Raking in support that puts navel gazing into the shade

April 4, 1997

Outsiders are being persuaded that field research must have practical benefits for communities

When Johan Pottier began research on food crises in East Africa he was determined to break with past research traditions and discover practical solutions to the frequent starvation faced by many villagers. One of the prime aims of his project, entitled Food Systems Under Stress, was to take a fresh look at research priorities and processes.

"I felt that doing research for its own sake just wasn't acceptable any more and we ought to discuss the villagers' problems with them and see what we could set up," said Mr Pottier, who coordinates the project funded by the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.

Mr Pottier, a lecturer at SOAS, began the work in 1990. He has concentrated on food systems in countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania and Botswana, where famine can be a daily reality. He started by speaking to like-minded academics in each country, choosing small regions to focus on and setting up workshops in these areas. Villagers, academics and policy makers were invited to the workshops to discuss the difficulties affecting their food systems and to air their views on possible solutions.

"To each workshop we invited all those working in an official capacity within agricultural production, nutrition and marketing, as well as local academics and villagers," said Mr Pottier. "There was a need to improve communication between these groups as there was no regular contact between them."

Many locals, aware of previous research projects in their areas, tried to ensure they received practical help from the researchers by urging them to draw up written contracts spelling out how they would solve their local problems at the end of the study.

In Uganda, where the insurgency against the government ended in 1991, villagers were less trusting of researchers than elsewhere, and here they called for a written contract signed by the researchers. They received assurances that any findings would be used to help them.

In Kapatu, in the northern province of Zambia, where the project is also in progress, villagers have collected information on food under stress and looked for solutions to it, alongside the policy makers.

Here, the Zambian government is phasing out subsidies to farmers growing hybrid maize, leaving them to select another viable crop. Supported by a local farming systems research group the Adaptive Research and Planning Team, the farmers have decided on the cultivation of beans. Mr Pottier's project has been able to help about 50 farmers by providing them with the down-payment needed to secure a loan to buy the seeds.

A further problem in the area is lack of marketing expertise. A local religious mission, which had marketed Kapatu's crops outside the area, had folded leaving the poorer people without a lucrative market. Food Systems under Stress is buying four ox-drawn carts for transporting produce. Mr Pottier said: "Many of them wanted a motor vehicle but our resources wouldn't stretch that far."

Practical help does not always mean access to money. One of Mr Pottier's main aims was to establish communication channels between villagers, academics and officials, which would remain intact after the project. "Many of the villagers did not understand how policies were made despite being hugely affected by them," he said.

In the village of Wera-Angole in the Soroti district of Uganda, one of the main crops, cassava, had become diseased. Farmers were told to uproot the plant to eradicate the infection but had been reluctant to do so because the crop continued to yield some food. The problem was compounded by a new variety of cassava, established two years earlier, that could not be eaten raw. During one of the workshops, the assistant district agricultural officer explained how the disease, known as mosaic, spread. The farmers agreed to start uprooting all the diseased plants.

The project does not always run so smoothly. In three of the five countries academics were already working closely with their governments and sometimes felt they already knew the extent of the local people's problems. "In Britain, academics are independent resear-chers and so we expect others to be like us. But because of the political climate in East Africa, things can be different," said Mr Pottier. "There was no way of carrying out the project without the ministries being involved, so we had to risk its independence and try to encourage people to be critical of their own assumptions."

In other countries, such as Zimbabwe, ministers have chosen not to have an active link with the project. Julia Tagwirei, head of nutrition at the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare in Harare, turned down the opportunity to come to the first round of meetings in 1993. But three years later, after hearing about the project from colleagues, she attended a conference in Harare. She found an interesting tension between policy makers and villagers about plans to create stable food systems.

Mr Pottier said: "Policy-makers were at pains to point out that villagers had to come up with their own solutions on how to solve the problems of food crises, while villagers said that though they wanted their independence they did need some help from researchers. The workshops allowed the villagers to shape our research and gain access to the policy makers."

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