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How Theory of Change can be a pathway to impact: three takeaways

This blog post is written by Anneli Sundin, Communications Lead in the AgriFoSe2030 programme. This post was first published by SEI.

ToC workshop group photo with project teams back in October 2019 at SLU Uppsala, Sweden. Credit: AgriFoSe2030

Theory of Change (ToC) is a systematic approach focusing on pathways to change. This approach can be a key ingredient for a well-functioning project design, blended with stakeholder participation and strategies for communication. Here, three takeaways from a recent paper exploring the use of ToC are outlined.

We still see food and nutrition insecurity in many parts of the world and, in recent years, the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target of Zero Hunger (SDG2) seems to have become more difficult to reach. To combat this challenge, smallholder farms need to further increase their productivity.

We in the Agriculture for Food Security (AgriFoSe2030) programme believe that we need to connect and synthesise best available scientific research with policymaking processes, as well as with practices on the ground. We focus on sustainable intensification of smallholder farming systems in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and South and Southeast Asia for improved food and nutrition security and are interested in bringing change that directly benefits smallholder farmers. But we need tools that can guide us. As such, we turned to Theory of Change.

In the recently published paper in the journal Global Food Security, we showcase how we applied Theory of Change in three projects. It is an approach for evaluation, widely used today within development practice, and, stated in the paper as “a systematic way of clarifying the underlying theories and cause-effect pathways that underpin initiatives working to promote social and economic change, particularly in complex interventions”, such as those interventions that take place in agricultural research for development.

All of the three projects were part of the wider AgriFoSe2030 programme, and aimed to translate research into policy and practice. The paper explores the benefits of having used ToC in the projects, as well as some of the challenges it involved.

The projects

All three projects are related to different types of livestock production in low-income countries. One of them looked at how to develop the sector for edible insects as a way to combat food insecurity in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another one, based in Uganda, further north in SSA, focused on sustainable dairy production and artificial insemination. The third project was about improved goat keeping for smallholder farmers in a number of different regions in Laos, Southeast Asia.

Field visit to small commercial dairy farm, Uganda. Credit: Anneli Sundin
Goats in their pen, Laos. Credit: Anneli Sundin
Newly built market structure for selling of edible insects. Credit: Robert Musundire

Here, three takeaways from our paper are outlined, exploring how to enable a successful ToC process. At the bottom of this page, you can read more about the ToC stepwise method.

Takeaway 1: Stakeholder engagement as you begin your ToC

Many research studies have shown the importance of stakeholder engagement for a successful research or development project. Throughout each project period, the teams focused on activities that involved reaching out to stakeholders and finding inventive ways to engage with people. For instance, the groups involved stakeholders outside academia from the onset of the projects. The paper states that “drawing on all stakeholders’ perspectives, experience and skills to construct the ToC map strengthened the shared vision, identified the key target groups and developed a realistic ‘pathway’ to guide planning and implementation”.

Through this genuine and early stakeholder engagement, the projects gained wide support early on, which manifested in tangible outcomes in the longer term. For example, in the edible insect project, representatives from the municipality of Chinhoyi in Zimbabwe were part of the project team, and understood through their participation the value and importance of boosting the edible insect sector. As a result, they decided to devote a piece of land to the construction of an insect market facility.

In the example of Laos and goat management, a strong feeling of ownership of the project and its goals was created among the agricultural extension officers (the intermediaries between farmers and researchers), thanks to robust collaboration between the researchers and extension agencies. This also resulted in the project reaching farmers more easily.

Takeaway 2: Allow for flexibility

When we made sure that there was good internal communication within projects, and also between projects and both the AgriFoSe2030 management and the communication and engagement team, everyone had a better understanding of the contexts in which the projects were operating. Hence, it was easier to redirect funding and resources in ways that helped achieve the projects’ desired outcomes. This allowed the project teams to adjust their ToC plans. Previous research points to this as very important for success; in order for them to succeed, projects need to have some degree of flexibility in budgeting and resources, and there is a need for “complexity-aware” approaches.

Takeaway 3: Combine your ToC with communication strategies

In each case, we gave the project teams training and guidance in how to communicate with relevant stakeholders. This covered, for example, how to explore windows of opportunity, and how to tailor speeches, presentations and written texts so that audiences would not just understand, but also listen to them and become interested and involved. The projects used planning matrixes for their communications, in which they mapped specific stakeholder groups, the change they were targeting for that particular group, what messages would work well and through which channels they could communicate them. The projects also made sure these matrixes were aligning well with their ToC plans.

It’s not all rosy – but the benefits outweigh the challenges

The projects did also experience some challenges. It can be difficult to learn the ToC approach if you’re completely new to the concept. It was important to de-mystify it and have a facilitated process with a ToC expert, from start until the end.

The two projects on the African continent aimed at going beyond improving practices to also influence policy. They realised that policy development on governmental level is often a slow and fluid process. Sometimes you rather need bottom-up approaches that can demonstrate clear results. They decided, therefore, to get closer to local policy processes. When a policymaker can clearly see that an activity or initiative is successful on local level, it can open up opportunities for policy changes on regional or national levels.

Early in the process of developing their respective ToCs, the project teams understood that creating associations with their target groups (e.g. the farmers, traders or extension services) would help in consolidating the projects, as well as spreading knowledge and experience to a wider group. However, all three projects struggled with launching these farmers’ or traders’ associations due to the short project periods and contextual challenges linked to “e.g. demographics, the institutional landscape in which the associations operate, the environmental context, as well as underlying economic structure or local economic base”.

However, thanks to the early involvement of stakeholders and the fact that some of these associations could create demonstration farms, spin-off effects could be seen. In the case of dairy farming in Uganda, both an association of AI technicians was formed, as well as a number of farmers’ associations. These activities led to the renewal of the animal fertility and breeding centre at the Makerere University, and AI skills training is now included in the university’s educational programs.

We are yet to see the long-term impact of these AgriFoSe2030 projects, but we understand that ToC has helped them to more effectively integrate science-based knowledge in agricultural practice and policy. When we engage with stakeholders and develop refined communication strategies as part of our ToC planning, we will increase the likelihood of getting on the right path to impact.

What are the steps in a ToC process?

These projects walked through an eight-step process, guided by a ToC facilitator. This process begins with understanding the purpose of using ToC methods and describing the desired change, as well as the current situation. It then continues with the identification of what, where and by whom change needs to be made, and with the mapping of change pathways. Thereafter, strategies are developed for the interventions needed to make that change happen. Last but not least, it is important to look at monitoring and evaluation of the project and reflect on the full process. See the figure below to get an overview of this stepwise approach.

The ToC stepwise approach. Diagram modified from van Es et al. (2015)

Read more about the AgriFoSe programme here
AgriFoSe2030, Agriculture for Food Security, contributes to sustainable intensification of agriculture for increased food production on existing agricultural land; the aim is to do so by transforming practices toward more efficient use of human, financial and natural resources.

Can charcoal business be sustainable? Examples, challenges and opportunities in Africa.

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

A trailer loaded with bags of charcoal coming from Nigeria and heading to Niamey
Photo: Anders Roos.

On 13 October 2020, The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), in partnership with the African Forest Forum (AFF) organised a webinar to discuss the opportunities for creating more sustainable charcoal value chains in Africa.

Growing population and urbanization increased charcoal consumption in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Charcoal is an affordable energy source and generates rural jobs and incomes. However, the use of charcoal causes significant downfall of health due to indoor air pollution and slashing deforestation and forest degradation.

Eight scholars were invited to discuss the core question ‘What is required to promote charcoal value chains that provide affordable energy and rural income, without degrading the forest resources?’ and to provide their recent experiences of working in different countries in Sub Sahara Africa. Based on the discussion at the webinar, this article gathers four key considerations for developing sustainable charcoal production and consumption.

Unpacking the value chain

The life cycle of the charcoal business is full of uncertainties. Who is involved in different processes of charcoal production and marketing?  How many hectares of forest are being cut? What is the difference between the selling price and the costs of production, including the raw material components? These questions can be addressed by following the charcoal value chain, from harvesting and production, to transportation, wholesale retail and to consumption.

This approach doesn’t only allow us to unpack the values of each step, but also makes the hidden actors visible. Such hidden actors include, for instance, illegal woodcutters, who are often migrant workers from neighboring countries, or international companies investing in charcoal production in the region, or women who work as charcoal traders or even a local cartel. According to Anders Roos, ‘most of the charcoal producers we met during the fieldwork were relatively poor. They have tried to earn their incomes to pay for food, clothes and school fees. While they were hoping to establish a sustainable charcoal production, where they for instance planted trees to replace what were cut.  However, the charcoal ban 2018 in Kenya has blocked the development of legal and mores sustainable charcoal value chains. Moreover, by unpacking the value chain, we can see that consumers are not only concentrated in cities, but also in rural areas. Rural value chain actors deal in smaller volumes but make up a large part of charcoal production and consumption.

Charcoal retailler in Dosso, Niger. Photo: Anders Roos

Improved technology

Better technology can improve the sustainability of charcoal value chains, including raw material production, transportation and marketing. For instance, a study in Kenya showed that mobile technology and network coverage are the key physical resources for producers, traders and transporters throughout charcoal value chains.

Moreover, developing a new technology like biochar could provide alternative energy product for rural households. A long-running participatory project with 150 Kenyan farmers tested the effects of biochar on the quality of the soil. Farmers who have a biochar stove can collect agricultural waste, like crop-residue, and small branches from forests and turn them into energy and biochar. Biochar stoves are energy efficient and save time on waste collection, which is often done by women. The triple wins of this method are 1) less smoke during cooking 2) less biomass input and 3) rich soil nutrient biochar! This technology may foster out-of-the-box thinking and farmers can start using crop residues, parts of the tree or farm waste as alternative cooking fuel. While biochar can be reused for soil improvement and carbon sequestration.

Trader selling regular cooking stoves (Jikos) in Voi, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Gender perspective in charcoal production

Women have a marginal position within charcoal value chains. A study from Kenya showed that women are the most vulnerable when it comes to uncertainties. For instance, when Kenya imposed a logging ban in 2018, it affected women who were mainly working in production and retail sectors the most. Women experienced more challenges from the ban due to the lack of access to and control over productive resources and social capital. Moreover, women who were working in charcoal business often came from poor households and didn’t have an alternative livelihood option to resort to in time of change. With limited financial independence, women can only be involved in localized, and less regulated markets. Moreover, the logging ban has affected the income of their husbands who were working in the logging industry. And with fewer remittances, the women’s businesses had lower cash flow.

Women’s vulnerability was also exposed by the current pandemic. COVID-19 has affected the whole value chain of charcoal industry. Border restriction has fueled production challenges, both in terms of transportation and migration of labour. With transportation bans and limited labour, but the same demand, charcoal prices grew and small-scale female retailers have been outcompeted by larger business owners due to their lack of capital and inability to obtain long-term loans.

A community group of charcoal producers and vendors at their tree nursery in Mwatate, Kenya. Photo: Anders Roos

Livelihood or forest: trade off or both?

Overall, the charcoal business dilemma boils down to the trade-off between livelihood and forest sustainability. However, it is possible to meet both needs if the raw material for charcoal production comes from sustainable sources. While we are working towards creating sustainable charcoal businesses, a value chain approach may help achieve a more holistic understanding of the topic. Lastly, it’s important to remember about the importance of innovative thinking in biochar production, employing a gender-sensitive lense and developing sustainable sourcing.

The webinar was organized as part of the ongoing SLU research project, ‘Sustainable Business Models for Tree-based Value Chains in Sub Saharan Africa’, led by Prof. Anders Roos. The goal of the project is to generate knowledge about the charcoal value chain, more specifically, on its processes, actors, and their interactions. The research is conducted in Kenya and Niger in a participatory manner that involves various stakeholders.  The project aims to analyse resources, competences and business models among supply chain members to foster sustainable natural resource used and improved livelihoods.

“Planting trees is always good”

– A Master’s thesis about Swedish carbon offsetting initiatives through tree planting projects in the Global South.

This blog post is written by Emil Planting Mollaoglu, Research Assistant at the Department of Urban and Rural Development, MSc in Rural Development at SLU

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

Over the past two years, I have studied the Rural Development and Natural Resource Management Master’s Programme at SLU. During the spring and summer of 2020, I wrote my Master’s thesis – which focused on the role of companies and consumers in mitigating climate change. More specifically, the thesis explored how two Swedish companies, MAX Burgers (MAX) and ZeroMission, presented carbon offsetting on their websites. MAX is a fast-food restaurant chain that has received a lot of attention for its engagement with climate change and ZeroMission is an intermediary company that sells carbon offsets to MAX and many other Swedish and Scandinavian businesses. Through interviews with customers at MAX, my thesis also explored how carbon offsetting was perceived by a sample of Swedish consumers. The thesis illustrates how planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate to its customers that they will solve climate change by eating at their restaurants – in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

In recent years, many Swedish companies have voluntary made commitments to reduce their climate impact. An approach adopted by several Swedish food and beverage companies (among others) to lower the impact is to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. This is commonly called “carbon offsetting” and it means that emissions occurring in one place are compensated for by reducing emissions or storing carbon somewhere else. This is done through projects producing carbon credits – for example through capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by planting trees. The carbon credits can then be traded on carbon offsetting markets as a way for people, companies, organisations and governments to offset their negative climate impact.

Although it may sound good that actors offset their climate impact, carbon offsetting by planting trees in the Global South is not without contestation. Critique has for example been raised regarding uncertainties of the permanence and additionality of projects. These are two of the conceptual pillars of carbon offsetting. Offsetting projects are also meant to deliver sustainable development benefits to stakeholders in the Global South, and yet, there are documented cases of a lack of such benefits and even of negative impacts on communities. In addition, so-called natural climate solutions (such as forest preservation) and methods for carbon dioxide removal (such as afforestation) are not infinite. To meet the targets of the Paris Agreement we need these tools for negative emissions to counter the impact we already have had on the climate. Researchers have therefore argued that we should change how we think about carbon offsetting and move away from the idea that we can compensate for continuing to emit greenhouse gases.

From Vi Agroforestry in Kitale, Kenya. Photo: Malin Planting.

Since 2008, MAX has been offsetting 100% of its emissions through Plan Vivo certified tree planting projects – mainly in Uganda. Since 2018, the company has expanded its investments in planting trees and now offsets 110% of its emissions. MAX calls this approach “climate-positive” because the carbon offsetting extends beyond the company’s own emissions and captures an extra 10% of CO2. The Swedish company has gained international recognition for this approach. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) has praised MAX for introducing the world’s first “climate-positive” menu and in 2019 the company received the UN Global Climate Action Award, which was presented at the UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid.

The results of my thesis show that the two companies describe climate change as a problem of both reducing emissions and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but that MAX’s emissions have continued to increase on a yearly basis. My analysis also show that the companies highlight consumption as a cause of climate change, but that the “climate-positive” approach attempts to turn consumption into the very solution to the problem. In this regard, a lot of responsibility for solving the problem was put on consumers, who were expected to choose products and companies based on their climate impact. The two companies also highlighted that deforestation is a major cause of climate change and that companies within the food industry in particular are part of causing deforestation. The argument here was that deforestation occurs as a result of land-use change, from forest land to agricultural land for cultivation of food crops. Both MAX and ZeroMission therefore argued that companies within the food industry have a responsibility to counter the loss of trees by planting new ones. The final theme of the analysis emphasised how carbon offsetting was represented as a solution to sustainable development challenges in the Global South.

Image by João Lima from Pixabay 

The thesis concludes that all the abovementioned representations reinforced each other and created a strong narrative for offsetting by planting trees in the Global South. At the same time, the customers’ responses implied that the view on how private actors and individuals can mitigate climate change is not homogenous, as they partially contrasted the two companies’ representations of climate change. The customers’ responses also illustrated a mental distance to the tree planting project in Uganda. This was for example apparent as one of the customers expressed that they did not understand the connection between MAX in Sweden and a tree planting project in Africa, but that “planting trees is always good”.

Finally, and as mentioned above, the thesis illustrates how a lot of responsibility for solving the problem of climate change is put on the individual consumers. Planting trees in Uganda has enabled MAX to communicate that climate change will be solved by its customers, that choose to eat at the Swedish fast-food restaurant chain instead of somewhere else, in spite of the company’s yearly increase of greenhouse gas emissions.

At the Department of Urban and Rural Development at SLU, there is an ongoing project that explores how Swedish companies and consumers perceive carbon offsetting through tree planting projects. I am part of this project as a research assistant and currently work on an academic article that partly is based on my thesis. If you are interested in or want to know more about carbon offsetting, you can find out more about the project here and you are also most welcome to read my thesis, which is available online.

Pandemic adapted Swedish-Ugandan training on livestock raising with low use of antibiotics

Written by Kristina Osbjer and Ulf Magnusson at the Department of Clinical Sciences, SLU

Photo: Justine Alinaitwe

The coronavirus pandemic is changing how we work and is providing us with an opportunity to rethink the way we conduct education, sustain research and maintain collaborations. A recent field-training experience in Uganda, combining video recordings, zoom lectures and discussions with local facilitation, has paved the way forward for us within the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock to conduct interactive training in responsible antibiotic use in Ugandan livestock farming communities amidst travel restrictions.

Antimicrobial resistance – the silent pandemic

While the world is preoccupied with fighting COVID-19, antimicrobial resistance is continuing to spread, with serious consequences for health and economies (World Bank, 2017). Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), the ability of microbes to persist and grow in the presence of drugs designed to inhibit or kill them, is accelerated by the excessive and inappropriate use of antimicrobials in humans, animals and crops (FAO, 2020). Low and middle-income countries (LMICs) are predicted to account for most of the increase in antimicrobial use and to carry the largest burden of AMR, but the action and research agenda on AMR has so far been largely driven by the OECD countries (O’Neill J, 2016).

More attention to the conditions of antimicrobial use and resistance in LMICs will be required and was also the focus in a recent webinar arranged by the Livestock Antimicrobial Partnership (LAMP), hosted by SLU Global, where the divergent challenges in curbing AMR in high-income countries as compared to LMICs were discussed (LAMP webinar, 2020).

Sweden as a model to curb Antimicrobial Resistance
Sweden has a long-term experience in producing healthy and productive animals with low antibiotic use. Our unique expertise and lessons learned are internationally recognised and disseminated through online courses (Future learn, 2020) and guidelines (FAO/SLU, 2019 and FAO/SLU, 2020).

A bottom-up approach to influence antimicrobial stewardship in livestock within the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock

SLU is leading the Animal Health Flagship within the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock (CGIAR, 2020). The programme focuses on supporting the development of small-scale livestock farming with the goal ‘more meat, milk and eggs by and for the poor’ primarily targeting Uganda, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Tanzania. SLU contributes to the programme with expertise in herd health and matters related to antibiotic resistance. Such expertise was used also in the training on productive livestock with low use of antibiotics in Uganda. The first round of training was carried out 25-27 November 2020 in Masaka district in collaboration between SLU and colleagues from Ministry of Agriculture, Animal Industries and Fisheries, Makerere University, and local authorities in Masaka. The SLU moderators participated online, whereas the Ugandan facilitators and training participants gathered in Uganda, following the COVID-19 safety measures imposed by the Uganda Government. A mix of veterinarians from the government and the private sector as well as para-veterinarians and some farmers participated in the training that aimed for a two-way learning process to identify feasible measures to reduce the need for antibiotics and use it only when needed in a medically rational way. The local context was emphasised by taking stock of knowledge and current practices in maintaining healthy animals, the role of animal health professionals and farmers in securing animal health and the prevailing application of good animal husbandry, biosecurity and antimicrobial use. This was followed by pre-recorded and online presentations and discussion on the Swedish model and how alternative practices may be adopted in Uganda.  

Sharing ideas helped us learn from each other

The training participants praised the participatory training approach and the opportunity to learn from each other, realising that among themselves they already had much of the knowledge required to become antibiotic-smart. The combined online and onsite training format was successful, yet, required a venue with stable internet connection. Participating farmers and veterinarians concluded that they were equally responsible to limit the prevailing irresponsible use of antibiotics and proposed more sensitisation campaigns, using highly influential people and practical real-life examples to raise the general awareness of AMR. They also asked for follow-up trainings to enable sustainable change of practices. As facilitators, we gained new insights on how antimicrobials are used and accessed in Uganda and tips on how to improve future hybrid and follow-up trainings. We hope that our experience can inspire others to design and implement pandemic-adapted training.

Wild food as a safety net: Food and nutrition security during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This blogpost is written by Divya Gupta, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, India; Suchita Shrestha, Southasia Institute of Advanced Studies, Kathmandu, Nepal and Harry Fischer, SLU. This article was first published by SIANI.

Andheri Village in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important part of the diet for rural populations around the world, primarily in developing countries. They are also an important safety net and contribute to resilience by enabling people to cope with food insecurity in times of rural distress. This has become particularly apparent in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

We have conducted research on food security during the COVID-19 pandemic in the mid-Himalayan region of rural India and Nepal, where nationwide lockdowns were imposed starting last the week of March and continued for several months. The lockdown led to movement of all kinds being sharply constrained, which disrupted the food supply chain and created uncertainty in accessibility, availability and affordability of food. Working with local research assistants, we have been able to continue our data collection and conduct interviews (while following strict government guidelines) thereby providing an in-depth understanding of how the effects of the lockdown unfolded in the areas.

Wild mushrooms harvested by a household in Himachal Pradesh, India. Source: Subodh Kumar (Research Assistant)

Over the past few decades, a large proportion of the populations in our study sites have transitioned to cultivating cash crops. While these trends may have increased household incomes overall, they have led to reduced production of food for household’s own consumption and increased dependence on markets for both food and income. The lockdown constrained farmers’ ability to sell their harvest due to transport restrictions to the market, leaving many of them to face huge financial losses. This compromised the purchasing power of the people and increased their reliance on wild foods such as leaves, seeds, nuts, honey, fruits, mushrooms that they can collect from their communal resources, including forests, grasslands, and water bodies.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

Edible wild foods have been an important coping strategy for households to deal with food shortages following the lockdown, especially for landless households and wageworkers who depend on off-farm employment. The lockdown has had a profound effect on the employment and income of such households. There were families that could not afford adequate food and reported consuming less food than before.

Rasnalu Village in Ramechhap, Nepal. Source: Divya Gupta

A woman from a landless household with eight family members in a remote village in Nepal told us, “my husband is a construction worker, and he lost his job immediately after the lockdown was imposed. This constrained our ability to buy food to adequately feed our family. I was constantly stressed out about this and often resorted to foraging edible wild foods that I was able to find in our forests”. Another smallholder farmer in India shared, “we did not have enough food left in our reserve when the lockdown was imposed, unfortunately it was also a bad season for our crops as we lost most of our harvest to pest infestation. The wild foods that we were able to gather from our forest was a huge respite and we were extremely grateful for that”.  In addition, wild foods were also a convenient option as some households preferred foraging as opposed to spending money buying vegetables from the market, as an interviewee from a small-landholding household from our site in Rasnalu Village in Nepal shared.

“We occasionally collect vegetables growing in the wild. However, during the lockdown owing to the shortage in supply of fresh vegetables and a consequent rise in their price, we relied more on foraging”.

Wild foods in our sites were also perceived to be safe from contamination. Although not based on scientific fact, many households feared consuming produce bought from the market. “We were scared to buy vegetables from the market because we feared they might carry the infection, so we substituted vegetables with wild foods that we would find in our forests”, said a farmer in our study site in India. He further added:

“Once when I had got vegetables from the market, my mother panicked and immediately threw them away. Market bought vegetables were strictly banned in our household”.

In addition, cooking wild foods was also perceived as a way of continuing traditional recipes. For example, in our sites in Nepal, households procured greens such as stinging nettle, fiddlehead fern, and others that are used as an alternate to market-bought/ cultivated vegetables. “These foods are a part of our traditional recipes that we have been cooking for generations”, shared a female respondent.

Fiddlehead ferns. Source: Rakshya Timalsina (Research Assistant)

It is important to note that under normal circumstances, a lot of the households in our study areas use diverse food sources to fulfill the dietary needs of their family, including farms/kitchen gardens, markets, and communal land and water resources. We observed that at the time of the lockdown, wild foods were particularly important for households that lacked adequate income and/or did not have the option of a kitchen garden. Thus, wild foods have been an important component of the food basket for our sample population during the pandemic

Observation from our research highlights the importance of wild foods as carriers of important cultural values and also their roles in helping households cope with food insecurity in the context of shocks and uncertainty, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Often overlooked as a resilience strategy, wild foods are a vital resource that demands more attention in ensuring mechanisms for managing and safeguarding habitats for their long-term sustenance.

This research was supported by the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet) research project 2018-05875 and a FORMAS Urgent grant 2020-02781.

What the pandemic taught us about the future of academic exchange

This blogpost is written by SLU students Emma Bergeling, Hanna Smidvik, Emil Planting Mollaoglu and Felicia Olsson. It was first published by SIANI.

As a result of the corona pandemic, the embedded practices of international travel in academia drastically changed. It suddenly became customary to replace business trips with digital alternatives whenever possible. Four students at SLU decided to study the implications. The results show a great untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel by conducting a larger share of academic activities digitally – without compromising the quality of research. 

In the turmoil that arose due to the travel restrictions put in place in March 2020, academics suddenly had to find solutions to continue their work in ways that did not include longer business trips. As students actively involved in discussions on universities’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, we have for long been discussing the question of how academic business trips can be replaced by digital alternatives while maintaining the quality of work and research. 2020 presented an unexpected window of opportunity to seek an answer to that question and to gather academics’ experiences of the new reality without travels.

Academia in a burning climate crisis

The topic of GHG emissions from academia in general and academics’ air travel in particular has over the past decade been the focus of a growing number of publications in scientific journals and in mainstream media. This should be understood against a backdrop of factors such as i) the climate crisis itself,  ii) the notion of aviation as one of the fastest-growing sources of GHG emissions – characterised by a slow technological development unlikely to compensate for the estimated growth in demand, and iii) the recognition of academic researchers as among the highest emitters when it comes to international air travel, but also as potential leaders in a transition to a society within the planetary boundaries, if combining advocacy with changes in their own emission habits. This debate has resulted in various commitments, initiatives and responsibilities for higher education institutions (HEIs) around the world. With air travel being one of universities’ largest sources of GHG emissions, the need to critically scrutinise the norms and practices of academic travel is apparent. 

Prior to the pandemic, one could mainly speculate about the consequences of a drastic and large-scale reduction of travel in academia. University employees’ recently gained experiences of an increased use of digital solutions replacing longer business trips are therefore valuable in the search for new norms and practices of academic travel. In our study, we wanted to collect these experiences before they fell into oblivion. Through 25 semi-structured interviews and a survey with approximately 220 respondents, we sought to answer how employees at SLU experienced the cancellation of business trips and increased use of digital solutions. What trips worked well or not so well to replace? How was the quality of various academic activities (seminars, thesis defences, conferences, project meetings etc.) affected by being held digitally? 

Digital solutions replacing academic travel – what have we learnt? 

Our study shows that there is a great, untapped potential to reduce emissions from academic travel without compromising the general quality of the research and work. By adopting a more thought-through mix of digital and physical meetings, where a larger share of activities are conducted digitally, academia can reduce GHG emissions while keeping the quality as well as opening up for greater accessibility and participation.

A majority of the respondents were surprised by how well it had worked to replace longer business trips with digital alternatives, surprisingly well or beyond expectation were common formulations. An overwhelming majority (83%) of the survey respondents reported that their work in general had been mainly positively affected, equal parts positively and negatively affected, or not affected at all by the travel restrictions. 

Effects on work in general.

The academic activities that were experienced as most difficult to perform digitally were certain types of fieldwork and data collection, as well as activities that require spontaneous discussions and networking. We also found that meetings had become more efficient, but often at the expense of social interactions. On the other hand, well-structured meetings with a clear agenda between people that had previously met in person, as well as activities such as administrative meetings, project meetings and seminars, were perceived as most suited to perform digitally. These experiences were also mirrored in the survey respondents’ answers to what academic activities they thought could be held digitally – and to what extent – in the future. 

What type of activities the respondents believed could be replaced with digital solutions after the corona crisis and to what extent.

Furthermore, our results show how digital activities have enabled greater accessibility and equality within the academic community. Researchers that would not have had the time, resources or possibilities to travel to various meetings could now participate in digital events on more equal terms. On the other hand, lack of access to stable internet connection and issues of time differences made certain meetings less inclusive and/or equal. A key takeaway is therefore that digital events have the potential to be more inclusive than physical events but that it is important to actively consider equality and accessibility aspects in planning.

Another eye-opener following the increased use of digital solutions is how these were used to reach a wider audience with research and education. Instead of having farmers or beekeepers travel to SLU to listen to a seminar or to take part in a course, the material was recorded and made publicly available digitally. In a research project reference group consisting of farmers, more had been able to join the meetings now that they were held digitally, as opposed to before when the group had to travel to SLU for each meeting.

Our study also found that there seems to be a need to improve how we use digital solutions and start thinking beyond the mere translation of a physical event or meeting into a digital one. The informants had a lot of useful insights concerning this and we have summarised some of these insights in the figure below. 

Six hacks for successfull digital meetings.

Lastly, most informants lacked experiences of networking in digital events as this part had been neglected when events were digitised and they stressed a need for new and inventive ways of networking digitally, moving forward.

New ways forward for academia post-corona

The participants clearly did not want to continue travelling to the extent they had before the pandemic. However, no one wanted to completely move from physical meetings to only digital solutions. It is time we find a golden middle way. Many expressed that they had begun to think in new ways about what makes it important to meet in person and what makes a business trip necessary or not.

“I’m sure you can reduce the amount of physical meetings quite considerably, and that the [physical] meetings you do have you can spend some more quality and preparations at them so they are well motivated and so that you get the most out of them. ‘Which are the good conditions and perks of meeting in person?’ And then make sure to optimise them.” – Professor

Although the pandemic has closed countless doors, it should in some respects be seen as a window of opportunity to make new decisions and do things in new ways. An opportunity to address and rethink what is actually possible in terms of reducing academia’s GHG emissions.

“There are surely plenty of ways to do this that we have never tried, that might be better than what we are doing right now.”Professor

Interesting questions remain: what will university managements as well as researchers make of this opening, what insights and new learnings will they bring with them into the future? Which new practices will stay on to become embedded within the culture of academia in a post-corona context?  We argue that the answers to these questions should lead to emission reductions in line with climate science. That decisions about what business trips actually are necessary are based on thorough evaluations of experiences from this pandemic, and that digital solutions are used strategically to replace longer business trips. The urgent climate crisis, combined with this unexpected window of opportunity, makes it crystal clear that the time for academia to change embedded practices, rapidly reduce emissions and take on a leadership role is now. Our study has shown that all of this can be done without compromising the quality of research. So what are we waiting for?

Antibiotics – a tragedy of the commons

This article was written by Susanna Sternberg Lewerin, Professor in Epizootiology & Disease Control at the Department do Biomedical Sciences & Veterinary public Health, SLU.

Antibiotics kill susceptible bacteria while those who have acquired traits to destroy the drug or protect themselves from it survive and multiply. Resistant bacteria can share their resistance genes with others. Illustration: SLU

Today is the Antibiotic Awareness Day. It is a day to be grateful for these important medicines, and to consider how to best preserve them for the future.

Antibiotics, drugs to combat bacteria, are useful tools in both veterinary and human medicine. They allow us to treat bacterial infections in animals and people, common diseases as well as those that occur due to immunosuppressive treatments such as cancer therapy or following transplant surgery. The problem is that all use of antibiotics kills the susceptible bacteria and leave the field open for those who have  become resistant to the antibiotic. In a successful treatment course, the few remaining (resistant) bacteria can be killed by the host’s immune system and the host, animal or person, is cured. On the other hand, if the majority of the disease-causing bacteria are resistant, the treatment will be ineffective.

To preserve antibiotics as medical tools, we must use them as little as possible, only when needed, in the correct dose so that enough of the drug reaches the body site where the bacteria are causing the disease, and only for the time needed, until the immune system has eliminated the disease-causing bacteria. This is not as easy as it sounds, it takes insight into what diseases cause problems in animals and people in different settings, how to prevent them and how to treat them effectively, with or without antibiotics.

In Sweden, disease prevention is a key feature of veterinary medicine. Good animal husbandry, good biosecurity, vaccination and other strategies to control and prevent disease has been and continues to be a major research focus. We also collaborate in EU projects where different practices, attitudes and societal systems present new challenges that can be addressed by learning from the Swedish experiences (successes as well as failures) and by new ideas and innovations.

In low-income countries, antibiotics are not restricted to prescription from a veterinarian or a doctor but can be bought over-the-counter in drug stores where the products can be of poor quality and the information about how to use them may be lacking or misleading.

Poor farmers sometimes use the volume intended for treatment of one animal to treat several animals (i.e. with a lower dose), rendering the treatment ineffective and paving the way for resistant bacteria without curing the disease. If no veterinarian is involved in determining the cause of the disease, antibiotics may be used to treat diseases that are not caused by bacteria, so that the treatment is a waste of money and, again, promotes the resistant bacteria.

We collaborate with researchers in low-income countries on how to prevent and control animal diseases. We also work on developing systems for monitoring of diseases and antibiotic use, to provide information about what diseases are common and which antibiotics are used effectively. This project also addresses ways to increase the interaction between veterinarians and farmers by video consultations, to facilitate farmers’ access to veterinary advice on disease treatments while improving profitability for both groups. 

It is important to recognise the need for different strategies in different settings, disease prevention and control rely on knowledge of the local situation and its context-specific challenges and opportunities. Still, the worries and hopes of farmers are similar in countries all over the world and serve as incentives for improvement of animal health and production. The long-term goals of our research focus on animal health and welfare, for a sustainable animal production with a sustainable use of antibiotics. We must all contribute to preserving antibiotics for the future. Don’t let it be nobody’s responsibility, it lies with everyone.

For the love of the spud in spite of its beauty spots

This article was written by Erik Alexandersson, Researcher at the Department of Plant Protection Biology, SLU

Small holder farmers together with Lerato Matsaunyane at ARC in Randfontein. Photo: Flip Steyn.

Today, 26 October, is the offical potato day here in Sweden and a good opportunity to look closer at this quite nutritional crop. The potato is grown and eaten all over the world and production is on the rise in many low income countries – primarily in Africa. The versatility and adaptability of this beloved spud is the key to it´s wide spread. However, diseases and drought due to changed climate present threats to yields in the future.

Potatoes have long been essential for Western cuisine. They are loved in many forms. Why not boiled together with meat and sauce, as fries accompanying that novel non-meat burger or simply as crisps, which can be seen as the centrepiece of cosy television time with the family. Worldwide potato is today the third most consumed crop.

The potato retains its popularity in spite the rise of the fast-boiling pasta and popularity of low-carb diets. Consumption in the industrialised world have been stable the last 20 years even if it now and again ends up in the dietary cold box.

In low-income countries, potato production is still on the rise though. In 2008, the total production even passed that of the industrialised world. Not the least in sub-Saharan Africa where incidence of malnutrition are among the highest in the world, and sadly more than 15% of the total population still lacks sufficient food.

In fact, its cropping area and production have increased more than those of any other food crop in Africa (1). Today, it is maybe foremost an important cash crop for small-scale farmers, but since the areal and demand are rising we can predict that it will have a greater importance to future food security in the region.

Potato has a fantastic ability to adapt and yield in different climate conditions. Originating from the Andes the potato is grown on all continents except Antarctica. Its ability to produce well in so many different environments is an important part of its success. Still many diseases affects the production. In temperate regions late blight is considered as one of the most dreaded plant diseases. Extensive research has gone into combating late blight and today we have both conventional bred and genetically modified potatoes carrying additional resistance genes with high level of resistance as well as efficient pesticides.

Potato trials in Roodeplaat. Photo: Flip Steyn

However, in an African perspective, other diseases such as early blight, which thrives in warmer climates and insect pests that destroy harvested tubers can cause larger problems. The underlying mechanisms of several other diseases than late blight are less studied and lesser known. Unfortunately, efficient resistance factors are unknown and remain to be discovered for use in breeding programmes. For early blight, there is also an increased problem with pesticide resistance.

For the small-scale farmers it is not easy to afford to protect their potato crop or take the right measures. One powerful way to convert research into practice are field demonstrations for farmers, advisers and policy makers, something we tried out with our colleagues Lerato Matsaunyane at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria, South Africa and Tewodros Mulugeta at Kotebe Metropolitan University in Ethiopia.

Furthermore, for the farmers in Southern Africa, unpredictable rains have caused big problems for agriculture. In this context, potato will have a challenge as it is sensitive to drought, also to shorter micro-droughts and clearer focus on research on drought tolerant varieties is needed. Unfortunately, climate change is expected to have a very large impact on agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa. The need for a future drought tolerant potato is evident.

Luckily, the International Potato Center and other research institutes are doing multifaceted research to provide a disease free and drought tolerant potato suitable for different needs in African agriculture.

But, today is the official potato day here in Sweden, so let us just for a moment look away from these beauty spots of this loved spud. Did you for example know that the nutritional value of potato is not that bad! Tubers harbours fibre and important nutrients such as vitamin C, tocopherols and carotenoids! And with the right cultivar under the right conditions it can be one of the most high-yielding crops! With a production of 15, 40 or even 60 tonnes per hectare it can for sure feed many hungry stomachs.

References

(1) Ortiz, O., & Mares, V. (2017). The historical, social, and economic importance of the potato crop. In The Potato Genome (pp. 1-10). Springer, Cham

Smallholder farmers in Kenya know how to meet climate challenges, but lack the means to do it

This article was written and first published by SIANI in collaboration with PhD Ylva Nyberg, Department of Crop Production Ecology, SLU. The findings and conclusions in this blog post are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of SLU.

A more diversified farming system spread the risks better and has higher delivery of ecosystem services even if it needs more knowledge and labour. Photo: Ylva Nyberg.

Many smallholder farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are caught up in a negative spiral. Often farming on one hectare of land, they struggle to make ends meet and, in most cases, they cannot afford enough farm inputs, which leads to declining soil fertility of their farms, resulting in low yields. Many farmers have to look for casual jobs to get by. Poverty pushes them to reduce the number of meals they eat, so they also lack the energy to farm.

Climate change with its changing rain patterns, droughts and floods doesn’t make the life of smallholder farmers easier. Contrary to the popular belief, recent research by Ylva Nyberg, highlights that smallholder farmers are well aware of the climatic challenges and know how to adapt and cope. However, they would be reluctant to adopt sustainable agricultural practices due to the lack of access to credit, land, knowledge and labour.

Nyberg carried out her field work on smallholder farms across a gradient of landscapes in Kenya, from Kisumu by Lake Victoria to Trans Nzoia in the western highlands. She summarized her findings in her PhD dissertation which she defended at the Department of Crop Production Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. 

Initially, Nyberg embarked on her journey to gain a better understanding of how small farms can increase yields without damaging nature. She used a variety of research methods, such as group and individual interviews, tree density measurement, soil sample analysis and randomized control trials. During the group interviews, Nyberg explored whether the farmers had experienced rainfall-related challenges and if they had planned to adapt to changing rainfall patterns. She quickly learnt that smallholders were well aware of climatic changes and also knew many adaptation and coping strategies, though men happened to be better informed than women

Then Nyberg spoke with farmers individually to find out how they applied their knowledge of adaptation measures. The results varied in accordance with access to social capital. Men tended to have higher education, better access to agricultural advisory services and more time for social networking, and they also were able to use more adaptation measures than women, especially those who lack education. Farmers with regular access to agricultural advisory services used more adaptation measures, especially those measures that they perceived most effective.

During these interviews many farmers also mentioned that having trees and livestock makes them less vulnerable, providing insurances or savings. Therefore, Nyberg has also considered these parameters in her work. It appears that higher tree density increased the workload on farms, but the income that came from these farms was higher too. In addition, trees were important to all farmers by providing shade for recreation. High livestock density showed signs of higher soil nitrogen turnover, even though collecting and using the manure can be challenging. Low tree and low livestock density were often an indicator of high dependency on off-farm revenues.

Agroforestry was one of the practices found to positively affect maize yields as well as being perceived effective among farmers. However, agroforestry is also labour-intensive. Photo by Ylva Nyberg

Lastly, Nyberg compared farms that took part in Kenya Agricultural Carbon Project over four years with those farms that weren’t engaged in carbon farming. She found that maize yields were positively related to terracing of fields and to growing more trees on the farm, the so-called agroforestry. Farmers working with the Carbon Project used more sustainable management practices, had higher yields and better food self-sufficiency as well as more savings than farmers who weren’t involved in the project.

However, the farmers who participated in the Carbon Project had higher yields to begin with and the difference in yield between the two groups of farms were similar in the first and the fourth year. Thereby, the increases in yield cannot be explained by the project only, unless the neighbouring farms outside the project had actually learnt methods and started practising them as well.

Smallholders have great potential to improve their production in a sustainable way, but they lack sufficient labour, land, money or knowledge to adopt sustainable agricultural land management practices.

Nyberg suggests that policy should address the farming and food production system as a whole, increasing inclusivity, particularly in regards to women with poor education. Agricultural advisors should also promote packages of simple but effective measures, encourage diversified farming systems where feasible and focus on the limiting factors, such as access to credit, knowledge and labour. This way, farmers will have the means to practice sustainable agriculture. Only then smallholder farmers will be able to build sustainable livelihood, supply ecosystem services and be climate action agents.

Check out Ylva Nybergs PhD thesis here.