Kamal Bell is using his farm to teach youth about agriculture and to shrink food deserts.
To the Akan people of Ghana, the word “sankofa” means “learning from the past to ensure a strong future.”
When Kamal Bell heard the term in his “African History Up to 1800” class at N.C. A&T, something clicked. He had been listening to a lecture by Pan-African thinker Amos Wilson, who encouraged black people to get back to their roots, and the term resonated with the lecture.
“To remember your African heritage as you move forward in life – that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to help my people.”
Now, as owner of Sankofa Farms in Efland, outside Durham, this former middle school teacher is realizing that dream by instilling skills, nutrition knowledge and agricultural heritage in a hand-picked group of middle school youth.
“We grow cowpeas, squash, watermelon, okra and jalapeno peppers,” he said. “All but the peppers are native to Africa. We also have 18 beehives and are going to start selling honey this year.”
What gave him the drive to start the farm and the Sankofa Farms Agricultural Academy, a STEM-based, year-round program and academy that teaches inner-city youth about leadership and teamwork through agriculture was his experience at A&T.
“I always had an interest in being outside, working with plants and animals, but I thought I wanted to be a vet,” he said. At the time, he was reading “Message to the Black Man in America” by Elijah Muhammad, a book which made him think about how his major, animal lab science, could best help black people.
“I decided that it couldn’t,” he said. “I changed my major to animal industry because it more directly influences production. I could have a more direct impact.
‘’When I changed my major and started getting experience on the University Farm – it was a turning point for me. Farming became a way of life. By working with Dr. Idassi, Dr. Jackai, Dr. Ejimakor and Dr. Oh, I learned that there was more to it than putting plants in the ground. I was able to get the full scope of farming.”
After graduating in 2014 with a B.S. in animal science (animal industry), he returned to A&T in 2015 to earn his master’s in agricultural education.
Associate Professor Chastity Warren English, Ph.D., and Professor Antoine Alston, Ph.D., “made me interested in ag ed and in working with youth,” he says. “That became my life’s passion.”
Bell went to work as a middle school agricultural biotechnology teacher in Durham, his hometown, and he quickly noticed that areas of Durham and Orange counties were food deserts, urban areas where access to fresh, high-quality food at affordable prices is limited.
He also noticed a relationship between nutrition and his students’ behavior and energy levels. After talking with the students and their families, he learned that many purchased most of their food from convenience stores and groceries with limited healthy options.
“There is a big income and food availability gap that exists within minority groups,” he said. “I realized that my educational background and what I wanted to do professionally positioned me to make a change by creating Sankofa Farms.”
The farm’s goal is to be a sustainable food source for people affected by food deserts.
In 2016, Bell applied for a Direct Farm Ownership loan from the USDA Farm Service Agency. With the loan and money that he had saved, he purchased 12 acres of raw land in Efland. Currently, the farm uses about 3 acres; he is working toward full utilization in the next three to four years.
Managing the farm has been a team effort. Two friends from A&T – Devin McAlister, who graduated in ’14 with a liberal studies degree, and Marcus Miller ’16, an accounting major – are now his business partners. Bell’s wife, Amber Bell ’15, an elementary education major, now a teacher, and his father also support Sankofa.
“My wife is an Aggie, too, and is very supportive from behind the scenes. My dad comes out to the farm in the evenings during the school year,” he said.
The students that he invites to come work on the farm get lessons in African history, teamwork and leadership, as well as the practical experience that may one day turn them into farmers, helping to close the food gap.
“The students that have stuck with it see the bigger picture – that life is bigger than being a rapper or having ‘fake fame’ on reality TV. The bigger issue is feeding an area and helping our people. They see how hard you have to work, and that we do it with less infrastructure than other farms have.
“They care, in other words.”