At a time when famine in Africa has put a spotlight on world hunger, who knew that a University of Minnesota program has been quietly sowing the seeds for a remedy for 25 years?

In 1983, an agriculture professor by the name of Ron Phillips had an idea: Sponsor students from developing countries to come to the U to study food production at the graduate level.

Once they finished, they'd go back to their native countries and use what they learned to help improve food production.

Phillips' idea was endorsed by the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, a partner with the U on the project. (The church had called on its members to come up with programs to address the hunger problem.)

So in 1986, Project AgGrad was born.

The first student came from Nigeria, followed by students from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa.

To date, the five students educated through AgGrad have taught 2,727 undergraduate students and helped 880 farmers.

"I call it a multiplier effect," Phillips said.

Cathrine Ziyomo is the latest student to enter the program. She started in 2008 and hopes to complete her Ph.D. next summer.

Already, she's making plans to help farmers in Zimbabwe.

"For the past 10 to 15 years, we've been having frequent droughts," she said. "Most farmers have been experiencing difficulties."

Her research at the U focuses on developing drought-tolerant and low-nitrogen-tolerant corn fields.

A special dinner to celebrate the project's 25-year anniversary will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the McNamara Alumni Center on campus.

Former U.S. Sen. George McGovern will speak.

As a bonus, all five students trained through AgGrad have come back from Africa to share their experiences.

The event is effectively sold out, but a few $30 tickets may be purchased at the door.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488