Spud Stud Michael Gerba '94 is making a world of difference

To understand Michael Gerba's story, consider the potato.

A seed potato, much like the one you eat, is planted in the ground. Little offshoots sprout from it, yielding more spuds, nestled in the soil. Any one of these new potatoes can then be used as the seed for another harvest of this popular starchy vegetable.

Gerba, a member of the Class of 1994, has seen a similar pattern of planting and re-planting across the world, each time leaving something sustaining behind for the communities in which he has taken root.

Today, he is the Chief Operating Officer for the International Potato Center, an organization in Peru that uses potatoes to improve the lives of small communities worldwide. Sometimes that means growing a different strand of potato. Sometimes that means much more.

Assisting farmers to plant and test new varieties of Potatoes in the Andes.

“We’re about value chains,” he says. “How can we connect our farmers to the businesses, processors, markets in their small towns so they can earn better wages and get better returns for their crops? How can we improve their farming techniques?”

Gerba, brother of Steve ’89 and Gregory ‘96, began asking such pointed questions in 1993 when he first made a mission trip to the Dominican Republic with former history teacher Br. Jim Boynton, S.J. Back then, it was a six-week, intensive excursion with several projects, including building a dam and laying pipes to provide running water for a rural village.

“You lived there long enough that you felt you weren’t just a complete guest,” Gerba says. “You got a really good understanding of what life in and out everyday was like.”

Michael's host family in the dominican - Maria, Gringita, Raffalean, and the Grandmother.

After Saint Ignatius, he attended Miami University for his accounting degree before taking a job in Chicago. There, he married his wife, Erin, and the pair signed up for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps in 2002. That sent them to Nicaragua, where they taught locals the fundamentals of running a small business, provided microloans to people left physically handicapped by the country’s civil war, and formed eco-tourism opportunities on a nature reserve.

“What I did is I worked with these individual entrepreneurs to teach basic accounting and marketing lessons—all these different things that they need to run an effective business,” Gerba says.

The experiences prepared him well for his next position in development at Land O’Lakes, where he managed projects worldwide. Eight years later, the International Potato Center hired Gerba to blend his grassroots and global experiences to better small communities using everyone’s favorite root.

Br. Boynton, now a vocation director for the Jesuits, says, “Mike discerned his vocation exactly in what I’d want to see. He used his lived experience and found what he loved doing with his lived experience and said, ‘I want to do more of that.’”

Today, the Gerbas live in Lima, Peru, with their three children. Recently, Michael and his team received the World Food Prize—“basically the Nobel Peace Prize for agricultural research”—for their work in bringing a Vitamin A-rich sweet potato to Sub-Saharan Africa. Severe deficiencies in the nutrient often lead to childhood blindness and death across the continent. The new crop could help save untold numbers of children.

Visiting a potato seed storage site in Ethiopia.

At first glance, a potato is a simple thing.

You plant it, it grows, and it feeds a community. The same is true for Gerba. Once a student on a mission trip, he has had experiences since then that span the globe with work, literally, at the grassroots level.

Yet a potato is a special thing, too. You may know the Idaho, or red-skinned, or sweet varieties. But the one that does the most good for others? A man named Michael Gerba.

A family trip to the Galapagos in 2015.

If you would like to see more multimedia alumni profiles like this, please email Connor Walters '09 at cwalters@ignatius.edu.

Created By
Connor Walters


All photos courtesy of Michael Gerba.

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