Knowing, then, begins with the scattering of illusions, with disillusionment (Enttäuschung).

Erich Fromm

What I do

In short, my research contributes to managing transitions to sustainable farm and food systems in the dryland tropics.

My work focuses on pathways that improve social stability, environmental sustainability and access to healthy and nutritious foods. All three are essential for human security. In complex environments with millions of people living in poverty and precarious nutrition situations, developing these ‘impact’ pathways is both urgent and challenging.

Across my research, I explore the effects of structures (such as policies, input and output markets, institutions, social networks, human value systems and identities) on the behavior of populations, such as farmers, processors of agricultural foods, traders, consumers and policy makers. In turn, I’m interested in how people shape social structures to their disadvantage or advantage.

Some structures encourage decisions and behaviors to support sustainable farming and the consumption of health foods; others have the opposite effect. To achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, we will need better strategies and frameworks in the hands of people tasked with managing both structures and processes.

Where I work

My research takes me to three broad innovation ecologies (i.e. distinct interrelated areas with their own actors, goals and development priorities, institutions and resources) described below. In each of these ecologies, I explore pathways to either greater social stability or to the sustainable use of environmental resources. My basic and applied research questions focus on reallocation of resources, transition readiness of actors, ways to improve change facilitation and impact assessment. Access to food and healthy diets are central outcome indicators.

Protracted crises and post-conflict zones

Tensions between rural resource users arise amidst a complex mix of local institutions and ethnic groups, with climate change results including extreme weather events, exacerbating the situation in a growing number of African and Asian regions. Conflict between pastoralists and farmers is just one example. My research in this innovation ecology currently takes place in Kenya, Uganda and Somalia and focuses on resource equity and ways to mitigate resource-related inequalities in agriculture and agro-pastoral areas.

Informal settlements in urban areas

The proliferation of towns and cities in Africa and Asia changes food equations for both rural and urban landscapes and their inhabitants. In this unique innovation ecology, we look for new models to guide improved urban nutrition, while sending positive production incentives to farmers in rural areas. I mentor research in Kenya, Malawi and Zimbabwe where I help to unpack local food narratives to inform behavior change interventions, explore the impact of food environments on eating habits and search for ways to diversify diets among low-income populations.

Transforming rural farming systems

Regenerative agricultural technologies have long been a core research area of universities and research centers – including the CGIAR. Of particular interest are reasons for the adoption or rejection of improved crop varieties, especially ICRISAT’s mandate crops (i.e. small grains, legumes). In this ecology we also explore how to feasibly address complex socio-technology questions, such as the closure of nutrient cycles through crop-livestock integration and crop rotations. Part of my work focuses on the impact of agricultural technologies on food, income and the environment (with data from West, East and Southern Africa).

Methodology

My research on pathways is anchored in several research traditions. While natural resources, such as soils, water, crops and livestock are an obvious focal point (where my natural science training helps), it’s the decisions that people make about the use of these resources in complex environments that I try to understand through my research (using my background in development research). My research typically uses mixed approaches: some of my work is guided by traditional study design; elsewhere it is anchored by co-design thinking and participatory research. I employ qualitative and quantitative social science methods. In the field, I work closely with system modelers, foresight analysts and impact assessment specialists. Together we draw conclusions and make recommendations for policy makers and practitioners at national and regional level.

Supervising students

Within my research boundaries, I offer a wide range of researchable topics for graduate students, most of whom are enrolled at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna where they carry out field research in projects managed by ICRISAT. Under exceptional circumstances, I accept topics outside the realm of ICRISAT, or supervise students of other universities provided their research topic contributes to ICRISAT’s research agenda.