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Africa’s dryland agricultural systems research: When East meets West (and when it doesn’t)

I have been working for nine months as an agricultural economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) headquarters, in Nairobi, Kenya. I have come to realize that there are not enough bridges between West and East African agricultural research communities. Is it a problem of history? Different languages? Or perhaps inter-African communication links are not sufficiently developed?

PPZS evaluation meetingSenegal’s ‘Pastoralism and Arid Areas’ Program (PPZS) researchers listen to the preliminary conclusions of the external evaluation mission on 14 June 2013 in Dakar (photo credit: ILRI/Jo Cadilhon).

So it was particularly interesting for me to learn how French and Senegalese colleagues are tackling issues faced by dryland pastoral communities in West Africa. I was involved last week in an external evaluation of the ‘Pastoralism and Arid Areas’ Program, or PPZS for its French name. PPZS is an institutional partnership involving the French centre for international cooperation on agricultural research for development CIRAD (Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement) and three Senegalese organizations: the Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute (ISRA), the Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar (UCAD) and the Ecological Monitoring Centre (CSE).

The PPZS partners are working to answer the following research questions.

  1. Is the evolution of pastoral systems compatible with the sustainable management of natural resources and ecosystems?
  2. What are the necessary conditions to secure and improve the livelihoods and production conditions of pastoral communities?
  3. What is the contribution of pastoralism to livestock production and how can its technical and economic performance be improved?
  4. What are the most relevant tools for analysis, management and decision-making to be produced by research for all the different stakeholders?

To respond to these questions, PPZS has taken a multidisciplinary research approach: ecologists, animal production scientists, veterinarians, pastoral experts, computer and economics modellers, geographical information systems experts, geographers, sociologists, value chains analysts—all are part of the partnership. An anthropologist will join the team soon to document local knowledge within pastoral production systems of West Africa. Based in Senegal, this team has also linked to several research partners in West Africa to start studying the ramifications of pastoralism across the Sahelian region. Indeed, the Senegalese drylands are just one stopover point for the incessant flow of livestock and herders which criss-cross the region.

One recent and very successful product of this interdisciplinary research, which integrates natural and social sciences, is the Information system on pastoralism in the Sahel, atlas of the evolutions of pastoral systems in the Sahel 1970–2012 (available in French here). This atlas has helped ‘federate’ the different scientific and socio-economic disciplines involved in PPZS around a common research project. The atlas also increased the partnership’s visibility, attracting the interest of both donors and potential research partners. And it provides a user-friendly tool for policymakers and development practitioners supporting pastoral communities in the field.

Although the PPZS research team seemed a bit confused as to whether they were a ‘multidiscplinary’ or ‘interdisciplinary’ team, I thought they could lay claim to both. There was a complementary mix of research disciplines, with the federating research programs such as the one leading to the Sahelian pastoralism atlas successfully integrating work of different disciplines in a common research product. In general, the external evaluation mission I was part of thought the PPZS was doing a great job of using a ‘holistic systems’ framework to study the pastoral ecosystems of West Africa. I pointed out to them that this ingrained systems framework was an asset to highlight in their research publications because the systems tradition had somewhat died away in the past 30 years among anglophone communities conducting agricultural research for development. On-going discussions within the HumidTropics and Drylands CGIAR research programs are trying to revive this holistic research framework in studies of their respective agricultural production and marketing systems. Thus, apart from the wealth of expertise about Sahelian pastoralism possessed by PPZS participants (which I hope ILRI will work to integrate into its own research on dryland agricultural systems), there are useful lessons we can learn from the organizational setup of PPZS and how it has managed to foster interdisciplinarity.

Both PPZS and CGIAR are also working on how to make their work become more ‘transdisciplinary’, as when field stakeholders interact with the researchers involved. Gérard Balent of INRA, who chaired our external evaluation mission, provided an enlightening model to define and characterize these various levels of cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder involvements in ecosystems research.

All in all, there was much to learn from ‘the West’ on this mission, which I hope ILRI and its partners will be incorporating in similar work here in ‘the East’.

Editor’s note: The ‘continental divide’ that Jo Cadilhon senses in his work might be an interesting topic of discussion at the 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week (AASW6) in Accra next week, being organized by the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the Government of Ghana. Follow this event on Twitter via @FARAinfo and the the hashtag#AASW6, on FARA’s Facebook Page and on the AASW6 blog.

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