Delivering practical education globally to areas of greatest need

MSU researchers Julia Bello-Bravo and Barry Pittendrigh are delivering life-improving knowledge to low-literate learners in developing countries through animations via a program called Scientific Animations Without Borders.

Julia Bello-Bravo and Barry Pittendrigh

The World Bank’s international poverty line is defined as living on less than $1.90 per day, a figure that takes into consideration varying costs worldwide. More than 700 million people fit into this category.

A lack of formal education often accompanies poverty in developing nations, where access to useful, practical educational resources can also be scarce. Michigan State University’s Barry Pittendrigh and Julia Bello-Bravo are helping to change that.

Pittendrigh, an MSU Foundation professor in the Department of Entomology, has spent much of his career working with farmers in West Africa on sustainable pest management. Bello-Bravo, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, centers her research on delivering life-improving knowledge to low-literate learners in developing countries.

“About a decade ago, we were both working in West Africa and saw the difficulties of getting scientifically validated information into the hands of low-literate individuals,” Pittendrigh said. “Some of these people have had negative experiences with traditional education, so we knew we needed to go a different route.”

Bello-Bravo and Pittendrigh co-founded Scientific Animations Without Borders (SAWBO), which provides educational animations at no cost to people who desperately need knowledge and skills on a particular topic. Agriculture, health and gender equality are some of the primary themes.

“These animations are meant to improve the livelihoods of some of the poorest people on the planet, particularly women who often do a lot of work but don’t have the same access to educational materials,” Bello-Bravo said. “They are translated into local languages and can be viewed on any smartphone.”

To date, SAWBO animations have been translated into roughly 145 languages and viewed by 41 million users in more than 100 countries. They cover a broad range of subjects, from managing fall armyworm — an invasive pest to West Africa that has devastated maize, rice, sorghum and cotton operations — to, more recently, the novel coronavirus.

Bello-Bravo has surveyed consumers to determine if the materials are useful. She was the lead investigator for a study published in 2019 that showed farmers in Mozambique who viewed a SAWBO animation on postharvest bean storage retained the information and adopted the techniques at high rates. Two years after viewing, 97% of farmers had retained the animation’s content, while 89% deployed the suggested storage method.

“These animations go through a rigorous creation process, and we’re building our capacity to be able to respond to crisis situations more quickly,” Pittendrigh said. “Linking with partner organizations that can help us further scale up the development and sharing of animations will be vital to the future of SAWBO and our ability to reach a wider audience.”

In addition to his work on SAWBO, Pittendrigh serves as director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research. The program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, focuses on research and outreach on grain legumes, particularly cowpea in West Africa and common bean in Central America. These staple crops are an essential source of nutrition for people in developing countries, where farmers face mounting challenges. SAWBO has helped researchers in the program disseminate information.

Pittendrigh added: “Farmers are dealing with numerous problems, and we want to do our part to equip them with knowledge.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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