Bro. Tony Dolan’s agricultural initiatives have changed lives, writes Colm Fitzpatrick
The Italian friar St Francis of Assisi is renowned for his love of nature and is globally known as the Patron Saint of Ecologists. While few can claim that they have successfully captured the attention of birds through preaching, one Irish Franciscan brother isn’t far behind the saint’s stature given the immense work he has achieved in the agricultural sector.
Bro. Tony Dolan earlier this year was conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Science by University College Dublin (UCD) for his contributions to sustainable agriculture in Ireland and East Africa.
His work has impacted the lives of thousands of people for the better by training local farmers and rural youth who can then give back to their communities.
Although he has lived in Africa for the last 30 years, his origin story begins in Aughnasheelin in Co. Leitrim. He was one of nine children with his mother being the sole carer after his father died when was only two – a situation he describes as a “challenge” for her.
Bro. Tony professed at a young age and graduated from UCD in 1971 with a degree in agriculture. He was principal of Mountbellew Agricultural College where he led the development of new dairy and beef units and associated training enabling many young farmers to successfully steer their way through a rapidly modernising time in agriculture.
In early 1990, he moved to Western Kenya and took on the role as principal at Baraka Farmers’ Training Centre.
“Our focus was and still is on sustainable agriculture. That basically means working with the small-scale farmers and the rural youth and the agriculture has been multifunctional – okay, it’s about food security, but it’s also primarily in the African context about livelihoods, how can you create livelihoods,” Bro. Tony explains.
He guided the upgrading of the Bakara centre to an Agriculture College that has more than 2000 graduates to date. The Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development curriculum developed at the college was recognised by the Kenyan Government as a nationally accredited training course, helping many men and women contribute to development in their local communities.
Following his work, Bro. Tony moved to Northern Uganda to help people in the region. He says in that small area alone, there are one million refugees, 95% of which are from South Sudan.
He and his colleagues acquired land and established an agricultural and rural development training centre. Adraa Agriculture College started training in 2012 and now has an intake of 1200 students per year on 4-6 week courses, focusing on vital skills like “water sanitation, conflict resolution and farming”, Bro. Tony says.
He adds that we need an “absolutely holistic approach towards development” instead of a parochial focus on only financial or physical capital.
Bro. Tony travels back to Ireland once a year as he is general minister of the Franciscan brothers, whose motherhouse is in Mountbellew. He says he loves living in Africa and that there is a rich religious devotion there.
There’s a “vibrant faith-life, a great appreciation of everything they’ve got. God is the creator.
As far as the Catholic Church is concerned it would be very strong, vocations would be quite vibrant,” he explains, adding that there are still a lot of “challenges” in terms of the nature of the Church there.
Bro. Tony has been 20 years ahead of his time with the promotion and teaching of sustainable agriculture in Kenya and Uganda.”
In September, the degree was conferred by UCD President Prof. Andrew Deeks. Prof. James Kinsella, UCD school of Agriculture and Food Science, said:
“Bro. Tony has been 20 years ahead of his time with the promotion and teaching of sustainable agriculture in Kenya and Uganda. This honorary doctorate acknowledges Bro. Dolan’s exceptional and wide-reaching achievements in agricultural education.
“However, the true contribution of Br. Tony is best seen in the powerful combination of intelligence, rigor, integrity and sheer humanity which he brings to his work.”
At the conferring ceremony, Bro. Dolan told graduates they were “entering a challenging environment in which you have to make your livelihoods and make a contribution to building a better world.
“But this has always been the case. In every era and in each of our lives there are always challenges. I know you are up to these challenges and you have the capacities to make major contributions to Irish society and beyond”.
Now in his 70’s, there’s no sign that Bro. Tony will be stopping anytime soon as he continues to make life-changing differences to communities across Africa.