simply having a presence and developing programs in emerging markets gives a real boost to establishing a market presence and awareness for U.S. agricultural products.
OCJ: How does Senegal benefit from the arrangement?
Russell: Senegal and the region have the opportunity to receive agricultural guidance and technical assistance in specific areas such as mitigation of fruit flies and developing agricultural statistics. Overall, this is an opportunity to expand and strengthen our agricultural trade relationship in the region.
OCJ: How have you adapted to life in Senegal?
Russell: You know, people asked me the same question when I went to OSU. Surprising, I’ve adopted quite well; I moved from one big city to another. Life here is not too bad and I’m currently finishing up my French language training. The food is good and the people are genuinely nice. I can relate to most of the folks when I tell them I come from a farm and we both agree that life in the country is better than in the big city.
Overall, they have cold beer and the beach is two blocks down the road. Other than the power cutting out now and then, it’s a very nice place.
OCJ: How often do you get back to Ohio?
I just got here but I hope to get back once or twice a year.