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Three young professionals face the realities of agricultural research for development in West Africa

I have been travelling to Ghana and Burkina Faso to visit two ILRI Research fellows whom I am supervising. They are currently finishing their data collection in the field with the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food’s Volta2 project. Our aim is to gather data that will help us validate a model useful for the impact assessment of innovation platforms. When I visited them I asked them what they had both learned from their field experience, what they liked and disliked about it.

Zewdie AdaneZewdie Adane is an Erasmus Mundus International Masters student in Science in Rural Development (Ghent University, Humboldt University of Berlin and University of Pisa). Zewdie is Ethiopian. He has turned down an internship at IFPRI to come to ILRI saying he wanted to analyse data that he had gathered himself, rather than relying on lots of secondary data. He has been collecting quantitative and qualitative data from farmers, traders and processors involved in the Volta2 project innovation platforms in the North and Northwest regions of Ghana. He has also interviewed key stakeholders facilitating these innovation platforms.

During his two months in the field Zewdie had learned a lot from his interactions with different peoples and cultures. He has also gained from the multidisciplinary interaction with his local hosts at the Animal Research Institute of Ghana. Although the innovation platform members he has interviewed in Ghana are not direct business partners from a value chain, the platform has served as a forum where farmers, traders and processors from different villages have exchanged information and knowledge. The farmers have gained from this because they now know other traders and processors with whom they can check prices before engaging with their own business partners. Farmers have also become more proactive to ask around about market prices before selling their produce thanks to their interaction in the multi-stakeholder forum.

Zewdie was particularly satisfied by the interpreter from the Animal Research Institute in Tamale. Because he was already involved in the project, he was familiar with the respondents. So it was very easy for him to communicate the research concepts that Zewdie was requesting viewpoints on from the field respondents. On the other hand, Zewdie was struck by the difficulty and high cost of accessing information and communication technologies in Northern Ghana: Skype was incompatible with his 3G Internet access key, his emails took whole days to download, even the mobile phone network was patchy. Despite the satellite dishes behind Zewdie and Peter Ayoreko from SNV Ghana (wearing Northern Ghanaian traditional smock on the photo) at our hotel in Wa, I can testify that even there the Internet was not working.

Gabriel TenoGabriel Teno is Cameroonian. He is undertaking a Masters in Evaluation of Projects at Montpellier University I in France. Gabriel chose to take this ILRI fellowship over other apprenticeships in France because he wanted to work on a research project that brought him back to his earlier interests of veterinary sciences in Africa. Gabriel is using the same questionnaires as Zewdie, translated into French, to gather data from Volta2 innovation platform members and facilitators in Ouahigouya, Northern Burkina Faso.

He has benefited from his field experience to learn fertility and water management techniques that he had never encountered before in his past work in Africa. He has now also better understood the concept of a value chain after having interacted with different members of the small ruminant and maize value chains in Ouahigouya. The farmers involved explained to him how the innovation platform meetings had allowed them to organize themselves better, become more open to interactions with markets and increase the joint planning of their activities with other farmers in the group and with other value chain actors.

Gabriel was particularly pleased to find extremely welcoming people in Ouahigouya. Twice during his stay complete strangers proposed to give him a ride on their motorbike when he was walking to work: it is normal there to help stranded people without a motorized means of transport when the Summer daytime temperatures hover between 38 and 40°C. On the other hand, Gabriel was not impressed by the daily local staple: rice-rice-rice seems to have been his diet for the past two months.

As far as I am concerned, visiting these two students in the field reminded me of the often difficult conditions encountered on a day-to-day basis when one is involved in the ‘development’ part of agricultural research for development. That is why I insist on including at least two months of field research for data collection in the Research fellowship projects I supervise at ILRI. Not only does it allow future researchers to become aware of the real-life conditions of the people they are ultimately trying to help; it also helps them understand the essential value of robust protocols for field data collection in order to undertake any kind of analysis.

Jo Cadilhon
Agricultural Economist, Policy Trade and Value Chains Program
ILRI, Nairobi