Friday, 17 July 2015

The rewards and challenges of collaboration in research and development projects

By Jim Young, Project Officer - Mekong Livestock Research (University of Sydney)

‘Collaboration’ is a word that rolls off the tongue and I think is generally perceived in a positive light. So I was somewhat surprised to find two definitions on a 'Google search'. The first, was expected; ‘the action of working with someone to produce or create something’. The second, was a little more surprising; ‘traitorous cooperation with an enemy’. Hmmm, interesting and I thought it might be useful to explore collaboration in further detail in the hope of stimulating some discussion and learn the experiences of others.

My view, and I am confident I can speak on behalf of our University of Sydney Mekong Livestock Research team, is that collaboration refers to the first definition: Joining forces to reach a common goal. Sounds simple, right?

Here’s a few lessons I’ve learned.

Collaborating, or partnering, can tap into existing networks and help scale out messages. Agricultural projects, particularly in their early phases, need to build a profile quickly and efficiently, often across multiple geographies, disciplines, cultures and institutions. Communicating objectives, planned activities to formal stakeholders is needed to build support and identify opportunities.

Collaboration might start with a simple act such as donating textbooks for university students. Source: Jim Young

Pooled funding can also help scale out extension and activities. If this is thought of in terms of fixed and variable costs, even small increments can actually lead to relatively higher levels of person-to-person engagement. For example, if a planned workshop costs $2,000 with 20 participants, and an extra $500 allows a further 20 people to attend; participation is doubled yet costs increased by only 25%.

Relationships leading to future benefits can occur with collaboration. For example, if one group goes out of its way to assist another, because the objectives were not 100% aligned, the partner benefiting to a greater degree may reciprocate this in the future. In my opinion, finding the sweet spot where objectives overlap is where success is most easily found.

One of the challenges of collaboration is overcoming fears of one group (or person) taking all the credit. It’s important to recognise there is no ‘I’ in ‘TEAM’, and define early who does what and how reporting will occur, to ensure the relationship remains robust. In a cross-cultural setting, one example may include the logos on a workshop banner. Location and size matter! Another one that comes up is journal paper authorship. Setting the expectations or parameters early on authorship order (i.e. first authorship is given to whom did the majority of the work) is key to avoid losing collaborative momentum, or even worse, alienation or a standstill. It might also be a good idea to consider outcomes verses outputs, as different project donors may have differing expectations and targets. Another consideration is how collaborations are administered. Contracts, memorandums of understanding and letters of agreement can be very useful but can also require a large amount of administrative resource, which if not managed carefully could outweigh the benefits. Working with groups and organisations that are agile, flexible and trustworthy is preferred.

Find the sweet spot where objectives overlap, and focus efforts there. Source: Jim Young

So when it comes to collaboration, some people believe 1 + 1 = 0, 1 + 1 = 2, or 1 + 1 = 3. What do you believe?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Safe vegetables for the benefit of all stakeholders along the supply chain

By Nguyen Thi Sau, Fruit and Vegetable Research Institute, Vietnam

During a recent visit to Vietnam, Dr Nick Austin, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), spent some time on project-related activities in the country.

On 8 July, he visited a Fivimart supermarket on Chuong Duong Do Street with ACIAR country staff to see the sales point of certified safe vegetables from Moc Chau District, Son La Province. These vegetables have been produced under the ACIAR project ‘Improved market engagement for counter-seasonal vegetable producers in north-western Vietnam’ (AGB/2009/053). While there, ACIAR met with the distributors, collectors, farmers and market researchers who are directly involved in the Moc Chau safe vegetable supply chain.

Successful connection between safe vegetable producers in Moc Chau and Fivimart in Hanoi through the ACIAR project has led to the consumption of about 737 tons of vegetables since 2012 with an increase in volume and vegetable types from year to year.

Dr Nick Austin, ACIAR’s Chief Executive Officer (fourth from left) join farmers from Moc Chau and ACIAR Vietnam staff in the visit to a Fivimart outlet in Hanoi on 8 July 2015. Photo by Nguyen Phuc Dinh

Unfortunately due to time limitations, Dr Austin could not visit the vegetable production area in Moc Chau itself, which is about 200km away from Hanoi. Instead, he was fortunate to meet with Mrs Nguyen Thi Nong (representative of the households) and Mrs Nguyen Thi Luyen (chairperson of Luu Luyen vegetable cooperative from Moc Chau who participated in the project) at the meeting in Hanoi.

Safe vegetables produced under VietGAP processes have come from farm trials in three communes (Dong Sang, Muong Sang and Chieng Hac) of the Moc Chau District. Safe vegetables have been supplied to retail points in supermarkets and the safe vegetable shops in Hanoi. Right from the start, safe vegetables were welcomed by Fivimart supermarket chain, with 50-60% of total vegetable consumption from the project area.

In the meeting, Mrs Vu Thi Hau, Deputy General Director of Fivimart’s owner-company said that they chose to participate in the project because Moc Chau farmers are able to produce high-quality and safe vegetables, especially summer counter-seasonal vegetables for Hanoi markets. It is difficult for those farmers who are close to Hanoi to produce a similar quality of vegetable in the summer-time.

In the project collaboration process, communication between Fivimart and members of the cooperative is very important. Mrs Nguyen Thi Luyen, chairperson of the cooperative (and “female general” of north-western mountainous region), is a perfect example. Her coordination helps the farmers meet the purchase orders, both for quantity and types of vegetables. Mrs Luyen mentioned that “Moc Chau safe vegetable value chain is successful thanks to three factors: the assurance of safe products by applying VietGAP protocols; gaining prestige through trademark development; and partnership of the stakeholders in the whole supply chain, with assistance from researchers and local authorities, and endeavors of the producers, suppliers and distributors.”
Ms Nong and Ms Luyen, the farmers and collectors from Moc Chau District, Son La Province are proudly showing Dr Austin their temperate vegetable products in Fivimart in mid-summer. Photo by Nguyen Phuc Dinh

After the information sharing session, Dr Austin visited and observed Moc Chau vegetable fresh products. Mrs Luyen and Mrs Nong proudly showed their vegetable products such as green pumpkin, tomatoes, chayote and cabbage from Moc Chau in the supermarket in mid-summer. Mrs Nong revealed that her income from vegetables were around four to five times higher compared to what she earned on the same farm every year before joining the project.

The project is presently extended for a year and planned to expand the production area to the neighbouring District of Van Ho, supporting the ethnic minorities in vegetable production to improve their lives. As a result, there will be more consumers in Hanoi able to use safe vegetables from the north-western region.

Before saying goodbye, Dr Austin affirmed that AGB/2009/053 project is a typical example of an ACIAR project, which is helping farmers to improve agricultural quality, productivity and their livelihood. Engaging women and the private sector has made a significant contribution to obtain the project’s objectives. He emphasised that this approach should be multiplied at other localities and applied to other products from the ACIAR-funded projects. He thanked the sincere welcome and warm hospitality that the leaders and staff of Fivimart’s owner-company, project researchers and cooperative members from Moc Chau have extended to him and the ACIAR team.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Combine harvesters used for rice production in Central Laos

Combine harvester is commonly used to harvest rice crops in neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, but it is of limited use in Central Laos where rice is mostly harvested by hand. However, the shortage and high cost of labour at the time of harvesting in recent years make it difficult to sustain manual harvesting methods. Combine can harvest rice crops quickly in the field–often 2-4 hectares a day. This makes it suitable in areas where there is not enough labour to harvest rice crops in a timely manner. Farmers in Central Laos often mention difficulty in introducing combine to the area due to: small and irregular rice fields, lack of resources to dry harvested paddy rice, and high fees charged by the combine contractor (commonly 20% or more of harvested rice).

Combine harvester performance is compared in small fields is typical in Tung village, Khammouan and larger field in Pakpung village, Bolikhamxay. Source: Professor Shu Fukai

Friday, 3 July 2015

PARDI market day proves huge success

Over 150 researchers, farmers, agribusiness and government representatives from Australia and across the Pacific came together in Fiji this week. The occasion was the PARDI Impact Workshop and Market Day. An event marking the completion of the first phase of the Pacific Agribusiness Research for Development Initiative (PARDI) and a chance to network, share experiences and see firsthand the impact of agribusiness research on economic and social development in the region.

ACIAR's Tara McKenzie learning about breadfruit from stallholder Livai Tora. Source: ACIAR

Monday, 29 June 2015

The ups and downs of field work

By Shumaila Arif
This blog first appeared on the RAID website.

Last year I started my PhD at Charles Sturt University. Prior to this I worked for 3 years with the ASLP Dairy Project (an ACIAR funded project in Pakistan). Due to my work experience with smallholder dairy farmers in my home country I was passionate to do something for them. Therefore, I decided to apply for a PhD scholarship to work on a disease (brucellosis) that is highly zoonotic and something that farmers are generally unaware of. I was lucky enough to receive a John Allwright Fellowship (care of ACIAR) which has given me the opportunity to come to Australia where, with the help of my supervisory team (Jane Heller, Marta Hernandez-Jover, David McGill & Peter Thomson), we have started an epidemiology project. The main aim of the project is to looking for risky farm and household practices that could possibly be linked to the transmission of brucellosis and associate this with the prevalence of the disease. We hope this information will be useful to predict risk of the disease and help direct education programmes.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Launch of ‘Maria’s Family’ books in East New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea (PNG)

Friday 29 May 2015 saw the highly successful launch of ACIAR’s ‘Maria’s family’ books at the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) in Kerevat. Kiteni Kurika, Elizabeth Ling, the local women’s cooperative members and local schools were invited to the launch and to receive their own copy of Maria’s family goes to market book.

Maria's family book

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

What the Chameleon Said

This morning I went to my field of bean and maize
I was worried because it had not rained for days
I asked The Chameleon ‘Madam, what do you think?
Do my plants at this time need a drink?’
The Chameleon changed colour, she turned red
And then she looked at me and quickly said
‘Your plants today are thirsty my friend
If you don’t give water urgently that might be their end’
So I flooded my field, I let the water flow and flow
After a long time I thought to myself, ‘Bravo!
Now every part of my field is completely wet
From top to bottom, no need to fret’
But now The Chameleon, She turned blue
She said, ‘Oh my friend what did you do?!
Now you are wasting water, washing away plant food
More water will not do you any good’
So I stopped watering, quickly turned off the taps
I sat concerned, my face tucked in between my laps
But later that day The Chameleon turned green
‘Now your maize should be fine’, she said, ‘and your bean’

ACIAR would like to congratulate Dr Ikenna Mbakwe for his prize-winning poem (above) on the Chameleon soil monitor. Dr Mbakwe submitted the poem as part of the South African National Research Foundation’s Young Science Communicators Competition 2015 and won the Open Category.

The pre-commercial Chameleon reader. Source: ACIAR