Continental Research Cannot Lose Sight of the Local Perspective

This year’s Climate and Society class is out in the field (or lab or office) completing a summer internship or thesis. They’ll be documenting their experiences one blog post at a time. Read on to see what they’re up to.

Madeline Ruid, C+S ’18

(Source: Rejané Claasen/Flickr)

Climate change is a global problem, and yet its effects and people’s ability to adapt are inherently local. Given this mismatch in scales, how can continental-scale research take local perspectives and differences into account? Additionally, how can research at a continental scale provide useful information for local climate adaptation strategies?

These are two of the questions that I encountered this summer while interning for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) with the Environment and Technology Production Division. My team has been working on a continental-scale project to assess the economic feasibility for farmers to adopt solar irrigation systems throughout Sub-Saharan Africa.

When I first began working on the project, I was excited about the prospect that this work could help so many people throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. This excitement was quickly followed by the daunting question of how such a large project could incorporate enough local differences to accurately help farmers across nearly an entire continent! gIt made me wonder why we were focusing on all of Sub-Saharan Africa in the first place.

A quick literature review quickly revealed that the region currently experiences high levels of poverty and food insecurity since rainfed agriculture—the practice of relying solely on rain for watering crops—accounts for 95 percent of farmland. Rainfed agriculture often results in lower yields compared to irrigated agriculture because the crops are completely dependent on often erratic rainfall patterns. With climate change expected to increase the frequency and severity of droughts in the region, Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to become even more food insecure. That’s why adapting to climate change eby improving access to irrigation is so important. If we can use our continental analyses to accurately pinpoint the areas in Africa that currently have the highest chances of successfully adopting solar irrigation, our local partners can use their limited funding and resources to begin implementing successful adaptation projects.

Solar-powered irrigation system. (Source: Christine Prefontaine/Flickr)

In C+S, we spent two semesters discussing international development and climate change adaptation projects of varying scales that all ultimately failed because they did not consider the local communities’ cultures, needs or abilities.  These failures taught me that it is essential to understand the local communities’ perspectives and differences within a study area. I was determined to learn from these mistakes to ensure that our project could successfully help rural smallholder farmers. Luckily, our project has incorporated interviews and an extensive literature review to understand the differences in market pricing, local geographies, and farmers’ interest in the technology.

Our project partners at the International Water Management Institute have already interviewed farmers and other key stakeholders in five countries while researching finance options that would give farmers access to solar irrigation technology. there are plans to incorporate more farmers’ feedback as the project progresses to field tests. In the meantime, my team has conducted an intensive literature review and in-depth research on the markets and players in different countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. We also interviewed other researchers and experts in the field to get their feedback on whether we were accurately representing the wide range of prices and challenges that rural smallholder farmers face for adopting solar-powered irrigation. For example, countries in West Africa face many more challenges related to cost and installation than countries like Kenya where the market is much more developed.

Both the interviews and in-depth literature review have allowed our continental-scale project to stay in touch with the local perspective and refine our economic modeling methods, with the hope that our results will accurately reflect the economic feasibility and cost differences between each country. The local adaptation projects that arise from these analyses can then provide even more information for any future work that is conducted at the continental scale. The result is a two-way connection, with the local informing the continental research and vice versa, ultimately helping smallholder farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa adopt solar-powered irrigation and with it, increase climate resilience, improve crop yields and reduce poverty rates.

This project is just one example of how researchers can work across multiple scales to efficiently use limited resources and implement impactful climate change adaptation strategies. As I move forward in my career, I will always remember that no project is ever too big or has too short of a timeline to incorporate local feedback and extensive research, because truly understanding the needs and concerns of the communities that will benefit is one of the major keys to a successful international development project. 

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